As the young center has become comfortable and effective in increased minutes, the San Antonio Spurs need to explore a starting five featuring Jakob Poeltl.
Acquired as a trade chip alongside DeMar DeRozan in the return from Toronto, third-year big man Jakob Poeltl is coming into his own with the San Antonio Spurs. It was a rocky beginning to the season for Poeltl, who faced the wrath of Gregg Popovich. For reasons that never truly became clear, Pop sat Poeltl in three-of-six games to kick off his time with the Spurs.
Since then, Poeltl seems to have earned the trust of his coaching staff with a clear-cut commitment to defense and rebounding. His knack for attacking the boards was his main appeal in the trade at a point when Pau Gasol was the only center on the roster. Now that Gasol is sidelined indefinitely with a stress fracture in his foot, this could be the time to insert Poeltl into the starting lineup.
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For as helpful as he’s been in the second unit, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to keep Poeltl riding in the bench squad with the team is allowing 49.6 points in the paint per contest. This ranks which is 21st in the NBA after finishing as the second-best defensive team just a year ago
The Spurs are already going against the grain with their mid-range focus, rolling out a traditional starting lineup with a natural power forward and center starting would allow the team to lockdown the paint and dominate the glass. Since they’re giving up such a high rate of three-pointers, it would be helpful to limit interior buckets.
From top to bottom, San Antonio’s roster has holes with concerns on both ends of the floor, but they’ve also got a ton of skill players that haven’t been utilized to the best of their ability.
Of all players who are patiently waiting for improved utilization, Poeltl sits near the top of the list.
Next: Chemistry with DeMar DeRozan
Chemistry with DeMar DeRozan
Part of the appeal of taking Poeltl back in the DeRozan deal was his recurring chemistry with the four-time All Star. During their time in Toronto, these two ran pick-and-rolls frequently with DeRozan often finding a mid-range jumper, lane to the rim or pass to a cutting Poeltl under the basket. By inserting Poeltl to the starting five, DeRozan would be better enabled to perform to the best of his ability.
Even before he landed in the Alamo City, Poeltl showed Spur-like qualities for his great intelligence with the ball, attention to detail and natural rebounding instincts. Smart players go a long way under Popovich and his staff, so there are plenty of ways in which Poeltl can initiate offense.
From the high post, Poeltl can draw centers away from the rim for DeRozan to cut to the paint and score in layups. He’s always had great passing instincts and has worked alongside the likes of Tim Duncan and Pau Gasol over the last five months, so he’s getting a glimpse of what it takes to be a great passing big. In many cases, the offense can run through Poeltl who can give the ball up to a ball handler at the top of the key or find a cutter in the paint.
By placing a reliable screen-setter besides LaMarcus Aldridge on the floor, the offense can open up for DeRozan to let his playmaking ability shine. Driving and dishing the ball out to the perimeter has made the Spurs who they are over the last decade and DeRozan is an excellent choice of personnel to execute that strategy. San Antonio’s offensive rating with Poeltl on the floor is 108.9, second highest for a player with over 250 minutes played thus far.
The DeRozan/Poeltl pick-and-roll combo can easily draw help defense, opening up the floor for the playmaker to find Aldridge, Gay or Forbes open for a jumper. This duo was crucial to the Raptors’ pursuit of the first seed in the Eastern Conference last season and the Spurs haven’t utilized it as often as they should.
Next: Getting LaMarcus to his natural position
Getting LaMarcus to his natural position
While Poeltl’s insertion to the starting lineup would be beneficial for his personal production, it could also have a positive effect on the play of LaMarcus Aldridge. There’s no hiding the fact that things haven’t been easy for Aldridge, who is shooting 5.7 percent worse from the field than he did last season.
Part of what made Aldridge such an effortless scorer both last season and in years past was the way he exploited opposing power forwards with his size advantage at that position. This isn’t an unsurprising aspect of his game since great power forwards before him often did the same thing. Dropping Aldridge to the center position is not totally ineffective but simultaneously causes issues on both ends of the floor.
Aldridge is an extremely talented rebounder and while it’s important that he remains effective on the boards, the combination of Aldridge and Poeltl on the offensive glass would cause migranes for opposing frontcourts. Both players are known for their excellent timing and body control when going up on the glass, so it’s already a great pairing. For many years in Portland, Aldridge put up fantastic stats next to another scrapper in center Robin Lopez.
As much as Pop may want to resist the three-point renaissance of contemporary basketball, the lasting effect of Steph Curry and the trey-ball is here to stay. Keeping Poeltl as the team’s anchor would open up the opportunity for Aldridge to take some threes when open.
Many bigs such as Marc Gasol, Nikola Vucevic and Brook Lopez have transitioned from low post threats to sharpshooters to catch up to the rest of the league. This is a step that will be necessary for Aldridge to age into the next decade of basketball and the sooner, the better.
Next: Improving Defense in the Paint
Improving Defense in the Paint
In limited playing time, Poeltl has given consistent effort in his defense both around and under the rim for San Antonio. He tracks ball handlers and positions himself to cut them off from lanes to the basket while managing to square away his own assignment to corral rebounds. In terms of his paint presence, Poeltl is one of the best pure centers the Spurs have had in many years.
He’s often been compared to former Spur Tiago Splitter who had a long and successful run with the team. Splitter was content within his role and performed his assigned tasks diligently — he protected the paint, set screens, scored near the cup and passed the ball to initiate plays for his teammates. If Poeltl can master this role and then add on to it with his unique skills, he will have a long and successful career with San Antonio.
The Spurs have posted a defensive rating of 113.4 on average, but that number jumps to 110.8 with Poeltl on the floor. Concurrently, San Antonio’s defensive rating jumps to 105.4 with LaMarcus Aldridge off the court. This isn’t necessarily a testament to the quality of Aldridge’s defense, but instead speaks to the ineffectiveness of his defense at center.
With time, practice and reps, Jakob Poeltl can develop into an ideal starting center for Pop and the Spurs.
There’s plenty of time to experiment with lineups and Poeltl is trending upward in his effectiveness, so there’s a solid chance that he’ll get the chance to start sooner rather than later.