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San Antonio Spurs turn to Jakob Poeltl as unlikely savior of the first round

SAN ANTONIO, TX - APRIL 18: Jakob Poeltl (25) of the San Antonio Spurs out rebounds Nikola Jokic (15) of the Denver Nuggets during the fourth quarter of the Spurs' 118-108 win on Thursday, April 18, 2019. The Denver Nuggets and the San Antonio Spurs faced off for game three of their first round NBA playoffs series at the At&T Center. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
SAN ANTONIO, TX - APRIL 18: Jakob Poeltl (25) of the San Antonio Spurs out rebounds Nikola Jokic (15) of the Denver Nuggets during the fourth quarter of the Spurs' 118-108 win on Thursday, April 18, 2019. The Denver Nuggets and the San Antonio Spurs faced off for game three of their first round NBA playoffs series at the At&T Center. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
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In an unlikely turn of events, the San Antonio Spurs have been forced to lean on center Jakob Poeltl as their savior in the first round of the playoffs.

It seemed that head coach Gregg Popovich was especially hard on third-year center Jakob Poeltl early in his run with the San Antonio Spurs. The seven-footer from Austria was a lottery pick by the Toronto Raptors in 2016 before being shipped to the Alamo City as a trade chip for former-Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard.

Since his acquisition, Poeltl has learned from some of the best in the business with legendary big men Tim Duncan and Pau Gasol readily available to practice and preach their learnings. Once the Spurs decided to part ways with Gasol ahead of the buyout deadline, it was confirmed that general manager R.C. Buford once again discovered a gem in the young center.

Poeltl reached the playoffs in both of his years north of the border, but played limited minutes behind the likes of Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka. His drastic change of scenery combined with newfound faith instilled by the Spurs organization have elevated Poeltl to a legitimate playoff starter logging crucial minutes in a competitive series.

Good things happen when you swing the ? pic.twitter.com/vdOXersR6c

— San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) April 19, 2019

Quietly, Poeltl has been one of the most important factors in San Antonio’s early success in this series. The former Utah Ute has looked like a seasoned veteran playing one-on-one defense against a bona fide All-Star in Nikola Jokic while attacking the offensive glass with reckless abandon.

Denver’s Net Rating with Poeltl and Jokic on the court together is -14.4 in 53 minutes compared to its 7.0 Net Rating with Poeltl off the court while Jokic plays.

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Using his long arms and stout frame, Poeltl has been the driving force in keeping the ball out of Jokic’s hands in the series. Mike Malone’s offense is oftentimes dictated by the performance of his starting center, so Popovich has countered this by entrusting Poeltl as the primary defender. With active hands off the ball, keen rotations around the basket and a high awareness of Jokic’s motions, Poeltl has put on a defensive clinic so far.

In addition to his work on defense, the seven-footer has the sixth-best offensive rebounding percentage of starting centers in the playoffs thus far. With a 13.3 percent mark on the offensive glass, the relentless rebounder is averaging a whopping 14.5 boards per 100 possessions.

Skeptics criticized San Antonio for accepting Poeltl alongside DeMar DeRozan as a return in the Leonard trade. With young talent like Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby on the Raptors’ payroll, many felt that the Spurs fell short in getting their money’s worth for their former Finals MVP.

Poeltl’s immense impact on the game flow early in these playoffs should send a clear message to Buford and Popovich’s doubters: this historic tandem knows what they’re doing, so trust them.

Next. Takeaways from Derrick White’s career-night in Game 3

For the rest of this series and the foreseeable future of this franchise, Poeltl has proven himself worthy of becoming the Spurs’ starting center.

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