The San Antonio Spurs are shifting gears. Armed with a versatile young group of guards this team is ready to ramp up the pace. In his second year with the team Jakob Poeltl in uniquely able to help them do exactly that.
If the story of the tortoise and the hare was applied to NBA teams there’s no question as to which animal the San Antonio Spurs would be. Deliberate and consistent, the Spurs would rather carve up teams in the half-court than outrun them. Just like the tortoise, it’s a strategy that has worked out well for San Antonio.
The Spurs are entering a different era now. The Big Three are all retired, a new group of Spurs is here to carry the team into the future. And these young Spurs can run. Powered by a talented and versatile collection of guards and wing players, San Antonio is positioned to push the pace more than ever before.
While Dejounte Murray, DeMar DeRozan, and Lonnie Walker will generate the highlights, one player is flying under the radar who may hold the key to kick-starting the offense. In his second year in San Antonio, Jakob Poeltl is uniquely positioned to help the Spurs improve their transition game.
The Ringer’s D.J. Foster wrote an article praising the Thunder’s Steven Adams for embracing the dirty work to free up his superstar teammates. Adams understood that for Oklahoma City to play at its peak level he had to to the little things. He had to embrace the gritty, often unnoticed, work in order for the team to be successful.
Poeltl and Adams are already relatively similar styled players. Both are glass cleaning big men who know and embrace their role. Both have declined to stretch their game out to the three-point line, as so many big men have. They’ve opted instead to stay within their preferred zone of operation and let their teammates shine.
By contesting shots, boxing out, but deferring the defensive rebound to a player better suited to push the ball up the floor, Adams unselfishness allows the Thunder to get into their offense much quicker. Embracing this style of play is something Poeltl already does, but leaning into it even more in his second year with the Spurs could provide a needed spark.
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Two areas that Poeltl can focus on this season to help the Spurs improve their transition offense are contesting shots and boxing out. The good news is that Poelt is already one of the best in the league at both.
Last season, among players with 500 or more minutes, Poeltl was one of the leaders in box-outs per 36 minutes. Poeltl averages 10 box outs per 36 minutes, Adams follows closely behind him with 9.7. Among the same group of players, Poeltl was once again ranked quite high in contested shots. He came in 7th in the league by contesting an impressive 19.3 shots per 36 minutes. In this area, he has a slightly larger advantage on Adams who contests a still commendable 15.6 shots per 36 minutes.
The fruits of Adams’s labor are clear. Since drafting Adams in 2013 the Thunder have regularly been in the top 10 in the league in pace and the top 5 in fast-break points per game. Over the same period, San Antonio has routinely been in the bottom third of the league in both categories. The exception to this would be in 2013-14 season when they ranked 10th in pace.
Now those rankings obviously wouldn’t have been possible without the presence of players like Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Kevin Durant. But give credit to Adams, his unselfishness and gritty style of play gave those same players more room to let their greatness shine.
Even if Poeltl were to give 110 percent effort to help the Spurs young guards shine it still likely wouldn’t elevate San Antonio into the top 5 in fast break points and pace. That’s simply not the style of play that the team likes to play. But by continuing to embrace the gritty big man work Poeltl can help San Antonio improve in both areas.
In his first two years in the league, Poeltl showed that he has the potential to influence the game in small but meaningful ways. This year he can help the Spurs athletic group of guards generate offense and high-flying highlights by embracing his role as a grinder even further. It’s a rarely noticed but much-appreciated role, the Spurs are lucky to have him.