Fourth-year center Jakob Poeltl grew a lot in his second season with the San Antonio Spurs, but he has a long way to go before fulfilling his potential.
Though it hasn’t been an ideal season for San Antonio Spurs center Jakob Pöltl, he’s a respected and appreciated member of the team who has a place in the franchise’s long-term outlook. Head coach Gregg Popovich was put in a pickle given the roster construction of this team because Poeltl is the only traditional center in the lineup, which means Pop’s flexibility with the rotation is restricted based on the role of star big man LaMarcus Aldridge.
If the team had a more traditional lineup with someone else Pop could trust as a backup five, there’s a good chance Poeltl would start instead of power forward Trey Lyles. However, this isn’t the case, so Poeltl was stuck in nearly the same role that he had last year—he only averaged one-tenth of a minute more per game this year than he did last year.
For as frustrating as this must be for the rising talent in a contract year, Poeltl was an analytics darling who led the Spurs in many major stat categories including both offensive rating (125), defensive rating (108) and box plus/minus (3.1). He was a phenomenal rim defender, posting a career-high block percentage (7.7%), which translated to 84 blocks in 965 minutes this year.
We can rant and rave about how productive Poeltl was in his limited run, but it wouldn’t do justice to the player he can become. There are still many areas that Poeltl needs to work on before fulfilling his potential and considering how far he’s come at only 24-years-old, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be able to put the pieces together.
Next: Contact and completion
Getting to the free-throw line and making it count
While Poeltl is a skilled finisher near the rim with the strength to make his layups count, Poeltl can sometimes come off as soft when trying to finish through contact. He’s naturally one of the team’s strongest players and remains the lone seven-footer on the roster. If Poeltl wants to be the best version of himself, he’ll need to do a better job of creating and finishing through contact.
Being a player of his size and stature, Poeltl is not going to get a lot of calls that he probably should. When matched up against players that are smaller than him, it’s less likely that Poeltl is going to get the foul calls that he deserves. This is often the case when defenders switch onto him from the pick-and-roll, but that doesn’t mean he can’t do a better job of drawing contact.
Poeltl should take a look at the seven-time All-Star who’s taking up all of his playing time. Aldridge thrives when drawing contact and fighting through it for a finish. Even if he can’t convert, he forces opposing defenders to be physical when dueling with him, resulting in free throw attempts. If Jakob can start forcing defenses into fouling him by creating the contact himself then he’ll be a become a multi-dimensional scorer instead of the predictable player he is now.
While we’re on the subject, Poeltl needs to work on his shot from the charity stripe. The career 54.3 percent free-throw shooter took a 4.7 percent dip in his free throw accuracy from last year to this one, which doesn’t make much sense at all. As time goes on, players are supposed to get better at shooting free throws, not worse.
To be a great big man in this league, you need to make the most of your limited scoring opportunities. Unless something drastic happens, Poeltl is never going to be a go-to scorer in this league, so he might as well be the best in the areas where he’s needed.
Next: Experiment with a short jumper
Add a short jumper to force defenders into new situations
Speaking of his shooting, Poeltl should start toying with a jumper. Just about all of Poeltl’s shots come from under the basket or just outside of the paint on hook shots. Once a big man adds the threat of shooting a mid-range jump shot, it completely changes the way they’re defended.
As of now, teams know that there’s no chance of Poeltl pulling up, so they give him plenty of space when he’s at the top of the key and in the mid-range. Adding a short jumper from 5-to-15 feet from the basket creates the threat of scoring outside of one range, which makes it easier for a player to drive to the rim or post up.
No one’s saying he has to become Dirk Nowitzki, or even start shooting them anytime soon. With that said, it’d greatly benefit Poeltl’s all-around game if he can at least pose a threat from somewhere beyond five feet from the basket.
His shot selection should remain largely the same until he gets comfortable, but short jumpers aren’t too hard to figure out. Adding a mid-range shot creates the illusion that Poeltl is going to do more than roll to the basket, forcing defenders to step up to him and play different styles of defense. This opens up the lane for guys like Dejounte Murray, Derrick White or even Aldridge to cut to the basket and take their defenders one-on-one to the basket.
Adding a short jumper helps clear the lane, which would likely result in an uptick of assists for the skilled passer for his position.
Next: Hit the gym and get the body ready for big leagues
Improve conditioning and strength to compete at a higher level
Let me preface this by saying Jakob is no slouch. He fights hard on every position and works as hard as he can to react to different situations accordingly. I respect his hustle and how much passion he appears to play with, but he would benefit from better conditioning and building his frame a bit better.
I mentioned earlier that PoeltI is one of the team’s strongest players, but he could get even more muscular than that. If he can bulk up some more and improve his strength while creating more endurance, he’d be much more influential to the team and could play alongside Aldridge more often.
A large reason why Poeltl doesn’t start next to Aldridge is that he’s not nimble enough to keep on the floor with the five-time All-NBA selection. If Poeltl could become more nimble and keep his level of energy high throughout the whole game, he’d secure a ton more minutes on a nightly basis. He’s never going to be “fast,” per se, but Poeltl could get more agile than he is.
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Furthermore, improving his conditioning would make it so that Popovich can trust him in more high-intensity situations. When Pop sees his center huffing and puffing as he rushes up and down the court, he’s more inclined to sub someone who’s in better shape back into the game. The aforementioned Lyles is better conditioned than Poeltl, which is a large reason why he plays so many minutes compared to someone who’s statistically the better, more impactful player.
Size is one thing, but bulking up to the point where he can truly bump bodies with elite bigs like Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Davis would take his threat to another level. While Poeltl played elite defense against All-Star center Nikola Jokic in the playoffs last year, Jokic relies on skill and is no model of high-level NBA conditioning and weight training.
This offseason is going to be influential in Poeltl’s development. There’s a good chance he’s back on the roster with his one-year, qualifying offer that’s coming from his restricted free agency in July (which is subject to change with the new NBA schedule). It’s in both parties’ best interest to come to terms on a new deal, which is why Jakob needs to show the team he’s working toward earning the salary he’ll be asking for.
Working on conditioning and training his body would be a great place to start in that process.