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San Antonio Spurs: Jakob Poeltl is flourishing as the starting center

San Antonio Spurs Jakob Poeltl (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)
San Antonio Spurs Jakob Poeltl (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)
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Consistently overlooked by the masses, starting center Jakob Poeltl is proving that he’s ready to take a step in his progression for the San Antonio Spurs.

For his first two seasons with the San Antonio Spurs, it was obvious that LaMarcus Aldridge assumed the role that Jakob Poeltl desired most. Poeltl was drafted ninth overall in 2016 following a breakout campaign in his sophomore year of college. Though his development has been gradual, Poeltl has been a revelation in place of the Spurs’ former All-Star.

In his 32 games as a starter this year, Poeltl is putting up 9.8 points, nine rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game in just under 30 minutes of action. The counting stats don’t pop off of the stat sheet, but Poeltl is making smart, team-first decisions while making the game easier for everyone else.

The expectation from many is that Poeltl is on the floor solely for defense and rebounding purposes, but his game is much more polished than it was when he arrived from Toronto. The 25-year-old from Austria is coming to understand the nuances of NBA basketball as he earns more opportunities.

Instead of being reactive on the court, Poeltl is being proactive by carefully surveying the floor and reading offensive players to position himself on the court. His mobility is much improved, allowing him to keep up with ball-handlers when they attempt to drive past him. Teams will inevitably draw him away from the rim, so he’s evolving and learning to pace himself and time his block attempts.

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Much of Poeltl’s offensive game is fulfilled by his short hook shot near the paint. The world would be a better place if Jakob Poeltl learned how to slam dunk more of these attempts close to the basket. I’m not holding my breath on that one since he’s one of the most efficient paint scorers in basketball using his signature hook shot.

One of the many interesting developments has been Poeltl’s acrobatic finishing near the paint. When playing near the basket, Poeltl is much more cognizant of his positioning. His footwork has come a long way, allowing him to avoid shot contests by going for reverse-layups near the basket. He’s using his size to block off space around him and evade defensive pressure.

Since he took over the starting spot, Poeltl ranks fifth in field goal percentage inside the restricted area. Most of his attempts come from the paint, besides the occasional floater from the mid-range. The loudest Poeltl critics point to him being a liability at the free-throw line. Similarly, he’s shown virtually no improvement in his overall jump shooting.

Regardless, the San Antonio Spurs amplify players’ strengths and do their best to hide their weaknesses. Poeltl is a throwback player and has developed excellent chemistry with many of his teammates. As he’s grown more comfortable within the Spurs’ system, his passing has blossomed.  He has 14 games with at least three assists this season including back-to-back games with at least five assists against Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets most recently.

Over the course of this season, Poeltl has shown some growth in his ability to dribble the basketball. San Antonio’s offense is so heavily based on driving, passing, and moving off the ball that Poeltl has learned to initiate some dribble handoffs (DHOs). He’s a strong screener and the timing on his rolls to the basket has improved dramatically.

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This Spurs team isn’t stacked with true blue 3-point shooters as it is. The closest thing is Patty Mills, who’s taken on the challenge of being the team’s outlet as a 3-point shooter. Whether it be in the second unit or while against starters, Poeltl’s screens and handoffs help Mills find enough space to launch 3-pointers. The same applies to Derrick White, who’s finding his range again as the Spurs finish out this season.

On both sides of the ball, Poeltl is proving himself to be a valuable member of this team moving ahead. While the addition of Gorgui Dieng is intriguing from a floor-spacing perspective, the team has to be mindful of its long-term investment in Poeltl. Now that he’s flourishing in his starting role, it’d be hard for Poeltl to adapt to his role being diminished again.

There’s a reason why Poeltl has the highest on/off differential on the team (+11.8 points per 100 possessions). He’s made himself an integral part of how the Spurs operate, balancing out a perimeter-heavy unit by doing the dirty work and playing within the context of the offense.

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Poeltl has a chance to be a very memorable player in the next iteration of San Antonio Spurs basketball.

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