The San Antonio Spurs have a history with talented big men. Their franchise was built around Tim Duncan and the Big Three, and David Robinson before them. Without their low post dominance, the Spurs never would have been able to tally 22 consecutive playoff appearances and capture five titles.
It's been a long time since we've seen that kind of talent down low for the Spurs - we might not see a player of Duncan's caliber playing the five in San Antonio ever again unless the Spurs are lucky enough to land Victor Wembanyama
While he's not quite on par with Robinson or Duncan, Jakob Poeltl has still been pretty damn good since he arrived in San Antonio in 2018. Poeltl was a secondary piece in the trade that sent Kawhi Leonard to Toronto but over the past four years, he's blossomed, becoming one of the most under-appreciated workhorses in the NBA.
This isn't just fan bias either. Poeltl's steady offensive improvement and steady rim protection are well-known by his peers and other coaches. Stars such as Joel Embiid and well-regarded coaches like the Nuggets' Mike Malone have both called Poeltl out as one of the league's most deserving but underrecognized stars.
Poeltl is certainly underrated, there's no doubt about that. But is he one of the top-ten centers in the league today? Let's break down the Spurs' big man's case to be considered one of the best in the NBA.
Should Jakob Poeltl be considered a top-ten center in the NBA today?
If Poeltl is going to be viewed as a top-ten center, his case is going to rest largely on his defensive contributions. To be fair, he has improved significantly as an offensive player, but he's made a name for himself in the NBA on the back of his defensive prowess. Sadly, this season his defensive metrics aren't building much of a case for putting him in the top ten.
It has been a down year for Poeltl defensively. After averaging between 3.9 and 2.9 blocks per 100 possessions over the last four seasons, Poeltl has seen his block rate drop to 1.7 per 100 possessions this season. He finished 5th in blocks last season but comes in significantly lower this year at 41st.
It's not just blocks either. After finishing second in the league in contested shots per 36 minutes last season with 14.3, he's down significantly this season, contesting just 10.3 shots per 36. And the advanced stats don't paint a much prettier picture.
Opponents are shooting 52.7 percent when guarded by him this season, significantly better than the 47.2 percent he held them to last year and significantly worse than many of the other top defenders at the center position. For perspective, opposing players are shooting 45.4 percent against Brook Lopez, 44.5 percent against Joel Embiid, and 45.3 percent against Even Mobley.
Poeltl's defense and the Spurs' record make building a case tricky
What makes evaluating Poeltl's defense tricker this year than it has been in years past is just how horrendous the Spurs as a team have been on that end of the floor. They're the worst defensive team in the league today. Now, that doesn't all fall solely on Jakob's massive shoulders but it's hard to say that Jak's defense makes him a top-ten center when his team has struggled on that end of the floor as much as the Spurs have.
Offensively, Poeltl has been putting together a solid season. He's averaging 22.3 points per 100 possessions which is right in line with where he was last season. His proficiency from the charity stripe still leaves much to be desired but he's improved - albeit marginally - from last season so I'll take that.
Where Poeltl really shines on offense is as a distributor. He ranks 8th among all centers in assist percentage, dealing out dimes on 19 percent of the Spurs possessions. This is something that I don't think a lot of people saw coming when Poeltl arrived in San Antonio. He was never known as a playmaker but his ability to find cutters from the top of the key has become a staple of the Spurs' offense.
Relative to the rest of his career, Poeltl is having a solid season on the offensive end of the floor. But that's probably not going to be enough to make up for his decline on defense thus far. Especially when you compare his offensive contributions to some of the monsters playing at the five around the NBA right now.