San Antonio Spurs center Jakob Poeltl is off to a strong start this season, with one area that has stuck out being his playmaking. Through the first four games of the season, he’s averaged 3.5 assists per game, including seven assists in the season opener.
Without a dominant ball-handler and playmaker, the Spurs have experimented more with having others create, and Poeltl has benefitted from the increased opportunities. While it's still very early in the year, I believe his passing is far from a fluke. In fact, Poeltl’s passing could be the Spurs' newest offensive weapon.
Poeltl wasn't known as much of a passer early on in his career, though has quietly been solid in that regard in each of the last two seasons. During the 2019-20 season, he averaged 3.6 assists per 36 minutes and 1.9 assists in just 26.7 minutes last season. While those numbers don't jump off the page, they are certainly respectable for a center.
So far, his expanded offensive role provides the Spurs with something that they’ve lacked in recent seasons -- a passing big man. San Antonio’s offense has historically made use of bigs who could pass, including players like Pau Gasol, Tim Duncan, Boris Diaw, Tiago Splitter, and David Lee. With Poeltl operating in that role now, it could help the Spurs get back to the "beautiful game" style of offense that was on full display during their 2014 championship season.
That style featured more passing and cutting than San Antonio has played with in recent seasons, not to mention a less centralized offense. Moreover, based on the team's current personnel, including Poeltl, fans will see a return to that exciting brand of offense this season.
Poeltl has found a number of ways to create for others, including operating at the top of the 3-point line or above the foul line. There, he's been effective in delivering drop-passes over the heads of defenders to cutting teammates for layups.
He's also been useful in direct handoffs, combining his hard screen setting with quick passes, freeing up players like Doug McDermott for open shots. Additionally, he's been used more in the post, where he's shown a knack for finding backdoor cutters for layups, much like Splitter and Diaw used to.
Poeltl has even found a way to leverage his dominance on the offensive glass. His ability to corral contested offensive rebounds, even with several defenders boxing out, has repeatedly led to him finding wide-open teammates for threes on kick-out passes. Considering he's one of the league's best offensive rebounders, I expect those high percentage shots that he creates to continue.
What does Jakob Poeltl's improved passing mean for the Spurs?
Poeltl's emergence as a shot creator has bigger implications than just a few more assists per game. While he's considered to be among the best defensive centers in the NBA, his offensive skill has been largely disregarded by both fans and opposing teams.
Teams often play off of him when he's out on the perimeter setting screens. Though now that he's more involved in the offense, he can take advantage of the spacing provided, even without a jump shot.
He’s displayed excellent touch and solid timing in those situations, including delivering lobs or bounce passes to teammates moving without the ball for easy baskets in the half-court. Going forward, the Spurs should continue to expand his offensive role, especially given his success scoring and passing the ball this season.
After all, a more aggressive and assertive Poeltl can only benefit the offense considering that he’s perceived as the fifth option in the starting lineup. The same can be said for when San Antonio closes games. With Poeltl on the floor, the team would have more play options at their disposal and wouldn’t have to rely as much on Dejounte Murray and Derrick White for shot creation.
He could also be used late in in-bound situations, much like how Duncan was. Given that Poeltl is 7’1, his height and passing ability should allow him to successfully inbound the ball during high-pressure situations.
All in all, Poeltl's passing adds an interesting new wrinkle to his game and makes San Antonio's offense a bit more unpredictable, much like with the "beautiful game" style. If his playmaking continues, it might boost his overall value and enhance his place in the league's starting center hierarchy.
Considering he’s already a top 12 center in the NBA, in my opinion, his passing, as well as his increased scoring, could easily elevate him into the top 10. We’ll have to keep an eye on Poeltl as the season progresses, though it's fair to say that he's San Antonio's newest offensive weapon.