PBT’s 2016 NBA Draft Prospect Preview: Jakob Poeltl

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Jakob Poeltl‘s path from unknown player in Austria to a potential top ten pick has been fun to watch. He was the no-name member of Utah’s 2014 recruiting class, turned himself into a potential first round pick and a freshman and, after opting to return to school for his sophomore season, turned himself into the best big man in college basketball.

But here’s the bigger question that needs to be asked: Just how much value do big men have in the NBA these days? Jahlil Okafor is the best low-post scorer to come into the league since Tim Duncan, but Philly is considering unloading him after just one year because his skill-set may be obsolete. Poeltl is not the talent that Okafor is, but their strengths are not all that dissimilar.

If Okafor is losing value at the next level, what does that mean for every other big man looking at potentially becoming a lottery pick?

Height: 7′ 1″
Weight: 239
Wingspan: 7′ 2.75″
2015-16 Stats: 17.3 points, 9.1 boards, 1.5 blocks

STRENGTHS: As a freshman, Poeltl’s offense was more or less centered around his ability to be a finisher. He’s terrific as the roll-man in ball-screen actions, and this ability was showcased by the fact that he was playing with Delon Wright, an all-american point guard who was at his best in pick-and-rolls. He could score on putbacks and in transition as well, but if he didn’t get the ball right in front of the rim, he wasn’t of much use.

As a sophomore, that changed. Poeltl was one of the most efficient low-post scorers in the country (1.092 PPP) while averaging better than ten post touches per game when you include the possessions when he passed out of double teams. He is not Tim Duncan — his skill-set is not that advanced and, while he shot 69 percent from the free throw line, his touch is not all that great — but he is quite effective. He can score over either shoulder and he’s developing some pretty effective combo and counter moves.

And all that is before you consider the improvement that he made passing the ball out of the post. He averaged just 1.9 assists on the season, but he was no longer a guy that you could take away simply by doubling in the post. He’s not going to be throwing behind-the-back passes to cutters like Chris Webber circa 2003, but he recognizes where the double comes from and can find the open man on the weak-side of the floor. You can run offense through him.

The other part of this? Hack-a-Jakob may not be an option in the NBA. That 69 percent he shot from the charity stripe was up from 43 percent as a freshman. He’s never going to be a guy that spaces the floor, but all-in-all he should be a pretty effective offensive weapon in the NBA.

Defensively, there are some red flags — we’ll get to that — but his biggest strength on this end of the floor is that he’s able to move his feet well enough that he can defend ball-screens in different ways. I’m not sure he’ll be able to switch onto small guards as well as Steven Adams or Tristan Thompson have in the playoffs, but it will be an option that is available to his team.

University of Utah Men's Basketball big man Jakob Poeltl is probably the best true big man in the NBA Draft. Here's a breakdown of what he does well and the question marks surrounding him as a player.

Posted by Rob Dauster on Thursday, June 16, 2016

WEAKNESSES: For a guy that is 7-foot-1, Poeltl was not all that great of a rim protector in the collegiate ranks. This past season, he averaged just 2.0 blocks per 40 minutes. Part of that is his length, as he has an average wingspan and standing reach for his size. Part of it is that he lacks explosiveness off of two-feet; he’s a far better jumper off of one foot when he’s got a head of steam than he is when he is trying to defend at the rim.

And explosiveness is that the only issue with Poeltl’s physical tools. He does check in at about 240 pounds, but he doesn’t play like he’s 240 pounds in large part due to the fact that he doesn’t have all that much lower body strength. He gets over-powered by stronger, more physical opponents and struggles to hold his spot in the paint. It’s part of the reason he’s a below-average defensive rebounder. This, along with his two-footed explosiveness, is something that may be fixable once he gets into an NBA strength and conditioning program, but there’s an underlying lack of toughness that may not be something he can change.

The other issue for Poeltl is his perimeter shooting. It’s getting better, but he’s never going to be a guy that spaces the floor. That’s not the kind of thing that can derail a player’s NBA career, but in a league that is more and more about spacing, it pigeon-holes him as a center that can play a fairly specific role and it puts a limit of what his ceiling will be at the next level.

NBA COMPARISON: The most obvious name here is the last Utah player to get selected in the lottery of the NBA Draft: Andrew Bogut. The per-40 minute numbers that Poeltl and Bogut put up in their final season in Salt Lake City are strikingly similar:

Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 12.37.22 PM

At the height of his powers, the former No. 1 pick was averaging 15 points and 10 boards for the Bucks. I’m not sure Poeltl is that guy, but the role that Bogut has played for the Warriors in recent years may be more of what you can expect.

The reason I think Bogut is a better comparison than, say, Jonas Valanciunas or Timofey Mozgov is that Poeltl is a better passer than both of them. You can run offense through him on the block.

OUTLOOK: I mentioned Jahlil Okafor earlier, and that’s not exactly a fair comparison to make. The biggest reason that Okafor’s value is plummeting is that he’s not a rim protector, he cannot defend on the perimeter, his inability to switch onto smaller players makes him a liability against pick and rolls and his ineffectiveness outside of eight feet offensively means that he can’t space the floor. There’s only one thing that Okafor can do right now, and it’s a skill-set that has limited value in the current iteration of the NBA.

Poeltl is different. He’s never going to be Hakeem Olajuwon defensively, but he’s a capable rim protector and he does have the potential to defend pick and rolls and switch onto smaller defenders if needed. And while he’s probably never going to be an elite shooter, even for his size, his free throw shooting went from 43 percent to 69 percent this season and he’s made a jumper here and there for Utah and in international play.

And, perhaps most importantly, Poeltl’s hands and effectiveness as the roll-man in ball-screen actions means that there is more than he can do on the offensive end of the floor than simply getting touches in the post.

He’s not going to be an all-star. I’m not even sure that he’ll ever be a starter on a playoff team. But there’s certainly a spot for Poeltl somewhere in the NBA, even if it is likely as a role player.

LeBron James, Doc Rivers, others around NBA react to, participate in protests

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The NBA family spoke out loudly and quickly in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officer.

Protests have erupted nationwide following Floyd’s death, and the NBA family is commenting on — and in the case of some players, participating in — those protests. That includes the biggest name in the sport today, LeBron James.

Pistons’ coach Dwane Casey made a powerful statement recently, and on Sunday Doc Rivers released this statement through the Clippers.

A number of players have been involved in the protest, including Karl-Anthony Towns and Josh Okogie of the Timberwolves, who were with former NBA player Stephen Jackson — a childhood friend of Floyd’s — during a protest in Minnesota.

The Celtics’ Jaylen Brown drove 15 hours from Boston to Atlanta to help lead a peaceful protest that started at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park. He was joined by the Pacers’ Malcolm Brogdon.

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Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote a brilliant op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times that talked about where the rage of the riots comes from in the black community.

“Yes, protests often are used as an excuse for some to take advantage, just as when fans celebrating a hometown sports team championship burn cars and destroy storefronts. I don’t want to see stores looted or even buildings burn. But African Americans have been living in a burning building for many years, choking on the smoke as the flames burn closer and closer. Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere. As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands. But we have to stay vigilant, because it’s always still in the air.

“So, maybe the black community’s main concern right now isn’t whether protesters are standing three or six feet apart or whether a few desperate souls steal some T-shirts or even set a police station on fire, but whether their sons, husbands, brothers and fathers will be murdered by cops or wannabe cops just for going on a walk, a jog, a drive. Or whether being black means sheltering at home for the rest of their lives because the racism virus infecting the country is more deadly than COVID-19.”

And all this is just the tip of the iceberg of involvement of the NBA family, just like the protests are the tip of the iceberg of the frustration felt in black communities around the nation.

Jonas Valanciunas on return: “It’s kind of like coming back from the summer”

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Memphis is in when the NBA returns, and in whatever form it returns. The Grizzlies had earned the eighth seed in the West behind the standout play of rookie Ja Morant, and if the NBA goes with a play-in format for the final playoff seeds (as expected), there will be teams gunning for that slot.

Memphis’ veteran big man Jonas Valanciunas will be ready, he told Michael Wallace at the team’s official website. Valanciunas spent time in Memphis and Miami during the lockdown, checking in with family back in Lithuania, but is back in the gym getting up shots. He described the return process this way.

“It’s kind of like coming back from the summer. We’ve had two-and-a-half months off. But then again, I play with the (Lithuania) National Team every summer, so it’s not like you always have so much time off every summer. So it’s sort of like coming back and getting ready for training camp again, to get back in shape and into game rhythm. It’s unusual, with guys wearing masks and stuff, but it is sort of like getting yourself ready for training camp right now.

A lot of players feel the same way, that this was sort of like an offseason (just one where they couldn’t get in the gym and work on a specific skill or weakness). Now things are ramping up again. This is why players want a handful of games before the playoffs (or play-in tournament) start, to get their legs under them.

Memphis will have strong teams, and more veteran units, coming for their playoff spot in the form of Portland and New Orleans. Valanciunas says the Grizzlies will be ready.

We’re really motivated. We don’t need to find extra motivation. We’re young. We want to establish our names and build as a unit.

It’s going to be a unique format when the NBA returns, in what has been a season turned upside down. That, however, can be a bonding experience for this young Grizzlies team, something that makes them better faster.

Some NBA players reportedly expect families can’t come to Orlando until September

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Nothing is set in stone until the owners vote on Thursday, but the NBA’s return likely will have teams reporting to the “bubble” (or campus, or whatever term of art the league ends up using) in Orlando in mid-July. Games would start July 31 and run into late September and maybe even October.

For players, that’s a long time to be stuck in a hotel without seeing family or loved ones, so families joining the players has long been part of the plan. Except, now comes a note from Tim Reynolds at the AP that some players think their families may not be able to join them until deep into the postseason.

The smaller the bubble, the easier it is to maintain with extensive testing, which is why not all 30 teams are expected to be invited and the size of team traveling parties will be smaller. It has been expected that families wouldn’t be invited to join players at least until after the first round of the playoffs (when a lot of players left).

However, if games start July 31 and the league plans to play a couple of weeks of regular-season games, followed by a play-in tournament for the final playoff spot, then it will be September by the time the NBA gets to a final eight teams. Which will have players separated from their families for a couple of months.

It’s easy to understand the players’ frustrations with that. No matter what direction Adam Silver goes with this restart, there are going to be some unhappy teams and players.

 

Sixers head into playoffs with healthy Ben Simmons but new, untested starting five

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Philadelphia heads into the NBA’s restart — in whatever format it takes — as a team that, on the surface, benefits some from the break.

Ben Simmons was expected to return from his back issues in time for the playoffs, but it was going to be close, and he wouldn’t be fully rested and ready. Now, the All-Star is healthy and not the only player trying to shake off the rust from a long break. That’s 16.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 8.2 assists a game, and some strong defense back in the lineup.

But that lineup has never really fit together this season in Philadelphia, which is why heading into the restart playoffs the Sixers will have a new one.

Philly is expected to roll out a starting five of Simmons, Shake Milton, Joel Embiid, Josh Richardson, and Tobias Harris, reports The Athletic’s Derek Bodner. That lineup has played zero minutes together this season (Milton hit his groove with the team late and by that point Embiid and Simmons were battling injuries). Learning chemistry on the fly in what will be, at best, a shortened and condensed regular season before the playoffs start, is a tough way to go.

It’s also the right move, Milton brings the shooting and floor spacing this roster needs. Philly had envisioned Al Horford as a floor-spacing four (who could spell Embiid at the five), but it hasn’t worked out. When Simmons, Embiid and Horford have been on the court this season, the team has scored less than a point per possession (defensively, they also gave up less than a point per possession, the Sixers basically played their opponents even in those minutes). It hasn’t meshed.

When Milton, Simmons, and Embiid have played together this season — in limited minutes and different situations than the one proposed — the offense has been only slightly better and the defense has been a mess. That’s likely not the case with Richardson and Harris on the court, but nobody knows exactly how this will work. It looks good on paper, but we’ve thought that all season about the 76ers.

Which makes Philadephia one of the most interesting teams to watch when games restart. All season long this team has not lived up to expectations (for which coach Brett Brown’s seat is very hot, even if blame for the roster issues should go higher up the ladder). Now comes a real test. If the 76ers suddenly get it together they become a real threat to the Bucks in the East (if the league keeps an East/West format). Or, this could be the latest Sixers lineup to fall short.

Either way, they become must-watch television.