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″
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.
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:
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.
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.