(First posted at Upside & Motor)
Returning for another season of college ball when you are projected as a lottery pick is always a risk. Not a lot of players manage to keep or improve their status. Cody Zeller and Kristaps Porzingis are notable exceptions. And seems like Jakob Poeltl will be the next one.
The seven-foot-one center born in Austria was projected as a late lottery pick on last year’s draft but opted to return to Utah and is doing extremely well midway-through his sophomore season.
Utah hasn’t played particularly tough competition – it ranks 109th in strength of schedule, according to Ken Pomeroy. But Poeltl’s production has been impressive nonetheless. He leads the nation in player efficiency rating (at 36.2) and is averaging 27.1 points per 40 minutes on 68.9% true shooting, while the most appealing aspect of his game from an NBA-standpoint is actually his skill-set on defense.
DEFENDING IN SPACE
When I wrote about Poeltl last season, I noted how Utah diversified its pick-and-roll coverage. Differently than what most giant people are coached to do at the college level, Poeltl didn’t simply drop back and park in the lane all the time. He was often asked to hedge-and-recover high in the perimeter and sometimes pick up smaller players on switches. I mentioned it was noteworthy Utah was trying to develop his ability to defend in space but that it was probably unrealistic to expect a seven-foot-one, 235-pound behemoth to become a real asset in such instances.
Poeltl is, however, becoming just that. The University of Utah currently lists him as a 248-pounder in its official website, yet he has exhibited impressive agility for someone his size this season. Larry Krystkowiak has become more and more comfortable having him consistently switch on ball screens and Poeltl has proven himself up to the task. He has not only managed to stay in front of less athletic and less adept ball-handlers like Matt Jones, Luke Kennard, Ron Baker and Conner Frankamp but also potential dribble penetrators in the NBA like Fred VanVleet, Tyrone Wallace and Jaylen Brown.
There is a gap in that strategy, though. Poeltl does not press these smaller players all the way to the three-point line, he leaves a cushion, and his seven-foot-one wingspan* doesn’t appear to be enough for him to contest pull-up threes effectively in this circumstance. Baker and VanVleet were successful pulling the trigger on a couple of long bombs in the game against Wichita State.
(*Poeltl told a couple of reporters last season that he had a seven-foot-three wingspan but measured at seven-foot-one at the Nike Skills Academy last summer, according to Draft Express.)
DEFENDING IN THE LANE
But while his mobility is intriguing with regards to the flexibility he can provide, Poeltl is still a more effective defender protecting the lane. He is not an explosive player whose mere presence as a shot blocking threat scares dribble drivers but he is a huge obstacle for opponents to deal with close to the basket.
Aside from being big, Poeltl has read well occasions when his help-defense is essential and has proven able to play above the rim as a shot blocker with some consistency. He is averaging 3.2 blocks per 40 minutes through 15 games this season – the exact same mark he averaged in 34 appearances last year.
Perhaps more impressively for someone who contests drives and has a big frame that invites contact – making him vulnerable to foul trouble, Poeltl is averaging just 3.3 personal fouls per 40 minutes.
He is attentive to his boxout responsibilities and opponents have a tough time pushing him out of the way due to the nature of his size – collecting 25.5% of opponents’ misses this season, according to basketball-reference.
Thanks to him finishing a lot of possessions with blocks or rebounds and without fouling, Utah is allowing just 93.6 points per 100 possessions in Poeltl’s 392 minutes in the lineup.
He continues to develop his skill-set on offense, becoming a more prominent shot creator for himself and others from the post with Delon Wright gone this season – upping his usage rate from 21.2% in 2014-2015 to 28.7% in 2015-2016.
Poeltl has the strength and toughness to establish deep position against just about any opponent at the college level.
He’s flashed fluid footwork and decent touch on his turnaround, right-handed hook but he is not a particularly diverse live-ball scorer at this point of his development, lacking power moves and a jump-shot to face-up or fade-away.
He’s been able to overwhelm smaller or less athletic defenders to back his way into layups against lesser competition but the game against Berkeley last weekend was an eye-opener with regards to how his effectiveness was limited when he went against a frontline that could match him in size and strength. Poeltl struggled to get good shots off over seven-foot-one, 254-pound Kingsley Okoroh and seven-foot, 261-pound Kameron Rooks. His footwork wasn’t as fluid once they got physical with him as he tried to finish around them.
Where Poeltl truly makes a killing with his back to the basket is by earning free throws, as his frame invites a lot of contract and offers lots of opportunities for officials to blow the whistle. With his spike in usage, he is in position to get these calls even more often this season – currently averaging 10 fouls shots per 40 minutes.
Poeltl struggled to convert those dead-ball shots last year, missing 56% of them, but has improved and is now making 66% of them in 2015-2016. And that improvement in set shooting opens up reasonable hope that he eventually develops a jump-shot sometime in the future. Poeltl hit a good looking spot-up three-point shot in rhythm playing for the Austrian National Team in the summer that caught people’s attention but with his struggles in foul shooting, it seemed unrealistic to speculate about him potentially develop that aspect of his game.
This does not appear to be something he is working on at the moment, though. Whenever he leaves the arc to help Utah move the ball from side to side, Poeltl does not even look at the rim despite the fact he could get a clean shot off because opposing centers do not press him up there. The closest thing I’ve seen of a legit outside shot from Poeltl this season was a one-dribble pull-up from the foul line area against Duke in an emergency situation with the shot clock down. Looked smoother than you’d expect for someone his size.
But even if Poeltl developing a jump-shot is something we are probably two years away from being two years away, the way he will likely fit the modern NBA is by helping facilitate offense with his passing. Poeltl is rapidly developing into a legit asset creating for others. He’s shown pretty good vision assisting cutters with his back to the basket, operating from the foul line area when the opponent goes zone and operating as a hub from the high post.
Poeltl has assisted on 16.3% of Utah’s scores when he’s been on the floor and his 14.2% turnover rate is manageable in the context of his 28.7% usage rate.
He’s also flashed the ability to put the ball on the floor and attack opposing centers off dribble, showing coordination and adequate ball skills to get from the top of the key to the rim in a couple of dribbles.
ATHLETICISM AT THE RIM
He is probably only going to be a so-so scoring out of the pick-and-roll in the pros, though. Poeltl is a good screener, who looks to draw contact and whose large frame makes it tough for on-ball defenders to go over the pick. He’s also shown decent hands to catch the ball on the move, good touch on non-dunk finishes with either hand and that he’s able to finish through contact – converting 72% of his 125 shots at the rim, according to hoop-math. But he doesn’t have the explosiveness to play above the rim as a target for lobs against a set defense.
Poeltl is also unlikely to become an impact player on the offensive glass. He looks to establish inside position and he is a tough body to boxout because of his size, but doesn’t play with the sort of energy that generates second chance opportunities in volume and lacks length to rebound outside of his area.
Editor’s Note: Rafael Uehara is the managing editor of ‘Basketball Scouting’. More of his work can be found here or at Upside & Motor, where he is a regular contributor. He can be followed on twitter as @rafael_uehara