It’s not nearly time for Valanciunas to hand over the torch. And no, this isn’t another “JV clickbait article” that I was hilariously accused of writing on my Jonas Valanciunas player preview. In fact, it’s more of an appreciation post of sorts — for Jakob Poeltl (with a bit of analysis, to boot).
First off, let’s make it clear. I genuinely don’t believe the majority of Raptors fans see what they truly have in their Austrian big.
Allow me to explain.
Jakob Poeltl, drafted 9th overall in last year’s 2016 NBA Draft has been as quiet and mild-mannered a player on the team, but the conversations surrounding his play and draft position have been much louder. Entering his second pro season, Poeltl is looking to breakthrough the rotation as the clear 3rd big man on the roster after Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas. Now, we’re three games into the season and this isn’t the case. Instead, Poeltl finds himself battling for minutes with the Raptors’ other promising center, Lucas Nogueira.
This roster competition at the center spot has been great for both the Raptors, organizationally and for each of the players involved. With the path Masai Ujiri took to constructing this roster this summer, opting for a revamp rather than a complete reset, he emphasized positional competition throughout the roster from top to bottom. He achieved that quite successfully with Delon Wright and Fred Van Vleet both looking like more-than-capable backup PGs, similar to the situation Poeltl and Bebe find themselves in. During Saturday’s contest with the Philadelphia 76ers, starting center Jonas Valanciunas landed awkwardly on his left ankle, putting all 255 pounds into a nasty fall.
Raptors fans instantly remembered a similar-looking fall in the 2nd round of the 2015 NBA Playoffs. It was the Miami Heat, a team Valanciunas was undeniably obliterating for roughly a game and a half. Unfortunately for JV, this was after coming off a career playoff series versus the Indiana Pacers. Valanciunas returned weeks later in the Cavaliers Eastern Conference Finals series and didn’t look nearly like his dominant self. He was cautious, and rightfully so.
Back to Saturday night versus the 76ers.
After wincing in pain for what seemed to be hours for the restless Raptors fan, JV fortunately rose to his feet and was helped off by Toronto’s medical staff. It didn’t seem as bad as initially thought, but the lower extremities of NBA big men are never a joking matter. Insert Jak and Bebe, whom both finished off the 76ers accordingly and without much fault, if any. Fast forward to Monday night, the Raptors travelled cross-country to Alamo City gearing up for a heavyweight showdown with the San Antonio Spurs. Curiously enough, Raptors fans and beat writers alike wondered who Dwane Casey would start at center for an important early season matchup.
Would he go with Bebe’s length, defense and familiarity with the starters or Poeltl’s very well balanced game, but ripeness with the starters? Now, from face value one would think both Nogueira and Poeltl have similar experience playing with Lowry and DeRozan. In the 2016-2017 season, Bebe started six out of 57 games while Poeltl started four out of 54.
So what gives?
For context, according to Basketball Reference, Nogueira played a total of 300 minutes and 34 seconds minutes with DeRozan and Lowry on the floor, compared to Poeltl who played less than 100 minutes with both Raptors’ stars. Additionally, Bebe played extremely well in a three-man combination with Lowry and DeRozan, putting up a +18.8 net rating and shooting .072 better from the field. Every aspect of his game was heightened when playing with the starting backcourt.
Now, I’m sure Casey didn’t take these exact numbers into account, but even to the most casual basketball players and fans, familiarity and chemistry on the court matters. With all that being said, we’d be remiss not to think coach DC also factored in other variables before finally selecting Lucas Nogueira as his eventual starter.
After starting the season 2-0, most Raptors critics (and rationalists, to be frank) didn’t think much of Toronto beating the Chicago Bulls — who apparently have an average roster age of 13, and the Philadelphia 76ers — who are better, but still not good (and they missed Joel Embiid). Little did these critics know, it wasn’t about the wins for Toronto. It was about continuing to establish their new system, integrating the young guys into the rotation and simply shaking off rust for the veterans.
Jakob Poeltl, like other Raptors youngsters exceeded expectations and played at a high level the first two games. Whether expected or not, the early results were encouraging. Poeltl finished each of the first three games with staggeringly high True Shooting percentages of 50%, 79% and 80%. He also posted astronomical plus/minus numbers of +19, +22 and +13 respectively in his first three contests.
It’s early, but he just looks like he belongs.
In fact, a simple Twitter search of ‘Poeltl’ will show just how far Jakob has come.
If he plays anything like tonight, Poeltl might not be the Raptors' center of the future.
He could be Toronto's center of the present.
— Danny Leroux (@DannyLeroux) October 26, 2017
Against the San Antonio Spurs, Poeltl came off the bench and finished with his first-ever career double-double in a loss versus the Spurs. The Austrian big recorded 10 points (4-5 FG, 2-3 FT), 12 rebounds, three blocks and one steal across 26 minutes.
Poeltl also recorded a net rating of +16.7 in San Antonio and is averaging an ignorant +40 over the season thus far. For reference, Nogueira was a -16.6 and is averaging a +15 on the season. As you could probably tell, the 76ers’ Saturday night blowout has a lot to do with inflated plus/minus numbers — Bebe was a +46 versus Philly — but player influence is player influence. Especially when you’re up against a Western Conference juggernaut like San Antonio.
Game impact? Check.
Poeltl has unquestionably played better than his counterpart, Lucas Nogueira thus far in the season. Again, it’s clear when Valanciunas returns from injury, JV will retain his starting position without question. That will be the obvious correct decision by the Raps staff. But in terms of who has earned those backup ‘5’ minutes, Jakob Poeltl has made his case to Toronto. Personally, I wouldn’t be shocked if Casey continued with his matchup-based philosophy when it comes to Bebe and Poeltl, but there will come a time where the inevitable must be decided upon:
Jakob Poeltl assuming the third big-man role in the rotation.
The Raptors might have just missed on Thon Maker in the 2016 draft, but considering Jakob Poeltl a ‘consolation prize’ is looking more questionable by the day. Jak has proved his worth early on while Delon Wright and OG Anunoby seem to have their backup positions locked down as well. Quick shoutout to the Raptors 905 and Jerry Stackhouse’s staff for aiding in the development of Delon and Jakob. There’s no question the (formerly named) D-League helped both players grow into what they are now. All three of Jak, OG and Wright have had impressive starts to the 2017-2018 campaign, and if all three want to be eventual replacements of the men starting before them, they must continue to show they belong in the cut-throat NBA environment.
I constantly mentioned that the Bulls and 76ers weren’t enough of a sample size to judge Poeltl from. Then came the San Antonio Spurs, and then the defending champion Golden State Warriors. Cross-country trips in the NBA are supposed to be a young player’s worst nightmare. For Delon, Jakob, Pascal and OG, it’s been a breeze. The most encouraging part of Poeltl’s development can be debated all day long, but his 4th quarter play this season has been absolutely stellar. On the other side of the coin, Jonas Valanciunas has roughly 3 years, $50 million left on his contract. After this season, the Raptors need to deeply evaluate the center position with a young, cost-effective talent like Poeltl present.
As unserious and nonchalant as he may look, Jakob Poeltl is surely prepared for whatever challenge lies ahead.