Through 10 games of the 2017-18 NBA season, it’s no secret the Toronto Raptors possess an abundance of depth, especially in the frontcourt. Despite the small sample size we’ve seen this season, it’s evident this year’s squad has the capability of swapping different big men in and out of the rotation to best address a particular matchup or an opponent’s style of play during any given game.
Each of the team’s unique frontcourt options thrives at certain aspects of the game more than others, prompting the need to ask the question: which big man fits best?
Regardless of which style of play the team is combatting, the fact of the matter is any lineup featuring Jakob Poeltl has been by far the most effective on the defensive end of the floor this season. When Poeltl’s on the court, the Raptors defensive rating is an impressive 96.5. When he’s off, the rating balloons to 105.9. Additionally, of the Raptors top-five three-man combinations ranked based on largest net point margins – the comparison of points scored versus points against per 100 possessions – Poeltl is the lone big featured in four of them.
To help put into perspective Poeltl’s effectiveness defensively, let’s look at how the team’s defensive rating suffers when fellow centre Jonas Valanciunas is on the floor. The Raptors defensive rating improves from a subpar 112.6 when Valanciunas is in action to a stellar 99.3 when he rests, which equates to a significant differential of 13.3.
Poeltl’s offensive rebounding prowess is also worth noting as one of his biggest strengths. Even though he averages just 16 minutes, the Austrian hauls in 2.6 offensive rebounds per game, which ranks 22nd league-wide. Only three other players (John Collins, Ed Davis, and Cody Zeller) that average 20 minutes or less haul in more offensive rebounds than Poeltl. The second-year centre isn’t overly athletic but always seems to be in the right place at the right time. Just imagine if he had more floor time to work with. Per-36-minutes statistics provide us with an estimated, yet overinflated, glimpse of what Poeltl’s production could look like with a starter’s workload. And let me tell you, the numbers are pretty.
Even if Poeltl played 26-30 minutes per game, he’d still be an excellent defensive presence who can play a key role in a free-flowing offence like the one Raptors’ management envisions.
Based on how much Poeltl’s already improved in such a short time since his rookie season, it isn’t far-fetched to think he can handle the pressure of being relied upon consistently by the end of the season and during the playoffs. Maybe, just maybe, Poeltl is the stabilizing defensive presence inside the Raptors have been longing for. The team will never find out if he doesn’t have a fighter’s chance to prove himself.
The most glaring obstacle stopping Poeltl from taking on a more important role is his current ranking on the depth chart. Jonas Valanciunas is clearly the Raptors number one option to start at centre, which is unfortunate for a few reasons. For one, the Lithuanian is limited defensively and doesn’t provide consistent rim protection. More importantly, though, Valanciunas has proven he’s most effective thriving against backup centres as an offensive-minded sparkplug off the bench. Not only does he dominate his matchup, but his defensive deficiencies aren’t exposed nearly as frequently.
As it currently stands, the Raptors don’t yet have enough faith in Poeltl to make a bold switch in the starting lineup. It will be interesting to see whether Casey experiments with switching up the team’s starting centre later in the campaign. One thing is for certain: Poeltl would be better served playing more than 16 minutes per game. His effectiveness with more minutes has already been on display this season. In the two games that Poeltl played more than 20 minutes – versus Golden State and San Antonio – he finished with double-doubles. In those games, he created numerous second-chance scoring opportunities with his work on the glass and successfully filled the role of a rim protector. Poeltl also provided brief glimpses of offensive potential, finishing at the rim with a soft touch in pick and roll sets.
In today’s NBA, back-to-the-basket big men aren’t nearly as important as they once were. Valanciunas clearly fits the mold of a bruising centre, the type of player the league used to be built around, whereas Poeltl is one of the many new-age, agile bigs with the capability of adapting their game for the betterment of the team. Sure, Valanciunas’ postgame is more polished than Poeltl’s. But Valanciunas’ strong play down low doesn’t make up for defensive deficiencies that have become too glaring to ignore, especially come playoff time when teams tend to expose them most.
If you’re a member of the Raptors brass, finding a way to get Poeltl more playing time should be high-up on your to-do list. We’ve only gotten a glimpse of what the 22-year-old is all about.