The Austrian Hammer

When Masai Ujiri took over running the Raptors front office in the summer, it was clear what the priority was. Andrea Bargnani had worn out his welcome in the city, and it felt like the point of no return had been hit with his development. The problem was, with him struggling both to stay on the floor, with several injuries in his last two seasons with the Raptors, as well as struggling to bring much to the table when he was out there, he still had two seasons and an onerous amount of money remaining on his rookie extension, and with him already having turned 27, it was going to be difficult to convince another front office that he could still develop into the player the Raptors had hoped for when they selected him first overall, all those years before. The speculation among Raptors fans and bloggers is that the might use their amnesty on him to move on, or try to find a way to negotiate a buyout. It was no longer about retaining value, but about finding a way for the organization to move on and start fresh. This would end up being the moment, though, of one of Ujiri’s more brilliant moves directing the future of the franchise, as he found a deal to not only move Bargnani, but also to return several rotation players and a future unprotected first round pick.

Three years later, though, the pundits said the 2016 draft was supposed to be an 8-player draft. If you were drafting in that top 8, you were supposed to be getting a player that had a high chance of being a future star, and if you were outside that group it got a lot dicier and that Knicks pick that was brought back from Bargnani was sitting in 9th position. The statistical models, however, had a ninth player listed as potentially elite, an Austrian center who was the former college teammate of Delon Wright, who the Raptors had grabbed a season earlier late in the first round, and had shown some signs of promise late in the season despite missing most of the year due to injury. Most of those projection models saw Poeltl as a surer thing than the players listed ahead of him, a low risk draft pick who had little chance to bust, and a great chance to end up as at least a starting quality center. For Raptors fans though, the Knicks pick had been something they’d been looking forward to since the moment Bargnani was traded, and with the Knicks having been perpetually mediocre, it seemed like that pick would bring back a star to be the centerpiece of the Raptors future, and Jakob didn’t feel like that guy.

His rookie season came and went as well, with the entire rookie class feeling underwhelming as Ben Simmons sat out, and Malcolm Brogdon, a second round pick, taking home rookie of the year with an unspectacular campaign in which he started for the Bucks and performed adequately, helping the team to make the playoffs with his steady hand at the point despite his own numbers not jumping off the page. Poeltl struggled to find a role with the Raptors, appearing in more than half of the games and starting four due to injuries, but with his sky-high foul rate and the team’s depth at the forward positions, ended up out of the rotation come the playoffs, with the team opting to run Serge Ibaka at center in smaller lineups for the majority of the minutes that Jonas Valanciunas didn’t play.

Coming into his second season, however, the Raptors veteran bench was largely gone, and they needed to find a new group of players to fill the reserve roles. For several years the Raptors had been making the playoffs in spite of their starting lineup, with lineups consisting of Kyle Lowry and backups often dominating their minutes to help make up for where the team was lacking. The problem with that strategy was that it kept Lowry among the league leaders in minutes, and seemed to result in him either injured or exhausted heading into the postseason every year, which was hard to ignore as a contributing factor to the team’s struggles in each year’s playoffs. With that in mind, the Raptors didn’t just need to find a way to replace the steady hands of Patrick Patterson, Cory Joseph and PJ Tucker, they needed to evolve that second unit to help take some pressure off Lowry if they were going to find a way to take that next step as a team, and truly challenge for a deep playoff run.

The rest, as they say, is now history. Rookie OG Anunoby has emerged as the missing link among the Raptors starters, finally turning that group into a positive with his defensive intensity and un-assuming but capable offensive game, and at the same time, the young core of Poeltl, along with fellow members of the 2016 draft class Pascal Siakam and Fred Van Vleet, who was picked up by Ujiri after going undrafted, became the core of the new Raptors bench.

Among all three-man groups in the NBA this season that have played at least 500 minutes together, the +21.1 net rating for that trio ranks first in the Association, and each player is responsible in part for that. Van Vleet has looked like a true successor to Kyle Lowry, bringing that same swagger and intensity to the game despite his diminutive frame, and working hard at both ends of the floor, keeping the offense humming for a Raptors second unit that should on the surface struggle to find shots at times. Siakam excels at running the floor as a big man, scoring frequent transition buckets off the tough defense of that second unit, while also having great hands and passing instincts, helping him to be a large positive despite long stretches this season when his own jump shot has failed him. As for Poeltl, he has emerged this season as an elite defensive center for the Raptors, using his mobility to chase quicker big men and guards around the perimeter when necessary, as well as his length and knack for being in the right place to make up for not having elite athleticism to become a dominant rim protector.

Poeltl ranks in the 82nd percentile defending post-ups this season, despite the fact that he seems too thin, and not strong enough yet, to guard those possessions, and as the season has gone on it feels like the referees have begun to catch up to his game as well, with him in the second half of the year beginning to sometimes get the benefit of those tougher 50/50 calls, allowing him to remain on the floor longer. Among players who have played at least 1000 minutes this season, only Kristaps Porzingis, Rudy Gobert and Myles Turner block a higher percentage of the opponent’s shots when they are on the floor.

At the same time, while Jakob’s offensive game is unspectacular, often times making his contributions through setting solid screens and then reading the ball handler to position himself either to receive a pass and then make a play, either driving to the basket or kicking it out to an open shooter, or finding his way to the offensive boards, where he again ranks among the best in the league. In an era where the NBA is trending towards asking every guy to have a serviceable jump shot, it can be difficult sometimes for the big men who don’t have that to remain useful, and Jak uses his ability to read the defense and predict the coverage on the roll to help open up the offense for other players, contributing in ways that are harder to track on a box score, but nonetheless help keep the team’s offense humming. He also has excellent hands around the basket, and seems to find a way to catch every pass thrown his way and finish in traffic, even of late showing the aggression and ability to throw down some thunderous dunks when given the room to do so. He’s also built some chemistry with Pascal Siakam, with the two managing interior defenders to create buckets for each other, and of late has shown synergy with DeMar DeRozan in transitional lineups, learning to read how DeRozan plays the screens and position himself for the dump-off pass or using his frame to create space for DeMar to score.

It’s that aspect of his game that’s so hard to track in any statistic that also makes Poeltl so special, he reads the game extremely well and seems to see things developing before they do at both ends of the floor, allowing him to be in the right position to make tough plays look easy and frequently help his team get out of trouble. Sometimes it’s hard to catch these things on the first watch of a game, and only on the second or third viewing can you really completely appreciate all the things he brings to the table for the Raptors, while the huge dunks and big blocks make for easy highlight reels. Even the things he doesn’t do as well, where he’s not a dominant defensive rebounding big man, especially compared to Valanciunas, he finds ways to mitigate through always finding a body to box out and allowing his teammates to grab boards that look uncontested because of his work under the rim. The team’s rebounding doesn’t take a hit with Jak on the floor, and that’s at least in part due to his ability to box out.

Historical comparisons can be difficult for young big men, especially with the league getting faster and leaning towards more outside shooting, but the combination of his prowess for blocking shots and also his touch at the basket at his age is rare. The general rule of thumb when creating arbitrary breakpoints to narrow down a list of players for comparisons is that you should always round to the nearest multiple of 5, so if you take Jak’s 5.9% block percentage down to 5% and 65.6% effective field goal rate down to 65% and create a list of players to have had a season, aged 23 or younger, where they had at least those numbers in the three point era of basketball, you end up with a short list of Rudy Gobert, Clint Capela, DeAndre Jordan(who did it twice), Lucas Nogueira, who did it last year for the Raptors, and Poeltl. This list should serve as a remind that Bebe, the Raptors third string center this year, is also a very talented player who can probably thrive in the right situation, but also shows some indication of how rare of a talent Jakob has shown himself to be. In terms of his contemporaries, he’s a year younger than Joel Embiid, and while he doesn’t have the offensive talents of the Sixers phenom, his defensive numbers are on par, with a similar block rate and opponents shooting similar percentages at the rim when guarded by each player. He doesn’t play the minutes that Embiid does though, and doesn’t start, so he doesn’t usually face an opponents best look, but the talent is clearly there.

There’s definitely still work to do for the former Ute though. He still needs to bring his foul rate down, and work on his core strength without sacrificing speed. He struggles against players who are strong enough to push him around, especially on the boards, and can get himself in trouble in certain matchups. It also goes without saying that if he was to develop a jump shot it would be helpful for the Austrian big man, as it would open up yet another threat in his pick and roll game. At the same time, his feel for the game is already there, and that’s one of the hardest things to develop in guys who don’t have it coming into the league.

It’s hard to say where the Raptors are headed once DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry slow down and stop playing at an All-Star level. Despite all the young talent on the team, and there is a lot of it that Masai has been able to put in place, it’s unclear yet whether any of those young players have the star potential to replace those two as the leader of the team going forward. At this point, it would be hard to project Poeltl as ever getting there, his talent lies more in the little things that befit a complimentary player rather than the centerpiece of a team, but he is only 22 years old and has barely played a full seasons worth of NBA minutes, so it’s certainly not impossible there is another leap there for him to take to become a star. The guy who he was traded for though, Andrea Bargnani, had all of those qualities you would look for in a young player that projects to be a star, and none of Jak’s feel for the game, and was never able to figure it out. The guy who makes his teammates better at the expense of his own statistics is worthy of recognition, Poeltl has been doing that all year, and the results speak for themselves with the Raptors headed for their best season in franchise history, buoyed by their bench. It turns out that the 2016 draft might not have been an 8-player draft, because the guy who went 9th is pretty good.

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