Five years ago, the Toronto Raptors reluctantly parted ways with Jakob Poeltl. He was surprised to be traded — he was best friends with fellow bench mob partner Pascal Siakam. But the Raptors traded for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green and a championship.
Now Poeltl is back. He’s no longer a young up-and-comer, and the Raptors have exceptionally high hopes (and needs) from the incoming center.
Since Poeltl was last a Raptor, he has added a fair amount to his game. His per-36 minute stats are mostly the same, but there’s a huge difference between the same per-36 minute stats in 18 minutes off the bench and in 26 minutes as a starter. Furthermore, he has added one significant component to his game: incredible passing ability.
Poeltl is seventh among centers in assist percentage this season, ahead of much more heralded bigs like Bam Adebayo and Al Horford. He is an exceptional creator in tight windows — and the windows are tight because he’s not a huge threat as a shooter or driver. (He has also spent the season passing to, shall we say, limited scorers. So the assist numbers are even more impressive.) He is a legitimate pick-and-roll and hand-off hub, able to toggle between plays with comfort, pass backdoor or across the court, and generally extend advantages with the ball in his hands.
The Raptors simply don’t have anyone capable of doing that with his size. Precious Achiuwa is the center of the future, but he still plays tentatively on the offensive end and can give back advantage as frequently as he creates it. Poeltl has a much higher mastery of the moment, so to speak. Quick decisions and all that. In addition, he’s a very talented finisher. He has an effective field goal percentage of 61.6 on the season, which is mostly because he is shooting 76.8 percent from within three feet — and he takes half his shots from there. (Toronto’s highest effective field goal percentage on the year is 57.4, belonging to Thad Young.) The Raptors simply don’t have anyone close to Poeltl’s level of efficiency on the team. Their bigs don’t pluck the low-hanging fruit on the offense end, which is why the team is facing a math problem every night. Poeltl does score efficiently, and it cannot be overstated how important that is for a big.
But there are downsides on the offensive end. He’s a total non-shooter, and the Raptors will (presumably, depending on what happens with the rest of this trade deadline), continue to start Siakam and Scottie Barnes alongside Poeltl. Poeltl’s quick decisions, efficient finishing, and nifty passing can only help so much. The offense will be a grind. But the other end is why the team acquired him.
Most importantly, Poeltl is a rim protector. Yes, he just got absolutely cooked by his good buddy Pascal Siakam. And he’s in the midst of a down year, with his rim protection and shot-blocking numbers down. Last season, he was one of the best rim protectors in the association, holding opponents 8.2 percentage points lower within six feet than expected when challenging shots, and also challenging some of the most shots within the league. This season he’s holding opponents only 3.2 percentage points below expected. Good, but not nearly as great as it was last season.
Still, it’s better than anything the Raptors can muster. He challenges more shots within that range than anyone on the team. O.G. Anunoby, Christian Koloko, and Precious Achiuwa hold opponents to lower field-goal percentages within that range, but they aren’t nearly as good at remaining in front of the play. With Poeltl as the anvil, now Toronto’s erstwhile rim protectors can be weak-side helpers and emergency plans (which is kind of what they were doing anyway, but without a Plan A). That’s huge for Toronto.
The Raptors have given up the seventh-highest frequency of shots at the rim all season, and they’ve been below average at forcing misses. They simply haven’t had a big to whom they can funnel drivers. The point of attack defense has been miserable, and an opponent beating his original defender has usually meant the possession is over. Now the Raptors have a cleanup crew, a wall at the rim, and someone to solve the problems created elsewhere. Anunoby (if he’s still a Raptor) and Siakam can shift to blocking shots from behind rather than from in front of drivers, which will help a lot, as well. Toronto’s defense should shoot up the standings. The Raptors won’t immediately be a top-10 defensive unit, but they should at least be competitive. Right now they’re 16th in the league. They should be able to creep into that 12-10 range towards the end of the season. (Again, depending on what happens over the rest of the trade deadline.)
There are a huge number of questions, of course. Poeltl will be an unrestricted free agent after this season. The Raptors traded for his Bird rights, so they can go over the salary cap to re-sign him. But now the Raptors have Gary Trent jr. and Fred VanVleet (if both remain Raptors) in addition to Poeltl as upcoming free agents. (If both, as expected, decline their player options.) All want — and will receive — huge paydays. The Raptors have signaled their unwilling to go into the luxury tax unless they’re a championship-contending squad. Does the addition of Poeltl make them that? I doubt it, and I really doubt Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster believe that. So the Raptors only exacerbated their financial woes, rather than solved them. Which means more trades are likely on the way.
On the court, Poeltl will help the team massively. His efficiency, passing, screening, and rim protection are all desperate breaths of air for the team. Shooting is for losers, I guess. Off the court, Poeltl should dramatically help the vibes. But this can’t be the end of Toronto’s changes on the day.
Ultimately, Poeltl answers a number of questions for the Raptors. But his addition only shifts the question mark to a different group of sentences. We’ll find out over the remainder of the trade deadline, and into the offseason, how Toronto chooses to answer those now.
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