It’s March 6, 2023. The Best in the West are about to take a nosedive, with every blogger and their grandma about to weigh in on the race relations component of the MVP race. Nikola Jokic, then in the lead for his third consecutive MVP award, does not play impressive defense, as he is outscored by Jakob Poeltl. The Nuggets win, but go on to lose four straight afterwards (including a loss to Toronto in the fourth game). In many ways, Poeltl’s ability to humiliate Jokic around the rim -- forcing the Nuggets’ star into the air before casually waltzing around him -- sets the tone for the MVP race as Joel Embiid shortly takes the lead in the polls behind his defensive acumen.
For a brief moment, Poeltl offered the impact of the NBA’s biggest stars at the center position. In only his third game as a Raptor, he put up 30 points, nine rebounds, and six blocks in a win. In his next game, 21 points and 18 rebounds. A few nights later, 23 points, 13 rebounds, and 3 blocks. (He was stacking up assists and steals in those games, too.) His numbers have largely come back down to earth as opponents have adjusted to Toronto’s new offensive approach, but he remains near the top of the league in one category: efficiency. Purely on the basis of field-goal percentage, Poeltl is in the top 20 in the league. Since he joined the Raptors, he’s been in fourth.
It’s not easy to point to the exact skill that allows Poeltl to be one of the most efficient finishers in the NBA. Except for on the rare yet impactful occasion when he is roused to vengeful anger, he doesn’t jump over opponents; in fact, he’s tied for 145th in the NBA in total dunks with 24. Starting centres rarely have so few dunks; players in that range are usually guards or intermittent rotation players. in fact, among centres with at least 1500 minutes this season, Poeltl has the third-fewest dunks, ahead of only Al Horford and Nikola Jokic. So, no, Poeltl is rarely skying over opponents (on the offensive end).
Neither does Poeltl have crafty finishes with English off the backboard. He’s a good finisher, no doubt. But he manages to put the ball in the net from close range without any of the usual accoutrements that accompany the league’s best. And, at least statistically, he is one of the league’s better finishers.
So to find the source of Poeltl’s source of success, one must look lower. It’s not in the air. It’s not on the rim. In fact, it’s all the way at the ground -- Poeltl’s feet are his secret weapon.
“First off all, he’s done really good on his rolls, catching those in the mid-paint area, going downhill. He’s kind of faking up early and kinda sneaking past ‘em or underneath ‘em or using the rim to get all the way to the rim,” explained Nick Nurse.
Being able to “fake up early” and “kinda sneak past ‘em or underneath ‘em” is not easy. In fact, it’s so difficult that other players don’t have this ability. Poeltl didn’t even have it last time around as a Raptor.
“I think it’s a little unique,” said Nurse. “I don’t remember him doing that or even when we played against him doing that that much, so it’s kinda become a little unique for him to make that little fake and draw that guy up and get past him.”
The footwork is complex. Poeltl integrates an up-fake into his gather as he strides towards the rim. He usually does it on the catch as a roller, slightly shifting his momentum east-west during his pump fake (and gather) to wrong-foot his defender and finish with a simple layup. Arguably, the reason why Poeltl’s up-fake is unique is because it’s such difficult footwork to master.
And Poeltl is enormously efficient with the gather. I tracked all of his shots as a Raptor, and he attempted 25 shots (13.6 percent of his total shots as a Raptor) using his up-fake-and-gather, making 21. That’s good for 84-percent accuracy, a fair amount higher than his total percentage.
The reason why it’s so successful it’s because Poeltl is faking his second-most efficient shot: a floater. By my count, he’s made 18 of his 27 floater attempts as a Raptor, good for 66.7 percent from the field. (That is, by the way, the second-best mark on floaters league-wide over the same time period.) This time, showing just the makes -- missed floaters are much less interesting than missed shots with unique footwork.
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