Now does Jakob Poeltl fit the Raptors?

Jakob Poeltl has been playing great recently. So is he the center of the future?

The nadir of Jakob Poeltl’s second stint with the Toronto Raptors came on the day of the Raptors’ blockbuster trade for Immanuel Quickley and RJ Barrett. His minutes were dropping precipitously, game by game, week by week. He hadn’t hit the 30-minute mark in six straight games prior to the day of the trade. Three of those contests saw him score four points or fewer. And he was increasingly being outplayed or at least equalized by lesser centers -- Walker Kessler, Daniel Gafford, Luke Kornet. 

Then came Toronto’s humiliating loss to the Detroit Pistons. OG Anunoby was gone, but Quickley and Barrett weren’t yet in town. Poeltl played 34 minutes, and he cleaned the glass well, but he was no impetus on the defensive end. Jalen Duren and James Wiseman scored easily, and Poeltl did little to impact the driving of Cade Cunningham or Kevin Knox when they blew past their perimeter defenders. He often found himself out of position when stepping up to pick and rolls, or in zones, and the Pistons multiple times threw diagonal passes to his mark for a dunk right through Toronto’s defense. Home run passes with no advantage gained. 

That was the low. But even without self-inflicted wounds, it’s been clear that Poeltl may not be the player type that best fits this team in the long term. And the high came almost a year ago when the Raptors actually acquired Poeltl. He solved Toronto’s ability to defend the pick and roll. He finally let them pick the low-hanging fruit when it came to finishing. They no longer gave up corner 3s. He just made the roster make sense

And now, he's back. The Raptors are about to rediscover what it's like playing without a true center, as Poeltl sprained his ankle against the Golden State Warriors and is ruled out against the Los Angeles Lakers tonight. He is, once again, invaluable.

What happened to make his value over time look like a sine wave?

His numbers certainly have improved, and not just the box score ones. Those are better, too -- since the trade, he's been averaging 12.3 points, 9.0 rebounds, 3.3 assists, and 2.8 blocks (!) per game. Those are all improvements upon his stats prior to the trade. But perhaps most importantly, the Raptors were losing his minutes on the court, with an on-court net rating of negative-1.0. And since the trade, he has an on-court net rating of plus-10, the third-best on the team.

Though he has turned his play around in some ways, the brunt of the impact has come because the context around him has changed to better suit his skills. He is a context-dependent player; most are. But a big like Poeltl needs much in the way of context around him for his skills to be unlocked. Right now, the Raptors are offering it.

Poeltl’s screening has been much more vital on a team with movement shooting. Among 24 players with at least 40 off-ball screens set in 2024, Poeltl boasts the second-highest points per chance, just fractions of a point below Nikola Jokic. (He ranked in the bottom third for efficiency as an off-ball screener over the course of 2023.) Against the Golden State Warriors, his off-ball screens freed Quickley and Barrett for open, catch-and-shoot triples in the first four minutes of the game.