Beyond what happens with DeMar DeRozan, the biggest free agency question in the Spurs’ near future revolves around Jakob Poeltl. The big man is up for an extension at a strange time for the league, both financially and stylistically, so it’s hard to determine his value.
Poeltl has been undeniably good since arriving in San Antonio in the Kawhi Leonard trade, but his ceiling is limited, which could make the decision to sign him to a long term deal a scary one for the Spurs. At the same time, the team is starved for frontcourt talent, and Poeltl is young and productive.
Let’s try to determine what the Spurs should do in the first installment of a new edition of this series dedicated to figuring out whether San Antonio should keep its upcoming free agents, or let them walk.
Why Poeltl should stay
For two years in a row, Poeltl has had the highest net rating on the Spurs, showing that the team does exceedingly well when he’s on the court. For a while it was easy to partially dismiss what that team stat said about the big man because of his role as backup center and the starters’ disastrous numbers, but as a starter himself this year, he still posted a very good differential in 18 games. Something about Poeltl’s presence makes the Spurs play much better.
A glance at Poeltl’s counting stats won’t impress anyone and would make it hard to make a case for him as a truly important piece, but the closer someone looks at his game, the more evident it becomes that he does a lot that isn’t reflected in traditional categories. Poeltl is not only a good rebounder, but also diligent when it comes to boxing out; he’s very good at blocking shots without leaving the glass unprotected, which makes him a well-rounded defensive anchor; he’s a relentless screener who isn’t afraid of contact but also knows the art of changing angles, which allows him to free up ball handlers for easy buckets. Poeltl will not wow anyone with his efficient-but-limited scoring, but his work on defense, the boards and as a screener is extremely impressive.
Is a solid starting center worth much in the modern NBA if he can’t shoot? That’s the biggest question for San Antonio when it comes to Poeltl. The Spurs have rights of first refusal and could use the threat of matching any offer to depress the market for their center, but even if it comes down to signing him for around eight figures a year, it’s probably worth it for a player that fits the culture of the franchise, does the little things no one else on the roster can do, and at age 25 fits the timeline of the other young players.
Why he should go
As impressive as Poeltl’s impact has been at the team level both as a starter and a sub, he’s never averaged over 20 minutes a game for a season in his career. There are plenty of players that do well on a small role that fits them but struggle when they are asked to step up on a bigger one, and it’s impossible to know at this point if Poeltl is one of them. Going by how winded he’s seemed when playing heavy minutes, it’s fair to wonder if he can be as effective when he has to conserve energy, which he might need to do as a full time starter.
If Poeltl can’t sustain his level when he’s getting close to 30 minutes a game, his impact at the team level might not be enough to make up for his limited individual talent. As good as he is as a rim protector and despite having nimble feet for his height, Poeltl doesn’t have the ability to switch seamlessly across positions on defense. On offense, his inability to create for himself could potentially make his screening and passing less effective if opponents decide to play off of him. That’s where the lack of range hurts him the most. It’s not that Poeltl can’t hit threes, but that he can’t even hit short mid-range jumpers for the most part, and his struggles from the line suggest his capacity for growth as a shooter is extremely limited. Poeltl is a good traditional center, but that might not be enough anymore to justify a long term investment.
Would it really be hard for the Spurs to find someone who can do 70 percent of what Poeltl does in free agency for a much cheaper prize? It doesn’t seem so, since most teams are not rushing to throw money to centers without range. If the front office isn’t sure that Poeltl is the long term answer at the position, it might be best to go for lesser but still viable short term replacements.
Verdict: He should stay
While the concerns about whether Poeltl will be able to have as big an impact on a bigger role are real, there’s is enough evidence to suggest he could. Whenever he’s had to fill in as a starter he’s done fine, and he still has untapped potential as a passer to make up for his obvious limitations as a scorer. Defensively he might not be a game-changer on his own, but flanked by good perimeter players he should be able to anchor an above average defense, at worst.
There’s nothing all that exciting about Poeltl’s game, but he’s solid in most areas. The lack of range is his only real weakness, and while it’s a big one, it shouldn’t prevent him from being a good rotation piece, at least in the regular season. With how little young frontcourt talent the Spurs have right now, that makes him valuable. Unless DeRozan opts out, potentially creating cap space, there’s no reason to let a limited-but-good player go at this stage of the rebuild.
Poeltl might not be the center of the future for the Spurs but his combination of youth, impact at the team level and fit are intriguing enough to make him worth keeping around despite his low ceiling.