The Spurs are entering a pivotal offseason full of major decisions, one of which is how much to pay to retain the services of impending restricted free agent center Jakob Poeltl. There are multiple ways the Spurs could go about this. They could give him his qualifying offer and let the market set his value, or they could offer him what they think he is worth and see if anyone else is willing to go over.
Determining what that number actually is is the challenge. While the Austrian center hasn’t presented the most eye-popping numbers since arriving in San Antonio two seasons ago, film, analytics, and advanced statistics show he is one of the most impactful players on the roster.
With LaMarcus Aldridge sidelined for the NBA Restart, the career-sixth-man had an eight-game opportunity to showcase his fit within a smaller, more modernized starting lineup. And though the Silver and Black posted a 5-3 record over that stretch, Poeltl found himself in foul trouble in several contests and out of Spurs fans good graces for failing to finish at the rim.
Now, the whole dunking issue was a bit overblown, and obsessing over it discounts how strong the seven-footer performed in the bubble. There were concerns that playoff-caliber starters would alter Poeltl’s production, but he held steady and put forth some solid outings. The Jazz and Rockets intentionally resting stars might have helped his cause, though that was out of his control.
Poeltl Per 36 in the bubble (8 GP):— Noah Magaro-George (@N_Magaro) October 8, 2020
11.6 PTS, 11.3 REB, 2.5 AST, 1.3 STL, 1.9 BLK, 5.3 PF, 1.5 TO
.646/.000/.333 on 0 3PA
Poeltl Per 36 before the bubble (58 GP):
11.5 PTS, 11.5 REB, 3.9 AST, 1.1 STL, 3.0 BLK, 3.7 PF, 1.7 TO
.619/.000/.486 on 0 3PA
Determining a potential price tag for Jakob is where things begin to get tricky. Ending the season with 235 screen assists (14th in the NBA) and 95 blocks (8th in the NBA), Poeltl was among the best screen-setters and rim-protectors in the league despite playing significantly fewer minutes than his statistical peers. Still, what is the value of a shot-swatting bruiser who refuses to stretch the floor in the age of pace-and-space basketball?
Unfortunately, the last statement is no exaggeration. Jakob has only made one of his two three-point attempts in 279 games throughout his four-year career, the last of which was a reluctant air-ball from the right-corner during his second season with the Raptors. Of course, there is more to the game than chucking triples, and Poeltl is a multi-skilled big man who will undoubtedly draw suitors this offseason.
Jumpers of any range aren’t part of his offensive repertoire, but the soon-to-be 25-year-old center thrived as a PNR roll-man, notching 1.31 PPP (16th in the NBA) and an uber-efficient 74.2% field goal percentage (5th in the NBA) in that scenario. Considering the PNR continues to be a pillar of playbooks around the NBA, Poeltl will always merit minutes as long as he remains astonishingly effective out of that set.
With that in mind, the traditional big is zooming towards extinction, and while Poeltl sits near the top of the PNR leaderboards, his sample size is admittedly small (71 possessions). Additionally, an average wingspan and a slow load-time take away the lob-target dynamic that so many of his fellow non-shooters possess. Although that may not be an issue worth worrying about, what else does Jakob offer?
Passing is perhaps the most underrated aspect of Poeltl’s package, and while he isn’t a Nikola Jokic level dimer, you might be surprised where he ranks at his position. Jakob dishes out 3.6 assists per 36 minutes (11th among Centers), and only Nikola Vucevic, Marc Gasol, Al Horford, and Jokic maintained higher assist-to-turnover ratios. The fourth-year pro makes quick decisions with the ball in his hands and has the court vision to hit the open man through a tight window.
Poeltl is somewhat of a single-faceted specialist on the other end. Though his primary responsibility is to protect the rim, he does an excellent job of covering both the screener and ball-handler in drop coverage. He can be exposed when switching on the perimeter, but his coordination, timing, and mobility are impressive for his size, and he recovers surprisingly well to block shots from behind.
We have a good idea of what Jakob is, and unless a significant shooting makeover arrives, the former Ute is probably close to meeting his ceiling. That isn’t to say he is a finished product, a handful of players have restructured their game to meet the standards of this era. Brook Lopez launched just 31 long-distance attempts eight years into his career, and now the affectionately nick-named Splash Mountain holds the NBA record for most single-season three-pointers by a center. However, hoping for that sort of drastic development isn’t a bright bet.
The second-year San Antonio Spur isn’t Lopez, and every player is unique in their own right, but obtaining similar statistical profiles can help identify a starting point for contract negotiations. While I did my best to uncover players with comparable production, my search left me with two results. Loads of centers average 5-5-1 and a block to boot, but when narrowing the parameters to per 36 minutes, only Jusuf Nurkic and Andre Drummond approach Jakob’s blend of rebounding, passing, and rim-protection. Even then, they have little in common with Poeltl.
Returning to square one and taking a look at next season’s income for other starting centers around the league was incredibly useful. Once I eliminated outliers like bad contracts and gross underpayments, I zeroed in on three sensible deals. DeAndre Jordan, Dwight Powell, and Lopez, relatively average starters who would find themselves relegated to spot-starting duty in the event a fringe All-Star came along. And their annual $10M to $12M salaries seem fair for a projected starter like Poeltl entering his prime.
T. Gibson: $10.3M— Noah Magaro-George (@N_Magaro) October 8, 2020
S. Adams: $27.5M
D. Ayton: $10M
R. Holmes: $5M
T. Bryant $8.3M
Then again, less money could easily be a possibility for someone with an outdated style of play. More money could be on the table as well, and the Spurs should think twice before handing out a hefty payday to a complementary player with an inherently high-floor and low-ceiling outcome. Marco Belinelli and Bryn Forbes are hitting the open market this offseason, and DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, Patty Mills, Trey Lyles, and Aldridge could be joining them the following offseason. With all that money off the books, it might be wise to save for extending Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV, Keldon Johnson, or Luka Samanic should any of them prove to be foundational building blocks.