The Spurs have some young core players with seemingly boundless potential and others who can still improve but have essentially found their identity already. Jakob Poeltl belongs to that latter group.
Poeltl won’t likely develop an outside shot or a myriad of post moves, but he doesn’t have to. He’s already valuable as a great defensive center who can finish inside at a good rate, keep the ball moving, and do the dirty work under the boards. As long as he continues to do the things he already does well, the big man will be a good player to have around.
The focus, then, shouldn’t be on what big leap Poeltl can make next and instead on fixing a couple of issues that have become worrisome as they have continued to hound San Antonio’s starting center: his struggles from the line and unnecesary offensive fouls.
All Poeltl needs is to be bad instead of terrible at the line
Any conversation about improvement when it comes to Poeltl has to start with his woes from the line. The big man is a career 53 percent free throw shooter. Last season he made just 51 percent of his freebies, a mark that would have had him among the absolute worst players in the league in that area. He also only got there after a late-season hot streak that helped him narrowly avoid shooting in the 40s. Jak was so bad at times that teams purposefully fouled him, and the strategy often paid off to the point that Pop subbed him out a few times. Simply put, his free throw shooting turned him into a liability in certain games.
Poeltl’s form is not great, so it’s tempting to play amateur shot doctor, but it makes no sense to do so, since he’s had actual shooting coaches to help him with it, including one of the best the league has ever seen in Chip Engelland. It hasn’t really worked. Poeltl has also said it himself that his struggles at the line are at least partially mentally-related. All he can do is to continue to practice and figure out how to remain calm and focused at the line, which, to be fair, might be easier said than that. The good news, though, is that Poeltl only needs marginal improvement to turn a huge issue into a minor one.
The average offense scored around 1.12 points per possession last season. The Spurs’ scored 1.1 points per possession. An average Poeltl trip to the line resulted in 1.02 points, which means it made sense to intentionally foul him, at least on paper. In games in which the Spurs were playing better offense than average, it was a great resource for opponents to just send Jak to the line. That would all change if Poeltl manages to get into the 60s as a free throw shooter, as the average trip to the line would yield 1.2 points, better than the league’s best offense. Some teams would still take their chances with a Hack-a-Jak, because in small samples the averages don’t matter, but for the most part Poeltl wouldn’t have to worry about the tactic being a prominent part of opponents’ game plan, which could in turn help with his confidence.
Getting to 60 percent would be a huge jump for Poeltl, who was shooting 37 percent at the half mark of the season, but he did shoot 62 percent after the All-Star break on a decent number of attempts. Whether the first stretch or the second is more reflective of Poeltl’s ability is unclear — the season before last he shot in the 40s but he almost shot 60 percent in Toronto once — but the hope is that Jak can become consistent enough from the line to be able to stay on the court.
The officials are not the only ones to blame for Poelt’s offensive fouls
Free throws are the biggest issue with Poeltl, but turnovers caused by offensive fouls are not far behind. Jakob ranked 14th in the league in offensive fouls committed, with a big percentage of those coming on illegal screen calls. It’s been a source of frustration for Spurs fans to see the team’s starting center get whistled for fouls others get away with, but Jakob is not blameless.
Most of Poeltl’s illegal screens come as a result of arriving a little late and trying to make up for it by having too wide a base, which means opponents trip on his legs, or moving at the last second. Now, it’s not just Poeltl’s fault that he’s often still in motion when he screens. The ball handlers who don’t let him get properly situated before attacking bear some of he responsibility as well. But Poeltl does have a tendency to make his bad positioning seem obvious by often shifting his body when he makes contact.
He also has a bad habit of using his arms too much. Most of the time he makes incredibly soft contact, but if the opposing player gets the attention of the officials, it’s an easy call. It’s just hard to ignore an outstretched arm holding or pushing a defensive player.
Officials giving others the same whistle they give him would help mitigate the issue, but Poeltl can’t control that. What he can do is be mindful that if he does make illegal contact, he simply can’t make it obvious, and he should avoid using his hands as much as possible.
There’s a real risk that if he’s hyper aware of the issue, Poeltl will become a more timid screener. It would be a huge problem since he’s one of the league’s leaders in screen assists, and his ability to get ball handlers open is one of his main offensive skills, but he just needs to find a balance between getting hits without making obvious illegal contact. If the more avoidable fouls stop, maybe officials will start to see him differently. Complaining less could also help there.
There will always be soft calls, but if Jakob can improve his screening form and his chemistry with ball handlers, he’ll slowly change his reputation and remain an elite screener while avoiding foul trouble.
Poeltl won’t likely change who he is as a player much and has some clearly defined strengths, so the focus should be in limiting his weaknesses. A little improvement from the line and some more attention to detail on screens would go a long way towards making Jakob an even more effective starting center.
There were some good signs in the second half of the season regarding his free throw shooting, and he seems like a smart player who should be able to clean up some mistakes and adjust to how the game is officiated. Fortunately for both him and the Spurs, that’s all he needs to do.