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Jakob Poeltl on the Spurs’ play-in chase, the art of screening, and getting loud

Poeltl has factored heavily into the Spurs’ success on both ends of the floor. In an exclusive interview, he spoke on things big and small, statistical and intangible, that have contributed to his career year.

Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images. Artwork by Felipe Godoy Diaz.

Spurs opponents are used to being met with resistance around the paint in the form of 7-foot Jakob Poeltl. The 6th year center who paces the NBA in shot contests and ranks among the league leaders in blocks per game is an increasingly ubiquitous part of what goes right for San Antonio on both ends of the floor these days.

A patchwork of counting stats and tracking metrics strains to capture Poeltl’s entire footprint: in addition to his defensive impact he stirs the drink on offense, helping turn the team’s weakness of on-ball creation into a strength through high activity on the perimeter, pressure on the rim, and an abundance of handoffs and on- and off-ball screens to create openings. While it’s noteworthy that he’s hitting new career highs in points (13.4), rebounds (9.2) and assists (2.8), that only tells part of the story of his impact this season, which is why I was excited to have him help us fill in some of the rest.

Poeltl is as obliging an interview as he is inhospitable as a defender, his answers thoughtful and detailed as he folded himself into a small media room for a one-on-one chat after Friday night’s win over the Portland Trail Blazers. When asked about his career season and where he’s most improved, it’s not surprising to hear him point to a non-statistic:

“I’d say it’s my leadership,” Poeltl said. On another team or in another year, the 26-year-old may not represent the old guard; this season, following the trade deadline and last summer’s exodus, he’s now the third-longest tenured Spur after coming over in the 2018 Kawhi Leonard trade.

“We knew going into this season that a bunch of guys would have to step up because we lost our veterans — a lot of our scoring, too, really — in DeMar, Rudy, Patty. So, a couple of core guys really bought into filling that gap, stepped into that role. I think that’s what really the improvement is, where that comes from is me trying to be more aggressive on offense and make plays for myself and my teammates.”

Memphis Grizzlies v San Antonio Spurs Photos by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

Serving as the last line of defense has helped foster Poeltl’s natural development as a leader and voice on the court, quarterbacking rotations and helping keep teammates on the same page. Much like Dejounte Murray’s ascension to face of the franchise and offensive tip of the spear, it’s a logical pairing of function and role, albeit one that Poeltl has reached in his own way.

“In my first couple of years, I was definitely more quiet, partially because I was still trying to figure it out myself. Also I was still trying to find my role, but over the years I’ve learned sometimes you just gotta be loud, be that defensive anchor, especially for a center. Tell your defense where to be, where the help side is, where to send their guys. It’s really constant communication out there and a lot of it comes to me being the last line of the defense.”

“I’d say DJ is our vocal leader; he’s our captain and as our point guard he gets the team together. A couple other guys like KJ and myself tried to fill in the gaps and talk to the young guys in one on one situations, try and explain different things. Also going out and leading by example... You need a couple of guys that bring everyone together and then, I’d say I’m one of those guys that tries to lead by example, just set the tone.”

That elevated presence comes through if you’re paying attention, whether it’s Poeltl being loud under the basket or being among the most active on the bench cheering on teammates. When Gregg Popovich broke the record for most regular season coaching wins, it was Poeltl who first put his arms around him.

Utah Jazz v San Antonio Spurs Photos by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

“That’s such an incredible achievement... I don’t even remember what I said. I wanted to bring the energy. When we won that game, the reporters rushed the court. All of a sudden I remembered, ‘Oh, wow this is the night.’ And that game was so intense I completely forgot about it. I just wanted a fun moment for the whole team, trying to embrace him. I know he’s not the biggest fan of stuff like that. I think he kind of enjoyed that before he got out of there and pushed us all off.”

Poeltl’s importance on defense has been glaring at times. The backup center position in San Antonio has been fluid and interesting, but rarely a strength, and many matchups see the Spurs giving up size at the rest of the frontcourt. Throw into the mix how stacked the center position is in today’s NBA, with bigs dominating the MVP race, and there’s a strong case to put Poeltl as one of the team’s two most important players this year. About his preparation, Poeltl said:

“I do prepare for different opponents in different manners, but for most of these guys — Jokic, Embiid, Giannis — I’ve played against these guys over and over again, seen them play in different games. It’s a fun challenge. They’re obviously different players, you need to adjust your defense to each of them. It’s about embracing the challenge, making it as tough as possible for them, making them work for every single bucket.”

A more prominent role doesn’t mean Poeltl still doesn’t fade in the background of most NBA discussions, a fact not helped by San Antonio’s record or the absence of any nationally televised games this year. Not much of that discourse reaches Poeltl, who isn’t on Twitter, posts minimally on Instagram and laughed when asked if he’s on TikTok, and it wouldn’t matter much if it did:

“It might get overlooked but I honestly don’t really care. I never really pay attention to the box score. I think there’s stats, analytics for almost everything. If you look super deep, you can analyze or maybe even overanalyze a lot of things. But people who know basketball, people within our team who know our strategies, will recognize what’s working for us, what’s a good play for us, what might be a mistake in other ways. It really doesn’t matter much to me if it shows up on the box score.”

Minimizing his time on social media doesn’t mean Poeltl’s completely offline — he’d just rather be gaming than doomscrolling. Ironically, this was an interest I suspected he had after seeing a clip Lonnie Walker posted on Instagram of Poeltl playing on a team plane. The game? Pokemon.

“I play a lot of video games and I’m going through a bit of a Pokemon phase,” he offered. “I’m playing through a lot of the games I played in my childhood... A little bit of nostalgia. I go through different phases. Right now it’s a little bit of Pokemon.”

If you’re wondering what Poeltl’s favorite Pokemon game is (and in case it wasn’t clear how obliging Poeltl was in the interview), here’s what he had to say:

“I like generation 3, so Ruby/Sapphire/Emerald. That’s the one I first played as a kid.”

An older preference seems fitting given Poeltl’s profile. In a league where many 5s handle the ball or take threes, he is both a throwback big and someone with a range of skills essential to a modern offense. That’s one reason San Antonio’s offensive rating is highest when he’s on the floor despite the lack of an outside shot. To highlight those contributions, I asked Poeltl about one of those premier skills — the screen — which modern stats are beginning to note (he is 2nd in the league in screen assists), but which most of us could still stand to better understand.

Namely, what makes a good screen, according to one of the league’s most prolific and effective screen-setters?

“I think it’s knowing your ball handler,” he said. “Knowing their strengths, what they want to create out of that pick and roll. I remember with DeMar I would try and hold that screen as long as possible so that he could get downhill and attack the 5, because he was very good at that, either getting to his midrange shot or get the big off balance to drive to the rim. Different stuff like that.”

Each perimeter teammate is different, has their own spots, their own timing and pace, and their own preferred angles to attack a defense. Part of Poeltl’s preparation comes through knowing those preferences, and part of his job on the floor is being mindful of those nuances while processing and adjusting to coverages.

“It really depends who’s handling the ball a lot of the time. Also adjusting to what the defense is doing, you get into a game, first quarter you get an idea of their game plan, how to guard the pick and roll and you make adjustments to that. They might take something away, pack the paint, take the roller away, maybe I need to set the screen a little bit higher, try and get DJ going a little bit faster so he find somebody on the weak side. So there’s little details to it that to me make the biggest difference, trying to make those adjustments on the fly in the middle of the game... It’s something you just learn, you develop that chemistry game after game, playing over and over again, getting into your situations. Also just communicating with each other. I remember in the beginning of the season I was talking with Doug [McDermott] about how he wanted to get his screens set. ”

Upon DeRozan’s departure, Poeltl and Murray recognized the central role their two-man game would play in propping up an offense that didn’t feature a real go-to scorer.

San Antonio Spurs v Cleveland Cavaliers Photo by Emilee Chinn/NBAE via Getty Images

“I remember last summer me and DJ were doing a lot of two-on-two workouts, working on a lot of that pick and roll, all kinds of pick and roll situations because we knew what would be the backbone of our offense was that 1-5 pick and roll. And playing out of it, making reads out of it, I know DJ does an incredible job finding people, making plays for me, himself, whoever, but we’re a bit headier in our offense. I think another big part of it is playing through the big maybe at the top of the key or through the high post, trying to get movement into our offense, because we don’t really have guys who can take someone off the dribble one on one.”

“We need to be active on offense, we need to play together. I think that’s why our assist numbers are so high as well — because we constantly move the ball, try to keep the defense active and try to wait for their mistakes and punch the gaps.”

After setting a screen, Poeltl has continued to improve as a passer out of the short roll, finisher around the basket, and in giving his ball-handlers windows to find him. An improved floater has made sure he’s not caught in no-man’s land at around 10 feet, becoming one of his most trusted shots this season. And apparently, something of a clubhouse joke:

“I don’t have a name for it. Teammates and coaches have some funny names for it — maybe ask them. I just call it a floater, but there’s some funny names out there.”

The Spurs haven’t set the league on fire, but they haven’t faded, either, working their way back into the play-in picture and finding their best form at the right time of year. Poeltl credits that resilience to the makeup of the team and how they’ve responded to a multitude of close losses and a trade deadline in which they lost a core piece in Derrick White.

“I said this the other day, we’ve got a bunch of guys that are naturally fighters, that don’t give up. We lost some important pieces at the trade deadline, but yeah we had a lot of guys step up and fill that role. Devin really stepped up, Josh Primo, J Rich — all those guys came in and played that role at a really high level. We hit a bit of a slump, but then we picked it up and have made a run at the end of the season to try and make the play-in. I think we’re in a good spot where it’s in our own hands to close it out and fight for a spot. Give ourselves a chance to fight for the playoffs.”

As the Spurs’ 2021-22 season nears its end, Poeltl remains one of its brightest spots, as well as a reason it may go on a little longer. His improved two-way game and louder voice are like one of his ball screens, providing an impact that’s both unquantifiable and unmistakable. The play-in presents one more gap to shoot, pried open by the strides made by San Antonio’s young core, and one more chance for Poeltl and his teammates to make some noise.