A lot of Spurs came into the 2021-22 season with something to prove, but few had as much pressure to deliver as Jakob Poeltl. In his first year as a full-time starter, he essentially had no reliable backup and was expected to not only be a defensive presence, like he had been in the past, but also grow as an offensive threat.
We now know the answer to the question of whether Poeltl was up to the task, but the way he did things was both impressive and unorthodox by modern NBA standards for big men, and it’s worth a closer look.
Traits, expected role and stats
Jakob Poeltl is a 7’1”, 26-year-old veteran center who was entering the second year of his contract extension in 2021/22.
He was expected to play heavy minutes as the starting big man surrounded by perimeter players and anchor the defense while also contributing more than in the past on offense.
In 68 appearances, he averaged 13.5 points, 9.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists while playing 29 minutes per game.
It became clear early how important Poeltl would be to the Spurs, both because of a really solid start of the year for him and, perhaps more importantly, because of what happened in his absence. Seven games into the season, the big man entered health and safety protocols and missed the next seven games. While the Spurs’ record was similar with him away, the lack of reliable depth at center was exposed. Poeltl was not necessarily the best player on the team, but there’s a case to be made for him as the most indispensable. The Spurs went 4-10 without him, and the team was six points better with him on the court when he suited up, the highest differential on the team except for mid-season acquisition Josh Richardson. Things got better once Zach Collins became available, but it’s hard to overstate how crucial Poeltl was all year long.
His impact at the team level was the result of his established skills and the development of new ones. Poeltl remained a fantastic defender near the rim, trailing only Joel Embiid in shots contested in the restricted area, while also being limber enough to handle the occasional late shot clock switch. On offense, he was still the relentless screener and offensive rebounder he’s been his entire career. One thing that changed in a general sense was his conditioning, as he was able to handle longer minutes without getting gassed, which had been a minor problem for him earlier in his career, but the more specific improvements came on offense. Tasked with facilitating on a team lacking ball handlers and encouraged to look for his shot in he post, Jak posted career highs in usage percentage and assists percentage while keeping mistakes to a minimum and playing within himself.
Season grade: A
Poeltl came very close to fully maximizing his skill set this past season, proving he can be more than just a defensive specialist. He’s not an elite passing big, but he’s functional on a Spurs offense that mostly asks him to find cutters. He also rediscovered his post scoring touch, going from finishing just 26 possessions on the block at a below average rate last season to 102 at a good rate this season, according to Synergy Sports. He also refined a quick shot put-like release near the basket that made him a great escape valve on the pick-and-roll and mitigated his lack of vertical athleticism. Instead of soaring for a lob dunk, he could simply get the ball and use his length to get a high quality shot over his defender. On defense, he remained mostly reliant in drop coverage, and while struggled against stretch fives, Gregg Popovich kept him out there even when opponents went big and he had to switch, and he did a solid job.
What prevents Poeltl from getting an A+ are his lack of aggressiveness in the post and his horrendous free throw shooting. Jak rarely demands double teams, so it’s not his fault that he can’t create for others in the post, but if he’s single covered, he needs to be more determined to attack, as the coaching staff has asked him to be. Getting the ball, surveying the land, and then passing back out only eats seconds out of possessions. As for the free throw shooting, it might just be something he’ll struggle with his entire career, but after he shot 62 percent from the line after the All-Star break last season, expecting some progress seemed rational. Alas, he followed the same pattern this season and regressed overall, which was a little disappointing.
The Spurs are lucky to have such a good starting center that only suffers against very specific matchups. There are, however, two factors that might give them some pause when it comes to penciling him in for the spot for the next five years: his age and his next contract.
Poeltl is entering the last year of what was a fantastic value deal for San Antonio. Players that have his impact simply don’t get just seven figures in the NBA. The problem is, would a traditional center be worth double the $9.4 million Poeltl will make next season? Because his contract could easily reach the Clint Capela level in the $15 million/year range, or possibly even Steven Adams in the $20 millions. Even those who think he’d absolutely be worth it, which is a perfectly reasonable position to take, have to worry about whether he fits the timeline of the rest of the team.
He’s very close in age to Dejounte Murray, which helps, but the Spurs could use a younger big man who can grow with the rest of the young core. If, for example, they find one in this upcoming draft, does that make Poeltl expendable in a trade similar to the one that sent Derrick White to Boston? We know they at least entertained some offers for him last season.
For now, it’s comforting to know that Poelt will almost surely be around next season. Even if the Spurs are in no rush to get back to contention and he eventually gets moved before they get there, he’s clearly incredibly helpful in the immediate future. His defense erases a lot of mistakes made by less experienced teammates, and his improving offense allows others to not overextend themselves.
Sometimes the worst thing rebuilding teams can do is overthink things or look too far down the road. When it comes to players that have proven to be as valuable as Poeltl, keeping them around for as long as its justifiable to do so is likely the right thing to do.