The first Austrian born NBA player has made quite an impression through his first few games with the Toronto Raptors’ Summer League team. Jakob Poeltl has displayed a variety of skills during his stint in Las Vegas, particularly what he is capable of as the anchor to a defence, while also leaving plenty to the imagination, as he has found himself in a guard-dominated offence with plenty of experienced and aggressive talent surrounding him.
This past season, the Raptors made a conscious decision to switch their defensive scheme when responding to pick and rolls that start at the sideline and aim to go towards the middle of the floor. Specifically, they adjusted from primarily hedging and recovering to what is commonly referred to as ICE defence. In theory, this should benefit large seven-footers such as Jonas Valanciunas and Poeltl.
For those unfamiliar with how ICE defence looks on the court, he’s a quick on-court diagram
Poeltl appears to be a mixed bag in this area. His issues generally stem from flawed timing and awareness, where he either finds himself leaving the probing ball handler a beat too early or “shows” far too high and gets burned by the speedy guard dribbling downhill. Both of these issues produce similar results in that they allow the ball handler to turn-the-corner and force Poeltl to start chasing. This causes a tertiary defender, slotted away from the two-man pick and roll action, to leave their assignment and rotate towards the ball. This inevitably creates open looks along the perimeter. At that point, it depends how well the scrambling and recovering defenders can make up for the advantage they have given to the offence, as well as how well can the offence execute (in Summer League, the answer is generally “not well”, but during the regular season that flips).
That compilation has some positives, as Poeltl is able to rotate and protect the rim nicely on one of the drives after failing to execute his job as a big-man in ICE defence. Mostly, his mistakes in this area were covered up by poor offensive players not being able to execute on his missteps. This isn’t to say he is a complete failure or liability as a defender in ICE, he’s just a mixed bag who also showed some flashes, just not as often.
When he executes, he shows proper footwork and timing by not allowing the ball handler to get a clear lane or angle on the baseline to find an open shooter along the perimeter. Instead, he is able to wall off the paint and in this instance, nearly forced a turnover.
ICE defence has become the most common way to defend pick and rolls since Tom Thibodeau revolutionized the way teams think on that end of the floor, but it is still a common occurrence that the defence is unable to deny the middle. In those instances, Poeltl had a much better showing, as he was able to display his above average lateral quickness, as well as his large frame that negated any simple attempts towards the rim.
Poeltl’s comfort level when the on-ball defender was unable to force the ball handler away from the middle of the floor actually rose, which is unusual for players of his size. Typically they are picked apart by speedier guards, but Poeltl was able to angle his body well enough to impede straight line drives to the rim. Additionally, his filled out frame had offensive players bouncing off of him. Poeltl either stayed grounded while contesting shots in a Duncan-esque way, which allowed for good rebounding position without fouling, or jumped to block any passing lanes.
His positioning was generally stellar in these instances, angling his body and feet so offensive players had no viable option to the walled off paint.
High Pick and Rolls – Showing High
The last scenario where Poeltl defended pick and rolls came out of possessions where the ball handler started high and in the middle of the floor. Centers are usually vulnerable in scenarios such as these, as they have to find the proper balance for positioning. They need to be high enough and near the screen so the freed up ball handler doesn’t launch a three off the dribble, while also not setting themselves up to be blown by. Poeltl’s confidence in his lateral quickness allows him to be far more aggressive than the typical seven-footer and it provides a clear advantage.
Poeltl’s positioning finds him high enough to meet the ball handler as they come over the screen so to not allow them space to shoot from the perimeter. When the ball handler attempts to drive against Poeltl, he keeps up in the footrace and meets them at the rim, forcing tough looks or blocked shots. As a result, most ball handlers got rid of the ball as Poeltl showed high after they used the screen. Poeltl was able to recover well to his original defensive assignment, the screening and now rolling big man. His ability to recover so quickly and efficiently allowed for him to be in prime rebounding and rim protecting position.
There were some rare occasions where Poeltl negotiated the screen poorly with his on-ball defender and ended up putting himself on the wrong side of the screen to defend the ball handler. This allowed for some straight line drives. It happened only a handful of time, but it is still worth mentioning as an area he can improve in.
Coach Dwane Casey remarked after the draft that he was very impressed with Poeltl’s “speed and agility,” especially during his pre-draft workout doing cone-based drills. That aspect has immediately translated for Poeltl, especially when he is able to defend in space. If he can continue his ascension in this aspect of defending, he might be able to include himself in a rare category of seven-footers who will not be abused by high pick and rolls in the middle of the floor, especially when facing the off-the-bounce, three-point threats that have taken over the point guard position.
Rim Protection and Rotation
Poeltl’s ability to defend the rim during Las Vegas Summer League has been impressive. Aside from hovering around two blocks per game, his ability to properly position himself and slide into prime real estate in the paint has been striking in the most boring way possible. Poeltl does not jump from one side of the lane to the other, or use incredible length and explosiveness to block shots. He doesn’t possess the hops that DeAndre Jordan has, but to compensate for that he plays the game away from the ball and a few steps ahead. He’s proven to be quite good at sniffing out the decoy action on his side of the floor while attentively searching to find position for the real attack.
Poeltl can stand straight and raise his arms while hopping at the last optimal moment, as to not give up the valuable positioning he worked hard for seconds prior. Sometimes, he just puts his body well in front of the oncoming player to take a charge, or dissuade the drive from coming at all. While his jumping ability is not striking in the least, his fast-twitch reactions are impressive. Chances are that any put-back attempts will be caught by his hands before they reach the rim.
This aspect of defending is not incredibly important or prevalent when speaking in relative terms to the other scenarios touched on prior, but Poeltl seems to be fine here. Small sample size, as he hasn’t defended many possessions one-on-one in the post, but he’s held his own. Not incredible or a world-beater by any means, but it doesn’t seem like a weakness either. Most notably, he doesn’t appear to give away good post position prior to the entry pass and seems to frustrate inexperienced post players into passing out if they can’t abuse him early.
Jakob Poeltl is a very low-usage player in the Raptors Summer League offence. Delon Wright and Norman Powell take the reigns on that end of the floor and are very aggressive, so while Poeltl is involved and active in the offence, it doesn’t translate to a high volume of points, shots or even touches. His offensive contributions at this point are very modest in relation to his importance and production on the defensive end. Still, there are certainly takeaways from the offensive side of the floor for the Austrian rookie.
Here's an updated look at how players selected in the 1st round of the 2016 Draft have fared in the Summer Leagues. pic.twitter.com/7bqoTaJel0
— Synergy Sports Tech (@SynergySST) July 17, 2016
Through the first round of the 2016 playoffs, the Toronto Raptors’ starting center, Jonas Valanciunas, dominated the Indiana Pacers by attacking the offensive glass in a cerebral fashion. Poeltl, while nowhere near as dominant, has shown similar flashes of analyzing the floor around him to decide when to pounce for an offensive rebound.
In the first clip, the Summer League Raptors run a pet play that the Regular Season Raptors love to use to end a quarter or half, called “Horns Flare” When executed properly, the recovering big man will scatter across the floor and let his primary assignment, in this case Poeltl, dive to the rim without any back-line defender to box him out. Poeltl, understanding that a fundamental advantage of two defenders being drawn to the ball, dives to the rim and carves out space to put himself into prime offensive rebounding position. Throughout his time in Las Vegas, Poeltl has made a point of establishing position under the rim when an advantage has been gained somewhere else on the court. His sticky hands pluck balls away from the rim and he has a good sense of when to go for a putback or to reset the offence.
Teams are moving away from offensive rebounding, as they feel the scale tips more positively in favour of transition defence. But when you have an opportunistic rebounder such as Poeltl, who doesn’t wildly dive under the rim without reason, it is much easier to allow for your big man to have the freedom to decide for themselves when to attack the offensive glass.
The few times Poeltl has gotten the ball in the post with the intention to score or make decisions, he has shown promise. Although the sample size is small, he typically has been able to make his way into the paint once the entry pass has been made. He has trouble creating good post position for himself before the catch, but once he has the ball in his hands he is pretty effective at getting within scoring range.
The Raptors typically tried to feed him out of their SLOB (Sideline Out of Bounds) “Zipper” set. Instead of Poeltl setting a screen after the ball handler makes a zipper-cut above the arc, he’d veer back to his original side of the floor and try to get post position. After an entry pass, the Raptors typically ran a split cut above him to disallow for any off-ball defenders to try and “dig” into the post.
Poeltl doesn’t get sped up in the post and is a calm presence down low. It remains to be seen how efficient he will be scoring the ball when dumping it to him in the low block, but he has shown a couple of nice counters.
Additionally, he has the ability to pass from the post, something which took another Raptors center three years to grasp. Poeltl’s vision is not otherworldly on the low block, but it’s not a weakness either. That seems to be the case for all of Poeltl’s post play – he’s not bad, but also isn’t a world-beater. He’s shown enough to continue to be intrigued and seeing how he develops will be interesting, especially if/when teams decide to switch against him in the pick and roll.
Pick and Roll/Screening
This may come as a shock to many of you, but a Toronto Raptor screen-setter did not typically see the ball on his rolls to the rim. There are a variety of reasons as to why this is happening, but it’s mainly due to Wright and Powell being very aggressive with the ball in their hands – and rightfully so. Both were experienced players in their first Summer League and now both of them look almost comically over-qualified to even appear in Las Vegas competition. It’s natural that both would drive to the rim and attempt to score more than dish to the big man who freed them.
With that in mind, it’s really difficult to know if he is effective as a finisher/decision maker in pick and roll situations. It doesn’t mean he is bad or good, it’s just the almost complete absence of information to know either way.
He’s had a handful of possessions (and a handful might be a liberal estimate) where he’s received a pass after setting a pick and had to make a decision as a roller, whether that be a quick finish or to dish it off in a pseudo four-on-three. Again, it is important to stress the fact that there is so little information, it is the furthest thing from a certain conclusion about whether he will be an effective pick and roll finisher. That goes for everything in Summer League, but especially in this area.
That being said, Poeltl has a positive impact as a screener, regardless of his touches. Early on in Summer League, I thought he had a lot of trouble setting meaningful, flesh-on-flesh screens that would allow for Powell and Wright to get separation. He quickly eased into things and showed that screening is a place where he can succeed in the offence. He is Spursian in his ability to read on-ball defenders to know when to flip a screen at the perfect moment to catch an aggressive defender by surprise. Even though he doesn’t really see the ball when he rolls to the rim, the defence reacts as if he is a threat to finish anyways, which helps off-ball perimeter Raptors get more space to release a shot against a defender who is closing out after sucking into the paint to “tag” Poeltl.
Last thing of note for Poeltl’s screening is that because he has such a mature and filled out frame, any wide pindown where the defender tries to “shoot the gap” is an automatic open look for Raptor guards. There is no way off-ball defenders are getting back into the play after trying to cheat with him as a screener, he’s just too big.
While Jakob Poeltl has shown different aspects of his game in which he thrives, as well as some areas where further development is understandably still necessary, he has ultimately been a low-usage player. This is worth noting as the analysis of his game might lean in an overwhelmingly positive lens as he is not put in a position where he is forced to do many things he is bad at, particularly on offence. There is value in a player knowing his limits (or not being expected to push the boundaries of those limits) but it is still important to consider.
With all that in mind, Poeltl has shown that there is plenty to be excited for in the future of the young Austrian, whether that be with the big club or in Mississauga.Follow @raptorsrepublic