Film Study: Big Jak’s Big Game

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The Spurs started the fourth quarter on Friday night staring down the barrel of their third straight loss.

LeBron dropped 20 points on them in the fourth quarter just two nights before at Staples Center, and this time he had a ten point lead to work with. In San Antonio, however, the fourth quarter belonged to Jakob Poeltl. The Spurs’ seven footer scored 10 points, grabbed 4 boards, and blocked 3 shots in the period to lead the comeback, and left the floor to a standing ovation.

The trade of Danny Green and that other guy to Toronto netted Poeltl and DeRozan, who had a stellar night himself with 36 points and 11 in the final stanza. The 23-year-old certainly flew under the radar considering the conditions of his arrival in San Antonio, but Air Austria is starting to take off.

Outside of Pau Gasol and Boban Marjanovic, the Spurs haven’t had a legit 7’0” center since Francisco Elson in 2008. He averaged 3.7 points per game in his career, and apparently somehow earned the nickname “Geico”. The most recent resident of San Antonio who you can compare Poeltl to is 6’11” Tiago Splitter, who helped Pop win his last championship as a roll man and rim protector.

Poeltl seems to be learning his role in the Spurs’ system a bit more quickly than Splitter did. In December, he’s averaging 9.6 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 1.4 blocks per game in 18.1 minutes. In Splitter’s most productive season in 2012-13, he averaged a remarkably similar line of 10.3 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.6 assists, and 0.8 blocks in 24.7 minutes.

Much like Splitter, Poeltl is a big man with deft touch around the rim. He uses a beautiful finger roll finish more often than he dunks, so much so that some people (me) have taken to calling him Jakob Gervin. The German translation of Iceman is just Iceman, apparently.

Poeltl showed a nuanced understanding of the pick and roll multiple times in the fourth quarter on Friday night. He set hard screens and forced the ball defender to go over, which forced the center to double team. Then, he simply cut through the open lane he had created and finished through help defense.

Davis Bertans had a huge fourth quarter as well, draining four triples. The Latvian Laser is a knockdown shooter, and Poeltl set him up nicely in this period with screens off the ball and excellent decision making as the pivot point of the offense.

Poeltl played his role perfectly on offense, but he was even better on the defensive end of the floor where these Spurs have struggled so mightily. When the perimeter defense fails, as it does so often, it’s comforting to know that Big Jak will be there to protect the rim.

Poeltl even has the size and quickness to stay in front of multiple opponents slashing to the basket. He can stay down, contain actions with two players, and react to contest the shot whenever it comes, and from whomever.

Like any seven footer, Poeltl will have some trouble guarding smaller guys on the perimeter. However, he can still be relied upon to close out on and defend big men who can shoot the three, like fellow Utah Ute Kyle Kuzma.

The same LeBron who scored 20 points in the fourth quarter two nights before mustered just four points on 1/6 shooting this time. His entire team could only score 21 points in the last quarter, and that’s the power of Big Jak.

Pau Gasol will end up in the Hall of Fame, but he’s in the twilight of his career and is currently sidelined with a broken foot. LaMarcus Aldridge is a 33-year-old power forward doing his best to play center. Jakob Poeltl can do the dirty work of screening, rebounding, rolling, and anchoring the defense. Pop hasn’t played him much with Aldridge lately, but LA would definitely benefit from playing even a few minutes at his natural position.

Last month, Big Jak talked to me about settling into the Spurs’ system and learning from Pau, LaMarcus, and Timmy. With San Antonio struggling the way that they are, he couldn’t have picked a better time to figure it all out. Poeltl will never be the featured scorer, but he’s demonstrated great proficiency at a job that Gregg Popovich needs done.

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