The San Antonio Spurs have historically been one of the most conservative and careful organizations in the NBA. So, when they agreed on a blockbuster deal with the Toronto Raptors to send Kawhi Leonard north of the border, fans couldn’t help but obsess over the swap.
Danny Green and DeMar DeRozan received heartfelt farewells from their respective franchises, Kawhi Leonard withstood the wrath of San Antonio’s animosity, and somehow Jakob Poeltl became the forgotten face of the memorable transaction.
It’s not as though he was some scrub clinging for dear life to a failing hoops dream. In fact, Poeltl was just a few years removed from being the 9th overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft.
Not to mention his resurgent sophomore campaign saw him flash signs of starting center material. Still, few fans recognized the name, and even fewer could pronounce it correctly.
Poeltl started the season off the bench and quickly found himself in head coach Gregg Popovich’s doghouse. The Austrian big man played fewer than 15 minutes in each of his first seven appearances and sat out of four of San Antonio’s first 11 games.
The Silver and Black’s newest acquisition battled inconsistency at every turn and struggled to gain minutes in the regular rotation. Jakob made his living in garbage time, and it began to feel like at least one half of San Antonio’s offseason gamble was destined to disappoint.
Then, in a string of untimely injuries, incumbent starting center Pau Gasol went down indefinitely with a stress fracture in his left foot. Gasol was averaging career-lows across the board, but his basketball IQ was invaluable for a young Spurs team in a season of monumental transitions.
Popovich had no other option but turn to his young seven-footer, and Poeltl answered his coach’s call to arms with his best play of the season. The 23-year-old had finally found his rhythm and steady minutes to boot.
Unfortunately for the former Utah University Ute, his newfound success was shortlived. Gasol made his full-time return to the lineup just 32 games later, and suddenly Poeltl became the odd man out once again.
Poeltl outplayed Gasol by nearly every metric, but he was rewarded for his efforts with meaningless minutes. As Jakob’s role diminished, so too did his production.
It wasn’t as if he was completely ineffective, but something had clearly changed. Fewer shots, fewer points, and fewer rebounds all pointed to a player losing confidence in himself.
Jakob Poeltl without Pau Gasol in the lineup (32 GP):
16.1 MPG, .638 FG%, 6.5 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 1.0 APG, 0.2 SPG, 0.8 BPG
Per 36: 14.5 PPG, 12.1 RPG, 2.2 APG, 0.4 SPG, 1.8 BPG
— Noah Magaro-George (@N_Magaro) February 19, 2019
Although Coach Pop made a change before the All-Star break began, the damage had already been done. With that in mind, Spurs fans should cast aside any worries of an impending positional battle between the two towering Europeans.
Per several reports, Gasol’s spike in floor time was possibly an under-the-radar attempt to showcase the Spaniard to potential buyers at the trade deadline. Nobody bit on Pau’s problematic contract and he’s since returned to the back end of the bench.
While the six-time All-Star desires to make an impact on the court, his best days are behind him. As for Poeltl, his career has yet to scratch the surface. And for that reason alone, San Antonio shouldn’t hesitate to put Pau on the backburner.
The league thrives on the fast-paced play of high-octane offenses, and Poeltl is the better fit. He may not shoot the ball or read the defense as well as his older counterpart, but he can run the floor and protect the rim much better than a rapidly aging Pau Gasol is capable of.
Only time will tell if the Silver and Black can help Poeltl recapture his form during the second leg of the season. At the very least, it appears Pop is dedicated to the development of the third-year center.
Jakob Poeltl doesn’t just play better when Gasol isn’t in the rotation, he’s an entirely different player. A player that can help the Spurs win now, and long into the future if they play their cards right.