NEW YORK — When a 7-footer from Austria took the Pac-12 by storm, outperformed a gaggle of five-star recruits and emerged as a first-round NBA draft prospect, the responses from most college basketball fans—Who is this guy? I had no idea that he was this good—were predictable. But they weren’t the only ones who underestimated Jakob Poeltl. Count Larry Krystkowiak among those who didn’t think Poeltl would play so well as a freshman. The Utes coach visited Vienna twice to see Poeltl and had been impressed with his physical tools, but Krystkowiak did not envision Poeltl making such a smooth transition to the college game. “It was,” Krystkowiak said, “A pleasant surprise.”
Whatever expectations existed for Poeltl entering the 2014–15 season, he proceeded to blow them to smithereens. Now he’s defying forecasts again. On Saturday, Poeltl scored 19 points on 8 of 11 shooting and grabbed a game-high 14 rebounds to lead Utah to its best win so far this season, a 77–75 decision against No. 7 Duke that served as a rematch of the teams’ Sweet 16 matchup last March. Thanks in large part to Poeltl, the Utes are in line to earn back-to-back NCAA tournament berths for the first time since 2004–05 and stand as a legitimate contender to win the Pac-12 despite losing the player who guided them to one of the best campaigns in recent program history, senior guard Delon Wright, who was selected in the first round of the 2015 NBA draft in June.
Poeltl came close to following (or preceding) his teammate in hearing commissioner Adam Silver call his name from the stage at Barclays Center last summer. After rating out as one of the Pac-12’s best rebounders, shot blockers and interior scorers, Poeltl was projected as a possible lottery pick. Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix slotted him at No. 15 in his first mock draft last April. But Krystkowiak said he discussed with Poeltl the importance of being ready upon entry into the NBA, and making a decision that would allow him to “thrive” rather than “survive.” Said Krystkowiak, “I think we all knew Jakob was going to be a survivor, but it wasn’t about going into a heavyweight fight with Mike Tyson two years too early and getting pummeled, and then who knows what happens?”
Poeltl applied to the NBA Undergraduate Advisory Committee to get feedback on his draft stock but said he knew he wanted to “improve as a basketball player” and felt that there was a better chance that he could do that at Utah than with a new coach on a yet-to-be-determined NBA team. So, in what he called a “gut decision,” Poeltl announced in late April that he would return to Salt Lake City for another year, throwing his name alongside Providence guard Kris Dunn in the more surprising abstentions from the 2015 draft pool. Poeltl’s decision to stick around as a sophomore obviously has served Utah well this season, just as the Utes were better off in 2014–15 because he picked them over Pac-12 competitors Arizona and Cal.
But Utah’s success since Poeltl’s arrival stateside has not obscured his own positive trajectory. While players who eschew the draft for more Division I ball run the risk of stagnation and/or harsher appraisals from talent evaluators upon closer examination over a larger sample size, Poeltl is getting better.
After opting to stay at Utah, Poeltl spent this off-season trying to get stronger and sharpening certain facets of his offensive game. He put in plenty of hours in the weight room and says he got up to 250 pounds after arriving at Utah around 220–225, worked to improve his free throw shooting—he’s connecting on 65.3% of his tries from the line this season, up from 44.4% in 2014–15—and refined his back-to-the-basket repertoire. Krystkowiak said there were times when he thought that Poeltl was “playing too much of a speed game” in the post. The Utah coach and former NBA forward worked with Poeltl to improve his positioning and develop methods he could use to shake defenders. “He’s a lot more formidable down there,” Krystkowiak said.
Poeltl also participated in a tournament with the Austrian senior national team and turned heads with his performance at the Nike Basketball Academy—whose college roster also included Dunn, LSU’s Ben Simmons, Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine, Gonzaga’s Kyle Wiltjer, Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield and other stars—two experiences Poeltl said “really got me better as a basketball player, just because it was so competitive.”
The fruits of his off-season work are plain. Not only has Poeltl’s output in most statistical categories swelled (offensive rebounding percentage, free throw rate, true shooting percentage, assist percentage, among others), he’s kept the Utes on solid ground offensively—they rank 28th in points per possession after finishing 21st last season, according to Kenpom.com—even though their top scorer and possession-user (Wright) is gone. With one of the Pac-12’s premier perimeter playmakers out of the picture, Krystkowiak said he recalibrated the offense to make a paint-bound big man a focal point for the Utes. “Our system is much more oriented to getting the ball inside and playing off of him and taking advantage of his abilities,” Krystkowiak said. He added, “We don’t even run a lot of the stuff we ran a year ago.”
Poeltl has taken well to the increased workload. He’s scoring more efficiently while using more possessions than last season, committing fewer turnovers and and ranks among college basketball’s most effective post scorers. According to data from Synergy Sports, Poeltl came into this game averaging 1.18 points per possession on post-ups, good for eighth among major conference players who had logged at least 25 post-up possessions. (Poeltl’s post-scoring efficiency from 2014-15, 0.83 PPP, is also shown.)
On Saturday, Poeltl went to work against a Duke frontline thinned by the absence of Amile Jefferson, who is expected to be sidelined at least a month after fracturing his foot diving for a loose ball during a practice. Without Jefferson, one of Duke’s top defenders and rebounders, and with five-star freshman Chase Jeter still getting limited minutes (he played only six Saturday)—coach Mike Krzyzewski described him as a “young guy”—the Blue Devils were left mixing and matching with perimeter players in the frontcourt and rolling out funky small-ball lineups, including units in which Ingram, a skinny, 6'9", 190-pound wing, was Duke’s biggest player. The 6'5" Matt Jones served as Duke’s nominal four man at times.
Given the state of the Blue Devils rotation, Marshall Plumlee, a lumbering 7-footer pressed into a bigger role this season following the departure of Jahlil Okafor to the NBA, represented their best counter for Poeltl. “It’s a position where we have no depth, or no experienced depth,” Krzyzewski said, adding that “we’re a much different team” without Jefferson. Duke got some help when Poeltl was called for a questionable foul, his second, with a little more than four minutes remaining in the first half, a reprieve that dealt the Blue Devils a more favorable matchup, size-wise, around the basket (Poeltl then picked up his third foul less than two minutes into the second half). But in the 28 minutes he did play, Poeltl repeatedly gashed Duke inside and flaunted an offensive game that extends beyond post ups.
With just over two minutes remaining in overtime, Poeltl flashed to the right elbow, faced up Plumlee, took one dribble with his left hand and laid the ball off the glass. That sequence came shorly after Poeltl put it on the floor and pulled up from the free throw line to give the Utes a five-point lead.
How far can Utah take Poeltl this season? He’s going to need some help. The Utes have fallen to two of the three top-40 Kenpom opponents (Miami and Wichita State) they’ve faced so far, including a blowout loss to the Shockers on December 12 in which the Shockers limited Poeltl to 11 points in 31 minutes and none of his teammates scored in double figures. That 0.85 points-per-possession dud not withstanding, the Utes have been O.K. on offense without Wright around to run the show. Poeltl is converting inside, drawing fouls at a favorable rate and cashing in at the stripe more frequently than last season, and even when teams double him in the post, Poeltl is savvy enough to pivot away from the pressure and fling the ball out to an open shooter.
Mike Schmitz, a video scout for DraftExpress, pointed to Poeltl’s “natural feel” and patience. “He’s going to wait until cutters cut through and help defenders kind of clear out before he attacks,” said Schmitz, whose site pegs Poeltl at No. 9 in its latest 2016 mock draft. “I think that’s something that he’s really improved upon.” This season Poeltl is doing basically all of his damage from close range; more than 88% of his field goal attempts have come at the basket, according to hoop-math.com, he’s attempted 0 shots between 17 feet and the three-point line, per Synergy, and has yet to let fly from behind the arc. But Poeltl said he would like to improve his jump shooting, because he feels that he’s pretty “one-sided” offensively.
Schmitz doesn’t rule out the possibility that Poeltl, whose improved free throw percentage augurs well for his shooting accuracy, could eventually extend his range. “I think he’s a guy who has some natural touch,” Schmitz said. “So I wouldn’t be completely shocked if he’s somebody who can step it out to 15–16 feet and at least give you a little bit more spacing.”
Poeltl is propping up Utah’s offense, but the Utes have slipped on the other end of the floor. Entering Saturday opponents were hitting an abnormally high percentage (41.3) of their threes against Utah; that number could come down over time. Yet they were still permitting 43.1% shooting inside the arc, good for 47th in the country compared to fifth last season—despite Poeltl’s rim protection and sound ball-screen coverage. Utah can tout its lottery-ticketed big man all it wants, but he won’t be able to carry his teammates to another 25-plus win mark and second-weekend tourney date unless the Utes tighten the screws protecting their own basket. They opened Saturday ranked 116th in adjusted defensive efficiency after finishing sixth in 2014–15, per Kenpom.
This win offers reason for optimism. A Duke team that had been leading the nation in adjusted points per possession managed only 0.95 PPP, its lowest output since a Nov. 17 loss to Kentucky (0.94). Poeltl blocked three shots, guard Lorenzo Bonam swatted four, and the Utes did well to contest around the rim, limiting the Blue Devils to 30.6% shooting inside the arc.
To be fair, the Blue Devils’ best scorer, Grayson Allen, was battling the flu, and Krzyzewski said afterward that he “wasn’t sure if [Allen] was going to play.” In 37 minutes, Allen went 3 of 18 from the field. Duke also felt Jefferson’s absence on the offensive end. Unable to lean on their elite glass-cleaner to extend possessions, the Blue Devils rebounded only 27.1% of their misses, well below their season mark entering Saturday (41.7) and considerably less than Utah in this game (37.1). But the biggest reason Duke labored offensively was simpler than that: it missed shots. The Blue Devils connected on only eight of their 28 three-point tries, missed a number of decent looks inside the arc, and yet they still almost won because of a series of Utah miscues—including Bonam fouling Duke’s Luke Kennard on a made trey—late in overtime.
Afterward, Poeltl said he thought it was a “very, very emotional win—a great win, in my opinion, especially because we didn’t play great lately.” Even if Utah can’t come close to replicating its defensive standing from last season, Poeltl gives it a shot to compete at the top of the Pac-12 with seemingly no clear favorite. The three teams that lead the conference in point differential, when adjusted for strength of schedule, rank between 26th and 31st in the country.
Classifying a college player’s decision on whether to leave early for the NBA as “good” or “bad” (or offering advice along those lines) is reductive. There are a host of factors at play in each case, and none of them are too simple to encapsulate with one word. Reporters in the press room chuckled when Krystkowiak said that Poetl “made the right decision to come back and he needs to make the same decision next year.” In any case, the results of Poeltl’s choice so far, defined with broad strokes, are positive: He’s improving and Utah is a better team because of it.