Athletic big man Jakob Poeltl shines in post for Utah

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) In one fluid sequence Sunday, Jakob Poeltl showed why many talent evaluators are fawning over Utah's big man.

The 7-footer hedged on pick-and-roll defense and forced a Washington State ball handler almost out to midcourt. Poeltl then jumped the pass to the screener and stole the ball near the 3-point line. He beat every Cougar down court with three dribbles, and took off from the middle of the lane for a thunderous tomahawk dunk.

''I remember early on when I watched film of him playing in Austria as a young kid, I looked at the film and told our coaching staff there's no way in the world this guy's 7 feet tall,'' Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said. ''It's not very often that you get a 36-38 vertical jump with the kind of speed he has getting up and down the floor, combined with his size. That's pretty awesome. Good hands. In that one play you were able to put it all together.''

Poeltl could have easily entered the NBA draft last year after his freshman campaign. He wasn't quite ready for the league, but the NBA is all about potential and 7-footers with good hands and agile feet aren't found on every corner.

But Poeltl returned and has developed into one of the top centers in college basketball. He's been named Pac-12 player of the week three times and the Oscar Robertson national player of the week in January. His 17.8 points per game rank No. 2 in the Pac-12 and his 67.1 field goal percentage is No. 4 in the nation.

Poeltl is now a virtual lock to be selected in the lottery thanks to another year of development.

''I learn from experience,'' Poeltl said. ''I learn from playing against really good players.''

Poeltl's development has been delayed, in a way, compared to others his age. Growing up in Austria, he didn't receive the same type of coaching or face similar competition as in the United States.

Poeltl's basically been learning on the fly, so it makes sense that his biggest growth came last summer playing on the Austrian national team and at the Nike Basketball Academy.

''He's a special player because when he first came here he was just this frail, European guy,'' Utes senior Brandon Taylor said. ''I just thought look how tall this dude is. Jakob wasn't as dominant as he is now. (Now) he's one of the best big men there is out there and there's no ifs, ands or buts about it. When he makes his mind up to really go out there and give it his all, he's unstoppable.''

''I don't think he's even near his maximum level because he's not,'' Taylor added. ''That's the scary thing about him.''

That's the thing about Poeltl, he's extremely skilled for the collegiate level but there's a thought that it may take a couple years before he's ready to log major NBA minutes. He still needs to get stronger and can be bothered by physical play. The speed of the game is an adjustment for many players and it certainly will be for Poeltl. But scouts often look at big men as projects anyway. They play longer because they aren't so reliant on athleticism, but the development also takes longer.

ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said Poeltl doesn't fit the typical European stereotype.

''He's one of the truly elite big guys in the country,'' Bilas said. ''He's getting stronger and he's going to continue to get stronger. He's still a young player. So, where he is now isn't where he's ultimately going to be. And where he is now is awfully good.''

Opposing Pac-12 coaches have uttered a similar line when discussing Poeltl - we didn't have an answer for him. He's missed just 13 of 59 shots in the last six games. Poeltl became more decisive with his post moves over the summer and improved his free throw shooting.

''He's just a tough matchup,'' Oregon coach Dana Altman said. ''He's got great hands. His footwork is outstanding. ... His inside moves can go either way. Very good passer. We were able to limit his touches a little bit, but man when he got it, we sure didn't have an answer for it.''

Poeltl said he's adjusted his mindset to be more aggressive, but that doesn't mean putting up more shots. He doesn't think he'll ever be someone who takes 20 shots a game.

Poeltl doesn't like to go in depth about his NBA future, but he's not running from the conversation either.

''It's not my main focus, I'm trying to help out this team,'' Poeltl said. ''But just by being aggressive and doing my thing, I think I'm helping out this team and at the same time helping myself out for my future. It's kind of like a win-win situation.''