Utah basketball: Jakob Poeltl seeks opportunity to grow with Utes
If you want to see March Madness in Austria, you have to be dedicated.
It means staying up to the wee hours of the morning, watching a flickering computer screen and hoping that the streaming video doesn't break or hiccup.
Jakob Poeltl, an 18-year-old 7-foot center from Austria, stayed up as long as he could watching NCAA tournament games, and for the rest, he devoured recaps in the morning. Watching and reading about college basketball only builds his anxiety as he prepares to leave his hometown of Vienna, fly more than 5,500 miles and join the Utes this fall.
"I heard they used to be a pretty good college for basketball, but they've had a drought." Poeltl told The Salt Lake Tribune. "Hopefully I can help them go back to the tournament. It would be good for the whole college."
The European big man committed to Utah on Monday, and the school officially announced his signing on Friday. With the addition, coach Larry Krystkowiak adds a mobile, multifaceted center who excelled at rebounding and defending while shooting over 72 percent from the field at Austria's highest level of basketball.
The Utes have players with more prestige in a highly touted 2014 recruiting class, as Poeltl joins Brekkott Chapman, Kyle Kuzma, Isaiah Wright and Chris Reyes. But though the Austrian is something of an enigma to Americans unlike many prospects, a search for his name doesn't turn up a dozen YouTube highlight videos the Utes think he could be a valuable piece down the road as the program looks to contend.
"Over the past year he has been playing against men, so he is a little more seasoned as far as level of competition," Krystkowiak said in a statement. "Adding Jakob, a coveted big man, to our mix of international players, is something we feel is a blueprint to success in the Pac-12."
For Poeltl, joining the Utes is an equally promising opportunity.
At every level in Austria, Poeltl has succeeded. He won a U-16 championship with his youth club, the Vienna DC Timberwolves, and was twice was named league MVP. This past year, he was an all-star in the Budesliga for the Arkadia Traiskirchen Lions.
His size and mobility have made him a budding star in his native country, but so has his workmanlike approach to the game. Timberwolves coach Hubert Schmidt started coaching Poeltl when he was 13, and though there are players who stayed in the gym longer, no one focused on making the most of his time quite like Poeltl.
"Back then, you could see he had potential, but it was not like everybody saw he would become that good," Schmidt said. "He's just a quick learner. He's very intelligent, and he can add more things regarding moves when you teach him."
He is the son of two standout volleyball players mother Martina Poeltl played on the national volleyball team. He was taught discipline and work ethic at a young age. Schmidt remembers the Poeltls never as overbearing, but always supportive, gracefully pushing their son to practice hard, eat right, and study.
All of Poeltl's former coaches mention that he is extremely coordinated and mobile for his size. It's allowed him to be a precocious talent. In exhibitions against first division teams when he was 15, Schmidt said, there wasn't an obvious mismatch when he was playing grown men twice his age. Making his debut in the first division this past fall, he scored 18 points without missing a shot.
At 18, Poeltl is already, according to Schmidt, "one of the two or three best big men" in Austria, and he's the second-tallest player in the league. To grow, he needs to move on. Poeltl said Krystkowiak's experience as an NBA power forward was a big draw for him to choose the Utes.
"I think he could help me develop my game, and basketball skills in general," he said. "It is definitely one of my goals to play in the NBA, but I don't know where I stand right now. The style is very different between Europe and college, and I want to see how I fit in."
Timberwolves president Wolfgang Horak said there are two roads to becoming a professional for a player with Jakob's talents: going to a more competitive Euroleague team, or heading to the States. The hope is that the skinny-framed Poeltl will develop his body and become a more complete offensive player.
Horak said there's a lot of excitement in the basketball community about Poeltl's future in Utah. And you can bet that next year, if the Utes get back to the Big Dance, dozens of aspiring young players will be up late, watching their computer monitors to see what one of Austria's most promising prospects can do.
"We are all amazed by Jakob," Horak said. "Many eyes will follow him."
Jakob Poeltl at a glance
• Averaged 12.7 points, 7.7 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game last season for the Arkadia Traiskirchen Lions.
• Two-time youth league MVP for Vienna DC Timberwolves.
• Captain of the U-18 Austrian national team last year, and was an all-tournament honoree.
• Son of two standout volleyball players. His mother, Martina Poeltl, played for the Austrian national team.