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NBA: Raptors need more from former Utes star Jakob Poeltl

First Published      Last Updated Jul 14 2017 10:20 pm


NBA » Former Ute started four games for Toronto last season.

Las Vegas • Jakob Poeltl caught the pass awkwardly, shifted his balance and braced himself.

He encountered Caleb Swanigan in the lane, and the former University of Utah star knew he was too far from the basket to dunk over the Portland Trail Blazers rookie. So Poeltl deftly Eurostepped past Swanigan and swished a soft floater from 10 feet.

An audible murmur made its way through Cox Pavilion. The big man is growing up.

"I felt like I had that kind of footwork last year, but I wouldn't try it in games," Poeltl said. "I think I've become a lot more comfortable this summer in my movements and knowing what I can and can't do on the floor. I want to be able to make improvements and have it translate to summer league. That's what it's for, trying to expand your game."




Poeltl, who is entering his second season with the Toronto Raptors, showed some of that Thursday night. The 7-foot-1 center scored 10 points and grabbed six rebounds against the Blazers. He shot 5 of 6 from the field on limited touches — Toronto coaches said the team fell in love too much with the 3-pointer in the game. But Poeltl was a force defensively at the rim, where he blocked or altered several shots. He made multiple nice passes to cutting teammates for baskets.

This is an important summer for Poeltl, whom the Raptors made the ninth pick in the 2016 draft. He was up and down in his rookie season, making his way into coach Dwane Casey's rotation then falling out toward the end of the season. He played in 54 games, starting four. He averaged 3.1 points and 3.1 rebounds over 11 minutes a game. He showed some of the skill and instinct that made him an All-American with the Utes and a wanted commodity in the draft.

But now the Raptors want more from Poeltl. They need more. Toronto needs someone who can protect the rim. The Raptors have a void in their frontcourt, and they are hoping Poeltl can fill it next season.

"We think he's going to be important to us, and we're invested in his development," Casey said. "Jakob has made huge strides rebounding the ball. Defensively, he's doing a much better job getting where he needs to be. He needs to continue to get stronger. The league is physical, but he's made a lot of improvement. He's someone that we need."

Poeltl isn't at the top of Toronto's depth chart. Jonas Valanciunas is the starter at center, while Serge Ibaka is the starter at power forward. Those two combined make a touch over $35 million.

But Valanciunas is proving to be sort of a dinosaur in today's NBA. He's a back-to-the-basket big man who does his best work wrestling on the block with other big men. He's a great rebounder, and his physicality gets opposing bigs in foul trouble.

Valanciunas, however, offers very little in the way of shotblocking and is a liability defending the pick and roll. And Casey favors an offense built around guards Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.

So Poeltl potentially can steal minutes from Valanciunas. Key backup big man Patrick Patterson left the Raptors in free agency, as did PJ Tucker, who also played some power forward. The path to consistent minutes is there for Poeltl.

"He's such a smart player, and that's a big strength for him," Casey said. "He was well coached at Utah, and now I think we are seeing some of those things transfer to the NBA."

Poeltl's summer has been busy. He went home to Austria for a few weeks to visit friends and family following the season. Then he went to Germany and worked out for a few weeks with his shooting coach.

He says the game is slowing down for him, so he knows what to expect when he makes a move on a defender and can come up with countermoves.

The Eurostep against Swanigan was an example of that. He would've been thwarted by Swanigan's defense last year. This time he found a way around it.

"I've been working a lot on my shooting and on my game in general," Poeltl said. "I think it's been all about just putting the work in. It's hard to tell the progress. I want to see at the start of next season, when I have something to compare it to. But I think I've been working pretty good so far. I'm looking forward to next season."

tjones@sltrib.com Twitter: @tribjazz

 

AT A GLANCE

Jakob Poeltl

» Averaging 14.7 points and 10 rebounds a game in the Las Vegas Summer League before Thursday’s loss to the Portland Trail Blazers.

» Projects as Toronto’s backup center this coming season.

» Averaged 3.1 points and 3.1 rebounds in 54 games with the Raptors last season.

» Was an All-American at the University of Utah.


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