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The Problem With Poeltl

This piece will be short and simple.  I know, a rarity for me, for whom a Header should be a minimum of three sentences long.  The point will merely be to explain why I am relatively down on Jakob Poeltl.

Especially when Jakob Poeltl seems a surefire NBA player.  A guy with a future somewhere between a journey Center and a Top 30 player.  Poeltl certainly shouldn’t fret about my misgivings.  Odds are he’s going to make a lot of money.

Then what’s the problem?

The problem is the other players he’s going to play against.  Let’s list them with their ages:

  1. Anthony Davis, Age 23.  (Davis will likely be a close to full-time Center within the next 3-4 years.  At least if his body can handle it, and he has a smart coach.)
  2. Karl-Anthony Towns, Age 20.
  3. Joel Embiid, Age 22.
  4. Kristaps Porzingis, Age 20.
  5. Nikola Jokic, Age 21.
  6. Rudy Gobert, Age 23.
  7. Myles Turner, Age 20.
  8. DeAndre Jordan, Age 27.
  9. Andre Drummond, Age 22.
  10. Derrick Favors, 23.
  11. DeMarcus Cousins, 25.
  12. Hassan Whiteside, 26.
  13. Gorgui Dieng, 26.
  14. Al Horford, 29.
  15. Joakim Noah, 31.
  16. Steven Adams, 22.
  17. Robin Lopez, 28.
  18. Tristan Thompson, 25.
  19. LaMarcus Aldridge, 30.
  20. Cody Zeller, 23.
  21. Nerlens Noel, 22.
  22. Willie Cauley-Stein, 22.
  23. Clint Capela, 21.
  24. Marc Gasol, 30.
  25. Festus Ezeli, 26.
  26. Ian Mahinmi, 29.

Obviously, this list is not in a specific order.  Just writing down names of guys who could play center at they came to me.  On top of that, this list is not even including good and very good players like Andrew Bogut, Dwight Howard, Brook Lopez, Marcin Gortat, Mason Plumlee, Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk, Ed Davis or Jonas Valanciunas, or guys with potential like Jusuf Nurkic, Jahlil Okafor, Mitch McGary, Chinanu Onuaku, Dragan Bender and Jonathon Jeanne, or guys not yet in college like Jarrett Allen, DeAndre Ayton, Mohamed Bamba, Marvin Bagley III, at least a couple of whom will likely play Center at the NBA level.

Then there’s guys who will retire this year or the next (or maybe never) like Tim Duncan or Kevin Garnett.  (Thank you both, for being awesome.)  I merely bring them up to make a logical bridge to the next point:  Good to great Centers play forever, often at a high level.  And great Power Forwards often become very good Centers in old age.

So now ask yourself, which of these players do you think Jakob Poeltl is going to be better than?  Some of them, probably.  But how many?  And how long are you going to have to wait for that to happen?  Will another crop of Centers enter the league in the meantime?

Jakob Poeltl stats

These are Jakob Poeltl’s per 100 stats.  (Thank you Sports-Reference.com)  He’s certainly “A Tale of Two Seasons” Player.  All defense and rolling to the basket as a Freshman.  All offense and nominal center duties as a sophomore.  Beyond that, he became a pretty good passer.  That in itself is a very promising development.

So yes, it’s wholly possible I’m wrong, that Poeltl will become the defensive Player he looked like at times during his Freshman season.  Or better than that, a two-way force.  However, we still have to consider that the fiscal incentives of the league still, at least to some degree, probably favor offensive development over defensive development.    And also the evidence from this past season which suggests Poeltl might not be able to do both.

If that’s the case, you’re drafting a player who’s very likely going to be a Playoff disadvantage for you at some point, even with an excellent outcome.   In the wrong Playoff series, maybe even unplayable.   Since there’s no place for a Center to go if he’s got a bad match-up, no way to hide him.  He’s already the last line of defense.

We saw this happen with Andrew Bogut, by most measures an excellent NBA player, last year vs. Cleveland.  We also saw a similar though not identical situation the first time the Spurs played the Heat in the Finals.  It became evident fairly quickly that playing Tiago Splitter was basically a no-go proposition. We saw it happen for Poeltl himself in college when he played vs Domantas Sabonis, or when he played vs. Oregon’s front line, which not coincidentally featured a tall-lithe Center in Chris Boucher, who has both movement skills and some three point shooting ability.

Here are two of Oregon’s Three Offensive Box Scores vs. Utah, plus that of Gonzaga:

Screen Shot 2016-04-28 at 10.24.03 PM

Let’s forget Brooks and Dorsey.  Notice Chris Boucher and Jordan Bell’s overall success in scoring (15 points on 9 shots) and on defense.  5 blocks, 4 steals, 24 points.  Boucher 3/4 on threes.

Screen Shot 2016-04-28 at 10.23.19 PM

Again, let’s forget Dillon Brooks.  Again, note Chris Boucher and Jordan Bell’s overall success.  25 points on 14 shots.  2 threes for Boucher.  6 blocks.

Screen Shot 2016-04-28 at 10.25.17 PM

And now, Sabonis and Gonzaga.  19 points on 12 shots.  A three.  10 boards.  3 assists.  2 steals, 1 block.  That’s a huge game and Poeltl, besides nice pass or two, was virtually a no-show.

So what will Poeltl do, for instance, when Golden State plays Draymond Green against him?  Or when he has to guard Karl-Anthony Towns or Kristaps Porzingis inside and on the perimeter?  These are nightmare situations for almost any team.  But especially if you are building around a potentially flawed player as the Center piece of your team’s defense.

Isn’t that the important question to answer here?  Is Poeltl a flawed player?  Or more importantly, will he continue to be one into the future?  Do you believe Poeltl can be an elite defender at the NBA level?  And by that I mean, do you think he can be as good or better than the other players who play his position?  Karl-Anthony Towns?  Rudy Gobert?  DeAndre Jordan?  Marc Gasol?  Al Horford?  Steven Adams?  Hassan Whiteside?  Joel Embiid?  Nerlens Noel?  Nikola Jokic?  LaMarcus Aldridge?  Etc . . . Where is he going to fall on this continuum?


Kaiser Lindeman

6 thoughts on “The Problem With Poeltl

  1. Your point about ranking Poeltl’s potential within the context of centers already in the league reinforces just how deep the position has become, and how much the position has changed with the closer three point line.

    I’ve got a soft spot for Poeltl because I like his disposition and bball IQ. I’m curious whether his “tale of two seasons” where he seemed to show better defensively as a freshman and better offensively as a sophomore could be interpreted more positively if the changes are viewed as a function of different role and an attempt to address perceived weaknesses.

    I went and watched the preseason weaknesses video done by Draftexpress and was impressed by how Poeltl seemed to have dealt with the weaknesses they pointed out in his game. Whether it was footwork in the post, passing ability, having more variety of moves on the block, he seems to have consciously targeted those weaknesses. That quality of deliberately targeting his own weaknesses could be a positive indicator for his ability to continue to improve in the league.

    Is it possible that the defensive potential he showed more as a freshman could still be there latent, but unattended to, and that the new questions that have arisen after this season could be similarly targeted? This goes to your point about the incentive for players to focus more on their offensive skills or the possibility that he simply doesn’t have the capacity to excel on both ends of the court due to the “Harden effect” of needing to conserve energy.

    I think his efficiency might be underrated. Deanondraft made an argument recently that Poeltl’s decline in block rate might be deceiving because of an attempt to stay in position and not go head hunting as much. This is in comparison to someone like Skal, who put up some impressive numbers but fouled like crazy and wasn’t a factor on the boards. I wonder whether this could be a weakness in our understanding of the flaws inherent in some defensive statistics. Utah was so dependent on Poeltl being on the floor that maybe he dialed back in aggression somewhat in recognition of the risk being in foul trouble would carry for the team.

    I watched a bit of Poeltl from the summer during the Austria vs. Lithuania game and noticed more willingness to shoot from the foul line area and even from three. I wondered whether his efficiency on the block for Utah and inside/out offense may have hidden some of his versatility from the perimeter. Granted, he shot terribly from the line as a freshman and wasn’t a sharpshooter (although he improved) as a sophomore. You’ve moved Deyonta Davis up your ranking as a result of a belief in something similar that seems justified to me after watching the smoothness of his shooting stroke in draft workout vids.

    I’m impressed by Poeltl’s ability to guard the PnR and would often seem him hedge out to the ball handler beyond the point at which I felt he was in danger of losing his ability to recover to his man rolling to the basket, but he seems to have strong spatial awareness of angles and quick feet to get back without getting burned. Utah would often switch everything and he would end up covering a ball handler and displayed good quickness in being able to guard smaller players. I think his mobility might be underrated, in terms of being able to defend in space and changing ends.

    He still lacks strength and doesn’t seem to have made any inroads on that front since he got to Utah. He gets good position boxing out inside against bigger players, but has difficulty holding position still.

    I like his feel for the game a lot and want to see him succeed and that might be influencing my ability to be objective.

    1. Sorry for not seeing this sooner. You could definitely read the “Tale of Two Seasons” that way. Getting a defensive minded coach who accentuates the strengths he had as a FReshman and asking him to spend his energy there. Then perhaps you’ll have a real player.

      But Poeltl is being drafted for his offense. (We can tell this by the difference in his rating and a guy like Onuaku, or even D. Davis.) And thus, I think it’s an unlikely scenario.

      I don’t think the decline in Poeltl’s block rate is the worrisome part. The worrisome part is the decline in Utah’s defensive effectiveness as a team without Wright and Bachynski. During Wright’s two years with Utah, they rated 22nd in DRtg (95.3) and 9th (90.9). Without Wright, they finished 125th. (101.3.) And a lot of that decline has to be on Poeltl, since the Center is responsible for so much of the defense’s effectiveness. If the defense was 9 points worse this year than last year and the only things that changed were that they no longer had Wright and that Poeltl assumed Bachynski’s minutes, I have to question how effective he was as a player. And in the games I saw, post players did quite well against him. And he had no answers when they drew him out to the perimeter. (Check the Oregon games.)

      I agree Poeltl is good on PnR on both sides of the ball.

      And I could definitely be wrong on Poeltl. Especially if he does have some hidden possibility to develop a jumper. I’ve been wrong before. I’ll be wrong again. I do think he’s almost certainly an NBA player and that he should have a long career. So from that perspective, he’s a decently safe pick. He’s also the kind of guy, so long as he’s picked late enough that a qualifying offer would not be prohibitive that might be re-signed for a reasonable price. Like Nick Collison and OKC, or Udonis Haslem and Miami. These situations sometimes play out in a positive manner, even if the player doesn’t become a superstar, and it seems more likely to happen in the case of a role playing big than in the case of a similar perimeter player. Unless perhaps we’re talking about a guy like Tyler Johnson, who seems undervalued league-wide.

  2. Don’t apologize, I feel guilty commenting on your articles for fear that I’m distracting you from your more substantive work. 😉

    Poeltl is probably the best example so far of a player for whom I was operating under a naive model of value before reading your work. Regarding your point about the decline in Utah’s defense with Wright/Bachynski leaving, here is a quote from a recent piece by deanondraft that attempts to explain the difference:

    “One concern may be that Utah’s defense slipped from #6 to #69 following the departure of Delon Wright and 7’0″ backup Dallin Bachynski. Of course any defense will miss Delon Wright, but much of the decline is attributable to variance. Utah’s defensive 3P% slipped from 31.2% to 37.1% and opponent FT% increased a few points as well. This has nothing to do with Poeltl, a little to do with Wright, and a lot to do with variance. If opponents missed shots against Utah like they did the prior year, the Utes could have easily had another top 25 defense. This is not amazing, but is solidly good for a roster that does not feature much size or athleticism outside of Poeltl.”

    https://deanondraft.com/2016/06/03/teenage-mutant-ninja-poeltl/

    You mentioned checking the Oregon games and my big frustration is my inability to draw on a larger sample of game footage due to being limited to what’s available on youtube. I will check torrent sites to see if I can find more games. It’s not even a frustration with Poeltl as much as it has been with Baldwin because you mentioned a couple of games to check out that I can’t find, especially the example where you mentioned the change in Baldwin’s game when Vanderbilt had to come behind in the second half and he took on a more assertive role in the offense.

    1. I don’t know why a change in three point shooting has nothing to do with Poeltl. That seems like a very flawed assumption. For one, defense is interconnected and basically all good three point shots come off the catch. And those that don’t usually come off screens that often were directly involving Poeltl. That’s off of the pass, but Guards were also getting open threes off a switched screen is something that didn’t happen that much last year, because Delon Wright was able to clear screens at the college level. That’s a situation that happened a lot this year, and it’s something that’s not going away at the NBA level. Poeltl moves his feet pretty well for a Center. But if you’re placing him on Kyle Lowry or Chris Paul or Kyrie Irving or Steph Curry or Russell Westbrook, etc . . . I’m calling it a day. Poeltl’s going to lose that battle, because he can’t win vs. guys like Van Vleet and Baker.

      For two, it was sometimes Poeltl’s man shooting threes or long twos or scoring inside at will. (And Poeltl is going to have to defend the perimeter.) Just a couple of examples beyond Oregon (3 times) and Gonzaga (once).

      In the blow-out loss to Miami: Jekiri is another Center in this draft class who Poeltl struggled against. Tonye Jekiri went 8-10 from the field, nabbed 12 rebounds, including 5 offensive, with one assist, one steal, one block, 2 turnovers and 2 fouls for 20 points in 32 minutes, while he and others on Miami limited Poeltl to 6 rebounds and 7-11 shooting (16 points) with only 1 block and 1 turnover. Not all of Jekiri’s success was on Poeltl and at least some of the success of the other players, like McCellan going off, has nothing to do with Poeltl, but he also struggled with plays like Angel Rodridguez screens, etc . . . The opponent scores 90 points in a college game, some of that is going to be on the Center.

      Vs. Witchita St. A team that is mostly just grit on defense and guys who play physical.They were able to limit Poeltl to 11 points on 5 shots. 9 rebounds. 4 tunovers. 2 fouls. In a 67-50 loss. The tallest Wichita St. player in that game. Markus McDuffie at 6’8″. And Anton Grady, their best interior defender didn’t even play. This is a game Poeltl should be dominating on both ends. Or at least making some kind of impact on. Here’s a less than two-minute highlight of the game:

      [youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VuGL9EGPhZ8&w=420&h=315%5D

      I lost track of the number of plays in which Wichita St. involved Poeltl in some kind of action and than moments later something good happened. Whether it was getting a switch on a screen for Van Vleet or Baker or losing connection with his man on a screen or losing position for an offensive rebound, etc . . .

      Even in almost wholly excellent games for Poeltl, vs. Washington for example, you can count any number of plays in which he gets switched on screens or has trouble affecting the play in a positive way in which superior NBA players would have beaten him, either by making their open jump shot or continuing to the rim. And I think Poeltl and Hield are both pretty good indicators of the opportunity cost of running offense through players who don’t create for others. One thing I’ve noticed about both is that when they go off (let’s say vs. Washington or Cal for Poeltl, in which he scored 29 efficiently in both games, their teams rarely win by a lot. And the same is somtimes, though not always, true for Hield. Vs. Kansas, Iowa St., VCU, LSU, Texas and Memphis, Hield had stellar scoring games and either lost vs. Texas and Kansas or his team, which was not without talent, won by minimal amounts. Of course, that sometimes true of great games. But it’s something I’ve noticed over the past few years and don’t know how to exactly quantify. And these are the types of players for whom I’ve noticed it most.)

      And if we continue Utah Vs. Gonzaga again, Poeltl was ineffective in almost every way. What’s worse than Sabonis hitting a three is that Utah had no options with Poeltl since there’s no way they could have switched him onto Wiltjer, who himself went 3-4 from three. And that’s going to happen in the NBA. Porzingis and Towns are going to be able to to bring Poeltl onto the perimeter and if they want to keep him there. Draymond Green too. And though Poeltl is decent at moving his feet, switches are going to end pretty poorly at the NBA level, either with post-up or with a player like Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul or Kawhi Leonard getting whatever they want.

      I just don’t see it for Poeltl, at least not with him becoming an upper order NBA Center. Unless perhaps there’s some improvement from three. Even a lot of these passes he’s making, which are awesome for a Center, are going to go away because teams aren’t going to need to double. Maybe not even when there’s a switch. If I’m wrong, I guess I’ll live with it. And we should definitely leave that on the table as a Big-time possibility. Though I think the love of Poeltl’s defense probably has a lot to do with Delon Wright being an awesome college player (there’s just not that many times he got caught on a screen) and also the type of 80s and 90s Gold Glove syndrome for baseball where we decided that the best defensive players at each position were almost invariably the best offensive ones.

      Yet in this draft, we know that a number of players have more defensive potential at the Position than Poeltl and that should worry us. Since Center is primarily a defensive position. It’s that point which is most important. If I believe that player is at best the 4th or 5th best defensive Center prospect in a particular draft (and that may be kind, depending on what we think of Zizic, Zubac, Siakam or even Zimmerman), and they aren’t weirdly gifted on offense (a legit three-point projection perhaps) it’s just hard for me to want to spend draft capitol on that player. Especially in the Top 10 or 14. I’d much rather trade down and select from guys like Onuaku, Johnson, Bembry, Valentine, Jones Jr. or pick a player I see as having more upside. Since the player I see Poeltl most likely becoming probably isn’t going to carry that much trade value either. But I do think he’s an NBA guy. However an already developed Mason Plumlee was available for a late first round pick, and Ed Davis available for NBA peanuts. That’s the market for non-elite NBA Centers.

  3. I figured Dean’s assumption that the change in defensive efficiency was more than just variance. It seemed a weak explanation, but my lack of understanding of the amount of variance possible made it difficult to dismiss out of hand. It would have helped if he’d given a error margin to better qualify his conclusion.

    It looks like I overestimated Poeltl’s ability to defend smaller players on the perimeter. Or the problem of having to defend in space more generally. I should know better as someone who has watched Valanciunas struggle with the same thing with the Raps. This is where having access to synergy would be useful (I used to, way back when they started). I blame the availability heuristic because the occasions where he was able to recover on a driving ball handler to block the shot make for great youtube highlights (ie: early against Duke). I think this is something Draftexpress may have missed on in their prospect video of him. The clip you linked to from the Wichita St. game did a good job of showing him getting burned.

    I like the comparison to Hield as another player who can have high scoring output games that don’t move the needle as much as one might expect because of the lack of creation for others. That’s high on the list of things I didn’t appreciate enough before.

    I found your analogy to the baseball 80s and 90s Gold Glove award fallacy an intriguing one and can’t remember if you included it in one of your biases pieces, but I definitely think it applies to me with Poeltl.

    It won’t surprise me if Poeltl is the player that has caused me to learn the most this draft through recognizing the various ways I’ve misjudged him. Very fruitful and surprising to realize I had so many value misconceptions leading me astray with one player, and yet it makes sense because I’ve always historically overrated centers. I’ve rarely been as excited to have been so wrong.

    1. Now I really hope I’m right on Poeltl 😉 (Well, not in actuality. I almost always root for the player to do as well as possible, even when I find it unlikely. May Poeltl and Murray and Hield prove me wrong. As more good players always makes basketball more entertaining to watch.)

      Poeltl does have decent feet for a Center. And he’s young so he could improve. Though, he’ll also have to fill out to man the Center in the NBA, which will probably slow him down, perhaps considerably. Though I wonder if this is one thing we’re going to see in the next few years. Not smaller Centers in terms of height (where Draymond Green is an exception) but smaller Centers in terms of bulk, in which players like Brendan Wright become slightly more common. If so, there’s going to perhaps be major advantages for those teams with Centers who are both big and can move extraordinarily well (Towns, Embiid, Porzingis as he puts on weight, Adams, etc . . .) And having a traditional Center with feet like that might be worth even more than it already is.

      It’s easy to overrate Centers, especially offensive Centers, since it’s always been common wisdom, and because the 80s and 90s also had a hell of a lot of all-time greats at the Position (Shaq, Duncan, Garnett in his later years played the position very well, Mourning, Mutumbo, Ewing, D. Robinson, Olajuwon, Parrish, Abdul-Jabbar, Malone, Laimbeer, Salley-not quite an all-timer but excellent defensively on multiple champions, Rodman was a C in some of the best Bulls line-ups, Ben Wallace, all either came into the league in the 80s or 90s or played their best years then and all of them won an NBA championship or at least played in the Finals on the runner-up), but at some Point the changes teams are making to institute smaller, more mobile line-ups will make the huge guys who can move their feet even more valuable. Especially if like Towns the player has an offensive game to match.

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