Midway through the fourth quarter against the Orlando Magic, forward Franz Wagner saw an open lane to get to the basket and his eyes lit up.
Why wouldn’t they? Heading into Toronto’s final game before the all-star break, opponents shot 67.6 percent at the rim. Adding to the temptation has been their general lack of size, parading a stack of 6-foot-7 to 6-foot-9 players who scramble across the court operating on the theory that prevention is better than cure. Only seven teams allow shots within four feet of the basket more frequently than the Raptors’ 35.4 percent rate.
So, based on what’s transpired this season, it seemed a perfectly reasonable idea for 6-foot-10 Wagner to put his head down and take what he expected to be a quality shot attempt. Except for one thing, the Raptors acquired 7-foot-1 centre Jakob Poeltl from the San Antonio Spurs at the trade deadline, a player who over three seasons prior to ‘22-23, blocked more shots (336) than anyone in the NBA not named Rudy Gobert (462) or Myles Turner (409).
As Wagner drove right and jumped off two feet, Poeltl – affectionately known for his twinkle toes – stayed within striking distance before swatting the layup attempt onto the backboard and the Raptors were on the run. It was his third of six blocks on the night, to go along with a stunning 30 points on 15-of-17 shooting, becoming the first player since Shaquille O’Neal on March 21, 2004 to record at least 30-plus points on 85 percent shooting from the field or better and block six or more shots.
After the game, you could see the gratitude teammates have for a legitimate starting big man on their team as Pascal Siakam gave him the biggest bear hug soon after the final buzzer sounded.
“He’s mentioned it,” Poeltl said of Siakam’s relief over not having to defend centres anymore. “I think it was in shootaround today or might have been the last game, it’s pretty funny. I think we have so many guys out there that have great length and athleticism so we can make it really tough for teams to get into the paint. I’m just trying to play my role in that whole system and I feel like I’m figuring it out more and more.”
Some may have looked at his defensive numbers with the Spurs this season and been discouraged by the drop-off compared to his last few years. His block percentage was the lowest it had been since his rookie season, and his defensive field goal percentage allowed within six feet of the basket of 61.5 percent was a considerable drop-off from the 53.8 percent mark he averaged over the previous three seasons.
One can’t ignore that San Antonio was more competitive the last three seasons with a combined record of 99-126 (.440), a far cry from their 14-44 (.241) pace this season. They also had Dejounte Murray, one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, which made life that much easier for Poeltl and the rest of the team. The Spurs ranked third in field goal percentage allowed within four feet of the basket both in ‘20-21 as well as ‘21-22, but dropped all the way to 17th so far this season.
Early indications for Poeltl are that this season’s individual drop-off numerically was an anomaly on a team with a net rating of minus-10.3 and neck-and-neck with the Houston Rockets for the worst record in the league.
After being eased into action off the bench against the Utah Jazz, Poeltl has been a plus-29 in 62 minutes across two starts. In the other 34 minutes, the team was outscored by 18 points. Over a very small sample, teams are attempting shots within four feet of the basket seven percent less frequently than when he’s off the court and are also shooting 8.6 percent worse on those attempts. Through three games with Toronto, his defensive field goal percentage allowed on shots within six feet of the basket is back to a more familiar 54.5 percent.
“Defensively, he does a great job of playing the cat-and-mouse game so you’re not really able to finish at the rim,” Magic head coach Jamahl Mosley said after the game. “When you’re there he’s blocking shots so he’s gonna add a great piece to this team.”
“Man, he’s crazy,” Jalen Suggs added. “He’s a force in the paint. When trying to box him out, you can’t outjump him and he’s really strong and physical down there. He fits what they want to do, he’s a big, physical big, he’s gonna hit you in the mouth and have no remorse about it. I think I can respect that a tonne, I respect that style of play and level of physicality and it hurt us tonight.”
While the backline protection has been the most pressing need with all the Raptors’ defensive struggles, the manner in which Poeltl has provided a boost on the offensive end has been just as encouraging. There will certainly be nights where the lack of volume three-point shooting from a frontline of Poeltl, Siakam, and Scottie Barnes will hurt, but the strengths of Poeltl in the pick-and-roll have greased the wheels of an offence that consistently got stuck in mud.
The Spurs have prepared him for this moment. As a team, they ranked 28th, 29th, 28th in three-point attempt frequency the last three seasons and are 28th again this season. Poeltl identified cutting and general off-ball movement as a crucial way to negate a lack of shooting threats, but there is something to be said for vertical spacing as well, something he brings in spades
His threat as a roller has opened up more options for VanVleet as a ball handler – he finished with a season-high 15 assists against Orlando – while Siakam can have no qualms about the dumping the ball off to Poeltl when getting trapped because the Austrian has great touch around the basket, will forcefully punish switches, and is equally adept at picking a pass as well. When Poeltl rolls, he rolls hard and that consistently holds defences accountable and forces them into difficult split-second choices. When they make the wrong one or don’t react quickly enough, he’s smart and skilled enough to take advantage.
“I’ve always enjoyed that,” Poeltl said of being a playmaker. “I’ve always tried to look for the extra pass, always tried to look for the best possible shot. I’m definitely looking forward to that, for now I’m just trying to figure out the system, figure out all the stuff. I’m probably gonna make my way into the system and then as I get more comfortable, really pick my spots to put my game and the things I can bring to the table, apply those to the team and hopefully help us win more games.”
Poeltl will now get some quality time to go through the iPad he’s been given containing all the offensive sets and defensive coverages the Raptors run as the team won’t return to action until Feb. 23 against the New Orleans Pelicans. As much as he may want to, he won’t actually be able to work through them in practice as teammates and coaches alike will be far, far away from the OVO Athletic Centre. It does however speak to the level of his basketball acumen just how quickly he’s been able to have a winning impact on the team.
It’s also testament to a past that has seen him grow with an organization like the Spurs and one of the all-time great coaches in Gregg Popovich.
“He’s just seen so much more and he went to another system,” Fred VanVleet said. “Pop has got a great system and he’s such a teacher that he’s learned so much in the four, four-and-a-half years that he was down there. He’s played with DeMar [DeRozan], he’s played with Dejounte [Murray], and he’s got to learn from the experiences down there.
“There’s things that we can do that we’ve never done before and there’s things that we used to do. We’ve both grown as players so I think he’s gonna help a lot of guys, myself included, and just happy for him to be here.”
The all-star break will have players feeling refreshed and renewed, but seeing Siakam express a visceral sense of relief, Precious Achiuwa and Chris Boucher singing together in the locker room, and VanVleet giddy over the room he has to work with, the Raptors look a team that finally got the on-court break it needed.