How Jakob Poeltl’s Knee Injury Will Impact the Spurs

The San Antonio Spurs have been extremely fortunate this season when it comes to injuries. In fact, they have been the healthiest team in the NBA — by far. Unfortunately, that good fortunate came to an end when backup center Jakob Poeltl was diagnosed with a sprained MCL in his right knee, which will cause him to miss an estimated 2-4 weeks of action.

Looking at the video of Poeltl’s injury, he should feel fortuitous that the damage to his knee wasn’t worse. If he’s out for 2-4 weeks, that means he’ll miss somewhere between seven and 14 games. 

How Will the Spurs Fare Without Jakob Poeltl?

Looking at Poeltl’s counting statistics, his production doesn’t stand out much. In 16.6 minutes per game, he’s averaging 5.3 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.4 blocks. Poeltl shoots 61.9% from the field (which is actually down from last season’s mark of 64.5%) and a career-low 48.6% from the free throw line.

However, advanced stats point to Poeltl being much more important than his numbers indicate. When he has been on the court, the Spurs have outscored opponents by 3.9 points per 100 possessions. That’s the best mark on the team. When Poeltl has been on the bench, the Spurs have been outscored by 3.8 points. That 7.7-point swing is second on the team, only behind Patty Mills.

Many of San Antonio’s wins this season have been due to strong bench play — and Poeltl has played a big part in that. With the Spurs being 6.1 points per 100 possessions worse with LaMarcus Aldridge on the court compared to when he’s off the court, the Silver and Black would be in even bigger trouble than they currently find themselves without their strong bench play, which advanced stats suggest is mostly due to the play of Mills and Poeltl.

While the Spurs are essentially tied for the ninth seed in the Western Conference, they could tumble out of the playoff picture completely if the Spurs aren’t able to replace Poeltl’s effectiveness. 

Who Will Replace Jakob Poeltl in San Antonio’s Rotation?

After being in the starting lineup down the stretch of last season, Poeltl has been used as the backup center almost exclusively this season. However, he was in the starting lineup last game due to Aldridge missing his second straight game with a shoulder injury. Aldridge is out again tonight, which means there is suddenly a gaping hole in the middle of the rotation.

Last game against the Orlando Magic, Drew Eubanks stepped up and played admirably. In 17 minutes of action, he scored ten points on 4-for-4 shooting from the field. He even hit a three-pointer, something he had never done in the NBA, G League, summer league, college or even high school from what I can find. 

Compared to Poeltl, Eubanks is more athletic and a more explosive leaper but he’s not nearly as refined. The 23-year-old is still mostly a raw athlete at this point, which isn’t too surprising considering the former baseball prospect didn’t begin playing basketball until high school. It’s a concern that his numbers haven’t improved on the G League level this season but hopefully his performance against the Magic is a sign of things to come.

Eubanks is currently on a two-way contract. If he performs well during Poeltl’s absence, the Spurs may reward him with a contract that gives him the spot on the roster that was created following the DeMarre Carroll contract buyout.

Chimezie Metu is another player who the Spurs could turn to in order to fill the void. In his limited NBA minutes this season, he has been very productive. While the sample size is small, Metu is averaging 30.2 points, 17.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 2.6 blocks per 100 possessions. On the G League level, the second year player has exhibited substantial improvements. Most intriguing is Metu’s 37.2% three-point shooting on two attempts per game. 

Like Eubanks, the 22-year-old Metu is still raw. He’s a springy, fluid athlete with indications that he can develop a smooth perimeter game. That said, his natural feel for the game is questionable at best. During the time Poeltl is sidelined, Metu has a chance to give the Spurs a reason to keep him around next season. As it stands, he’s under contract for one more year but the Spurs can release him before Aug. 1 and owe him nothing.

Luka Samanic, the Spurs 19th overall selection in the 2019 NBA Draft, has yet to play in San Antonio during his rookie season. That’s not too surprising because he was always viewed as a player who needed one or two seasons in the G League to work on his development.

Samanic’s time in G League has been up and down — with more downs than ups, objectively speaking. He doesn’t appear to be ready for minutes in the NBA but the Spurs could give him some spot minutes while they are short-handed to give him a taste of what to eventually expect in San Antonio.

While all those young, inexperienced bigs could see an uptick in minutes with Poeltl out, the most likely scenario is that Trey Lyles and Rudy Gay will play more minutes. As the NBA continues to shrink and perimeter play continues to increase in importance, Lyles and Gay are now players who can both buy minutes at center against a growing group of opponents.

Gay has played 3% of his minutes at center this season, with most of those minutes coming in the last month or so. With evidence pointing to DeRozan being his most effective at power forward, that has pushed Gay to center — even before injuries to Aldridge and Poeltl. 

Lyles started at center against the Dallas Mavericks and then played a career-high 40 minutes against the Orlando Magic, with much of that time coming at center. 

At 25-33, the Spurs don’t have room to suffer a setback after Poeltl’s knee injury if they hope to advance to the postseason. Head coach Gregg Popovich is going to have to find a suitable substitute or rejigger the rotation to mitigate the damage — and fast.