Jakob Poeltl: What’s Behind Spurs Center’s Struggles This Season?

After coming over from the Toronto Raptors last season in the Kawhi Leonard trade, Jakob Poeltl struggled early on to find his role with his new team. In the first 11 games of his first season with the San Antonio Spurs, Poeltl started three games but also sat or barely played in five games.

Everything changed for Poeltl when he caught a break. Well, technically, Pau Gasol did, fracturing his foot and missing nearly two months. During that time, Poeltl was able to carve out a consistent role and gain the trust of his teammates and coaches.

Unfortunately, that success hasn’t carried over to this season, as Poeltl has struggled to replicate his strong play. Almost across the board, his numbers are down from a season ago.

Last season, Jakob shot 64.5% from the field, this season that has dropped to just 57.8%. Most of that decline can be attributed to worse finishing at the rim, as Poeltl shot 70.2% within three feet of the basket last season but he has shot only 51.9% from that range this season.

Per 100 possessions, Poeltl’s rebounding and shot blocking numbers are down. And while his assists and free throw attempts are up, so are his turnovers and fouls.

The Cause of Jakob Poeltl’s Struggles

After starting 31 games last season, Poeltl began this year’s preseason in the starting lineup and it seemed that Poeltl would continue in that role. Instead, Trey Lyles became the starter and Poeltl is back to coming off the bench, playing limited minutes behind LaMarcus Aldridge.

Poeltl not starting is a direct result of poor floor spacing among the other starters; only Bryn Forbes shoots three-pointers at a high volume. The Derrick White, Bryn Forbes, DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge and Poeltl lineup was outscored by 4.6 points per 100 possessions last season. With Dejounte Murray replacing White, that lineup would’ve likely fared worse due to an even more severe case of lack of spacing.

Poeltl’s minutes are down compared to last season and he’s playing with a bench unit without as much shooting as last year’s bench. The four main bench players last year — Patty Mills, Marco Belinelli, Davis Bertans and Poeltl — posted an impressive net rating of 17.3 points per 100 possessions last season. As would be the case with most interior players, Poeltl was able to thrive last season when surrounded by shooters (and last year’s Belinelli could be classified as a shooter).

Last season, Poeltl developed good chemistry with Mills and White in the pick-and-roll, and the spacing made it difficult for defensive help to prevent him from rolling to and finishing at the rim. This season, not only is the spacing worse, Poeltl has had to adjust and learn how to play with Dejounte Murray.

After missing all of last season with an ACL injury, Murray doesn’t have the same chemistry with Poeltl that the Austrian has with Mills and White. Having not played together until this season, the tandem’s pick-and-roll synergy has been obviously poor at times. Murray has made a number of bad passes to Poeltl, resulting in turnovers or broken plays. Murray has also passed him the ball too far from the basket for him to be able to finish effectively.

White hasn’t been much better at helping Poeltl get easy baskets this season. His playmaking off the bench this year hasn’t been nearly as good as it was as a starter last season. Additionally, Mills has been freed from his playmaking responsibilities and has looked to score more this season while playing at shooting guard. While Mills has been effective in that role, it likely has hurt Poeltl’s offensive game.

Going Forward with Jakob Poeltl

All hope is not lost for Poeltl. As his chemistry grows with the rest of the bench, he should get better opportunities. Plus, a simple explanation could be that Poeltl is pressing, concerned that his value is being negatively affected by his minutes, or lack thereof. Given his impending restricted free agency, that would be understandable.

It’s difficult to pin down exactly why Poeltl is having a down year but there is still time for him, and for the team, to get back on track.