Raptors' Jakob Poeltl is back like he never left

The Raptors big man, re-acquired at last years trade deadline, has adjusted nicely upon his return to Toronto.

Jakob Poeltl says it doesn’t feel weird to be back in Toronto.

The 28-year-old insists that because most of the players he shared the court with when he was drafted to the Raptors in 2016 are no longer there, he doesn’t often think about how he went from a member of the Bench Mob to the starting center, central playmaking hub, and veteran leader of the new era Raptors after spending five-and-a-half seasons in San Antonio in the interim.

But it’s rare that a player is drafted in the lottery, developed for two seasons, shipped away in a superstar trade, and then traded back to the team that originally drafted them. And it’s even rarer for that player to hone his skills under Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan while watching his friends and former team win its first-ever championship.

But Poeltl’s career has never followed a script. The son of two former volleyball players for the Austrian national team, Poeltl grew up in Vienna, where skiing was the most popular sport and there was no rich history of a national basketball team or NBA players to look up to. He didn’t plan to carve out a life for himself as an NBA player — one who signed a four-year deal worth $80 million with the Raptors this offseason.

When asked how he managed to do it, he says: “Honestly, I don't know.”

“People in Austria really, really care about skiing, and they really don't care that much about basketball,” Poeltl told Yahoo Sports Canada’s “Strictly Hoops” podcast. “So, even though I am the first Austrian NBA player ever, basketball just doesn't really have that standing in Austria.”

The way he tells it, Poeltl was just a really tall kid with a lot of energy and his parents made him put it to good use. He tried everything, but basketball stuck from a young age. Putting one foot in front of the other, he played against older opponents in Austria until one day he realized that he might be good enough to be the first Austrian to make it to the NBA.

Jakob Poeltl return to Toronto since being acquired from San Antonio at last year's trade deadline has been a tremendous success.
Jakob Poeltl return to Toronto since being acquired from San Antonio at last year's trade deadline has been a tremendous success.

But Poeltl never imagined all the places his career would take him. From playing for his national team to being recruited by the University of Utah, then drafted by the Raptors, and playing for the most legendary coach in the NBA while practicing with one of the best big men of all time for five seasons to this: a return to Toronto, where Poeltl has the opportunity to help bring the Raptors back to where they were before he left — a perennial 50-win team and championship contender.

“Obviously that's our goal,” Poeltl tells Yahoo Sports Canada. “That's our personal goal. That's our team goal. We got to figure out a way to get us back there.”

“I think we're aware that it's going to be a process, like, we got to learn together. We got to fix some of the things that we've been getting away from these last couple of years.

“And hopefully, we'll get back to those times where we're a regular playoff team.”

Poeltl was drafted ninth overall by the Raptors in 2016, with Pascal Siakam selected 18 spots later. The two of them immediately hit it off, becoming close friends known as “Yak and Skills” as they made their way from an up-and-down freshman campaign split between the G League and NBA to key members of the Raptors vaunted Bench Mob by their second season in 2017-18.

As the only Raptor to appear in all 82 games that season (a trend that would continue throughout his career, as the 7-footer has never been available for fewer than 66 games), Poeltl averaged 6.9 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 1.7 STOCKS on 65.9 percent shooting, appearing to be a significant part of the future and a perfect complement to an ascending Siakam in the frontcourt. But when the Raptors flamed out of the playoffs in a second-round sweep to LeBron JamesCleveland Cavaliers for the second year in a row, Poeltl was traded alongside DeMar DeRozan and a first-round pick to the Spurs for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.

“It was just my first trade in my career so I just didn't really know what to feel at all. It was just a new situation and it caught me off guard a little bit,” Poeltl says.

“So, it was tough to leave the team, leave the city behind, leave my whole life behind. But there wasn't a grudge or anything like that. I think it's just — it is what it is. You deal with it. Like, I wasn't happy about it, but you just, you move on.”

TORONTO, ON, CANADA - February 8, 2023:      Jakob Poeltl #25 of San Antonio Spurs keeps the ball  dutirng the Toronto Raptors v San Antonio Spurs NBA regular season game at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto (Photo by Anatoliy Cherkasov/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Poeltl's time in San Antonio allowed him develop under one of the NBA's premier coaching staffs and add elements to his game. (Photo by Anatoliy Cherkasov/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Poeltl was fortunate enough to be traded to one of the best organizations in the NBA, coached by Popovich and surrounded by heady veterans like DeRozan, Rudy Gay, and LaMarcus Aldridge while training regularly with the recently retired Duncan. But after winning 48 games and losing to the Denver Nuggets in the first round of the playoffs in his first year there, the Spurs failed to win more than 34 games or qualify for the playoffs in each of Poeltl’s next four seasons.

It was hard to be a part of so much losing, and the young center had mixed emotions when he witnessed the Raptors win its first-ever championship the season he was traded away.

“It felt weird because I just think that team was so familiar to me and watching it and I just wasn't on it and there was so many guys out there that I — those were the only guys I knew how to play with,” Poeltl says. “Like, those are the guys I came into the league with, and all of a sudden they're in an NBA Finals. So, it was a little bit surreal, I guess, is the best word to use.

“But for me personally, I was mainly just happy for my guys that they could pull out a championship. That's an amazing accomplishment and something we've talked about before — it was our goal as a team, as a franchise. And for them to get there, it's obviously something special.”

Meanwhile, Poeltl did everything in his power to earn the trust of Popovich and take advantage of his increasing responsibilities as a Spur. He saw his averages more than double from 6-5-1 and 1.3 STOCKS in his first year there when he was a role player who started less than a third of his games to 14-9-3 and 2.4 STOCKS as a featured guy by his final full season as a Spur in 2021-22. Playing for a coach as experienced as Popovich was instrumental to his development, as was the work he put in with his “practice partner” Duncan, a Spurs legend who is one of the best defenders of all time.

“For me to be able to go up against [Duncan] in practice, he'd guard me, I’d guard him… just the little things he'd do even in a pregame warmup and stuff like that where he'd hold me at a certain spot and I felt like I couldn't move all of a sudden. I'm like, huh," Poeltl told Yahoo Sports Canada’s “Strictly Hoops” podcast. "I think things like that are what helped me the most where I can now incorporate that in my game."

“There might be a possession here or there where I can get away with something on the court that might not be exactly within the rules, but you just get away with stuff like that because guys like Tim have the experience to know when to do that and when not to do it.

“And I think those are the things that I took away the most.”

While Poeltl was in San Antonio, the Raptors were trying to solve problems of their own. After making the playoffs seven straight times between 2013 and 2020, the team went through a three-year span in which they only made the playoffs once, when they were eliminated in the first round by the Philadelphia 76ers in 2021-22.

Among their biggest problems during those three years was the lack of a traditional center. As much as they tried to insulate their lack of big men with 6-foot-9 wings who could be physical, rebound, and protect the rim in creative ways as a collective, the Raptors were in the bottom half of the league in defensive rebounding and rim protection numbers in each of those seasons. They learned that the big man position is as important as ever in today’s NBA, where positional size is coveted, offensive rebounding is back in fashion, and hunting mismatches is a big part of offenses.

At last year’s trade deadline, Masai Ujiri and the Raptors front office made a bet on Poeltl — who Ujiri called a top-10 center in the league — and on the existing core by trading Khem Birch and a lightly protected 2024 first-round pick for their new starting center instead of rebuilding the team like many people anticipated. The Raptors re-signed Poeltl to a 4-year, $80 million deal (with a player option) in free agency, beating out teams like the Spurs who had legitimate interest in bringing back Poeltl to play beside rookie Victor Wembanyama.

“I think I knew it was a possibility. I knew that the Raptors still had interest in me, liked me as a player,” Poeltl says about the trade. “So, I knew that there was a chance [I would land in Toronto] if for whatever reasons I might have gotten traded or in a free agency situation down the line.”

Despite Poeltl solving some of the Raptors’ biggest holes as an elite rebounder, screener, and rim protector, the trade came with its fair share of questions. Namely, was the ceiling on this Raptors team high enough to justify trading a future pick? And how was the offensive spacing going to work between Poeltl, Scottie Barnes, and Siakam?

With a new head coach and a full training camp and preseason to get adjusted, the Raptors have put Poeltl in more of a featured role as a screen-setter and decision-maker at the elbows in Darko Rajakovic's European-style, pass-heavy offense this season — which is still a work in progress. They are trusting his advanced feel for the game and passing chops to make the most out of the limited spacing.

So far, so good, as Poeltl is averaging 10-9-2 and 1.8 STOCKS in just 25.3 minutes per game on a career-best 66.7 percent shooting through eight games of the season while anchoring their defense as a rim protector and rebounder. In fact, the Raptors are +4.8 points better per 100 possessions on defense with him on the court (and +0.2 overall), with opponents shooting 6.0 percentage points worse at the rim while grabbing 14.8 percent fewer offensive rebounds with Poeltl on the court.

“Jak is a great player, so whenever he is out there I wouldn’t say we feel safe, but safer knowing he’s there as a rim protector and rebounder,” OG Anunoby says.

“He's huge,” Raptors head coach Darko Rajakovic adds about Poeltl’s role. “He's going to be a very important player for us now and, you know, until the last game he plays for the Raptors.”

As inspiring as the start of the Raptors season has been, the jury is still out on whether the Austrian big man can fit alongside Barnes and Siakam long term. And given that the Raptors owe a top-six protected pick to the Spurs this season as part of the trade, the stakes for how quickly and to what extent they figure it out are massive.

“Whatever that role may be, I'm going to try and do it to the best of my abilities,” Poeltl says. “If that's front and center, if that's like the main part of the offense, the defense, whatever, if it's a small part, I think it all just builds together to a bigger picture.”

“And I think it's important for us to all have that kind of mentality where we work together for one goal.”

Poeltl has seen the league change dramatically since entering it in 2016. With the evolution of pace and space moving big men further from the basket along with the impact modern big men like Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Anthony Davis, and Wembanyama are having, the job of the center has gotten more difficult by the year. But playing small is no longer an option, either, and the center position has increased in importance as the league has gotten bigger and more physical.

Through it all, Poeltl has managed to not only stick in the league as a traditional, back-to-the-basket 7-footer, but actually thrive in it. He has evolved his game by getting faster on the perimeter, learning the intricacies of pick-and-roll defense, constantly moving on offense, being a great teammate, and staying true to the player he has always been — the player that got him this far, from Austria to the NBA.

“I think there's things that you adapt to but at the end of the day you stay the player that you are — you got to play to your own strengths,” Poeltl says. “So, there's no sense in trying to model my game after somebody that's not me.”

“I think it's more about staying true to what I think makes me a good basketball player and how I can help this team.”

The hope is that it will be enough to bring the Raptors back to the top of the Eastern Conference, ultimately justifying their decision to bring Poeltl home.