Welcome to the first edition of Hidden Gems! This will be a regular Tuesday column in which I will profile good players under the radar. All the fans want to trade for Kevin Durant or Giannis Antetokounmpo in exchange for John Wall and a second-round pick. Those fake trades aren’t going to happen, but these guys are good and affordable.
You will not see featured All-Stars here. Instead, these are solid players in the upper 40-125 range. They are relatively unknown to casual fans, but they are fan favorites for those who see them regularly. To kick off the inaugural column, here is Spurs starting center Jakob Poeltl.
Who is Jakob Poeltl?
He’s the guy who had the lowest billing in the Kawhi Leonard trade to the Raptors. He is the owner of the worst nickname (Jake Puddle) in the league. He’s a 7-1 behemoth hiding in plain sight from the 28 fan bases who haven’t experienced him playing for his team, and perhaps the most Googled player in the arena when he’s first caught.
It’s the first version of Joakim Noah’s Bulls if Noah played in the modern NBA and had an even worse jump shot. It’s Rudy Gobert with 25 percent less rim protection but 200 percent more mobility. In short, there is only one Jakob Poeltl, which makes it fun to watch. He’s the best center in the NBA that no one talks about, the guy Nuggets head coach Michael Malone called. “One of the most underrated players in the league.”
After playing behind Jonas Valanciunas in Toronto and LaMarcus Aldridge in San Antonio for the first four and a half years of his career, Poeltl finally got a chance to show what he could do as a starting center midway through last season. He continued to build on some signs of success, and is on his way to getting the All-Defensive team excited in the near future.
Any evaluation of Poeltl’s value on the court must begin with that defense. Gobert is at his own level, but Poeltl is in the mix for the next best rim protector in the league. He is a master at spending as much time as possible in or near the paint, avoiding three-second defensive violations by tapping both toes out of the paint before preparing to block an advance.
Poeltl blocks shots like someone curses his mother. He has great timing in his jumps and avoids fouling. Part of that jumping ability could be due to genetics: His parents were members of the Austrian national volleyball team. He had one of the nastiest blocks of the year earlier this season against Anthony Davis.
What really sets Poeltl apart from his fellow shot blockers is that he can move much better than most of them on the perimeter. This not only allows you cover a lot of distance in your blocksBut it is not cooked as often by speed guards, either. This is how he manages to avoid every gamer’s nightmare: becoming the subject of a viral bad defense meme:
Poeltl is also strong as a communicator on the floor. He is constantly pointing his finger to call the covers, like a younger brother giving away his siblings.
Offensively, Poeltl’s weaknesses are glaring and obvious. He is capable of Airballing both free throws on a trip to the line, and has been the target of intentional fouls. You’ll never see him taking a triple. This is the furthest shot he has attempted this season:
That shoving shot that only a mom could love is surprisingly passable, but its value will always be limited by its lack of an outside shot beyond 15 feet and serious free throw problems. Still, Poeltl still brings some overall value as an offensive player.
Pelicans head coach Willie Green said of Poetl’s offensive rebounding ability that “he’s one of the best at it, maybe the best in the league.” The numbers back it up: Poeltl’s 4.0 offensive rebounds per game are the third-highest mark in the league.
Poeltl is also excellent in pick-and-roll situations. He has made 60 percent of his shots overall this season and has a very solid 71 percent at the rim, according to Cup Cleaning. He puts wood on the screens, and is second only to Gobert in how often his screen attendance numbers are mentioned to people who stopped listening 10 seconds ago. He is also proficient in one of my favorite great man moves, the Gortat, in which Clear the way for the guards like a Pro Bowl fullback. When you get those download passes, he shows some clever craftsmanship and footwork in its finishes on the rim.
Poeltl also has good passing skills. It is capable of launching eephus throws on defense to cutters or dunking them one-handed in a live dribble.
Unless you’ve restocked your local HEB’s Blue Bell ice cream recently, you probably haven’t been seeing much of Poeltl. The Spurs only play once all season on ESPN, on January 26 against the Grizzlies.
Poeltl will probably never be part of an All-Star team. But he’s a very strong starting center who will become a free agent in two years. He could help a lot of contending teams if he is traded before then, or secure that position with the Spurs if they decide to pay him. Keep an eye on it – It’s hard to miss once you start looking.