So, it was time to get inside the mind of one of the league’s
During training camp, Poeltl made it known that San Antonio's
massive roster turnaround meant he needed to be more vocal,
particularly on the defensive end of the floor. And considering
renowned analysts are praising
his communication skills, it’s safe to say his mission has been
“First of all, [communication] is one of the biggest parts of
being a big man in the NBA.” Poeltl told BasketballNews.com in a
phone interview. “If you are not good at communicating, your guards
are going to keep running into trouble over and over again.”
Here is a perfect example of his articulation skills at
Turning up the volume is recommended here; if you listen
closely, you can hear Poeltl instructing nearby help defenders to
“stay” back on their man because he’s going to offer the necessary
backline support himself. This forces Steven Adams to make the
weak-side corner pass (an easier pass for the defense to close-out
on), and ultimately, Poeltl's reassurance results in a missed
Then, Poeltl dove a little deeper into specific coverages. Being
the mad scientist he is, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich loves
throwing a good ol’ zone at opposing offenses.
Listen to this next clip to hear Poeltl break down what’s going
through his mind in these situations.
“[It] comes down to a lot of communication as well," Poeltl
said. "The offense is going to try and exploit weak spots. I’m just
constantly on the lookout for what they are possibly trying to set
up. And telling those guys around me to move over, overload one
side, whatever it might be.”
Poeltl also emphasized the importance of ball-screen coverage in
today’s constantly evolving pick-and-roll ecosystem.
“There’s a lot of pick-and-rolls in this league because it’s so
efficient and you're creating a lot of 2-on-1 situations," he
As the big man who has handled the fourth-most ball-screens in the
NBA, Poeltl knows his way around these spots.
“I’m really just trying to keep the offensive players guessing,"
he said. "And at the end of the day, play the percentages.”
The next clip provides a prime example of what he’s talking
Poeltl intentionally sags off of Mike Conley because, while he’s
a good short mid-range shooter (45%), he’s a slightly better
finisher (53%). But even more important,
by accounting for the roller, Jakob avoids Rudy Gobert’s
lob-finishing wrath (77%).
"Playing the percentages" became a recurring theme throughout
this conversation, and Poeltl's appreciation of the mathematics of
the game bears resemblance to another defensive tactician — Bill
Like Russell, Poeltl makes himself familiar with his opponent’s
moves and tendencies in order to lure them into their least
efficient spots on the court.
“I try to play [their] tendencies," Poeltl said. "I know which
moves [they] like, which moves [they] might like a little less. I
try to make [them] take lower percentage shots.”
And his astuteness appears to be paying dividends, as Poeltl has
held some of the best low-post bigs in the league to numbers below
their usual outputs.
Poeltl Matchup Data (2021-22)
FG% vs. Poeltl*
(Mobile users scroll right to
view full table)
Poeltl's work against current MVP candidate Joel Embiid deserves
further examination. Poeltl is holding Embiid to 42.9% from the
floor on 35 shot attempts. But what’s more, he’s only allowed
Embiid to take 6 free throws during the nearly 77 partial
possessions he’s spent on him. This is a far cry from the 17.4 free throw attempts Embiid
typically averages per 100 possessions.
Poeltl does two things well while guarding Embiid:
- He baits him into taking a bevy of mid-range jumpers (the least
efficient shot in Embiid’s illustrious shot profile).
- He avoids getting handsy with Embiid and falling prey to his
infamous rip-through maneuver.
And like Hakeem Olajuwon, Poeltl is a master at navigating the
2.9 position of the paint
without getting called for a defensive three seconds. (Turn your
“I think that has a lot to do with reputation as well, where
just being around for a long time, you figure out these little
things," Poeltl said. "I remember my first couple seasons in the
NBA — first of all, I was a lot more paranoid to get called for
defensive three seconds, and I probably actually was
getting called on it a lot more as well. So, I think the biggest
thing there that I had to figure out over the years is the timing
of it. Like, being in the paint at the right moment when an
offensive player — like a guard or somebody — is trying to attack.
Not wasting those three seconds. Like, standing in there when there
is nothing happening.
"Then, I have to go out [of the paint] to clear myself, and in
that moment somebody starts driving, and then I’m late for the
rotation. So, again, it comes down to timing it well, [and] trying
to read what the offense is trying to do.”
In staying with the topic of great defenders, the best not only
omit shots as they come, but also deter would-be trespassers from
entering their hunting grounds entirely. Poeltl looks like he’s
trending towards no-fly-zone territory.
After peaking in January, his number of contests per game has
gone downward — an indication that offensive players may have
finally learned their lesson.
*Data Provided by NBA.com
Poeltl's presence on the interior is almost reminiscent to that
of the Dark Knight in Gotham City. Both Batman and the Spurs'
rim-protector serve as a cautionary symbol of what will happen when
you cross the line.
“I don’t know if I’d call myself a vigilante.” Poeltl joked. “I
pretty much always try to make the paint look as crowded as
possible. Try to discourage the other team from driving in there.
At the end of the day, contesting a shot is good, but if I can make
it look crowded in the first place and discourage them from coming
in the paint, that’s already a win in my book.”
With shades of the various all-timers painted all over his game,
is there a particular player that Poeltl has consciously modeled
his game after?
“Not really, to be honest," Poeltl said. "I always tried to feel
the game out for myself. I always tried to find my own way.”
Stating that he’s just trying to find his way is an
In fact, Poeltl has more than found his own way. He’s an elite
shot-blocker, a vocal defensive quarterback and a serious contender
for an All-Defensive Team nomination.
But most important of all, he’s San Antonio’s newest watchful
protector — the franchise's next great defensive big man.