Jakob Poeltl arrived in Salt Lake City last year without much fanfare. He was an intriguing player with great size and athleticism, but was largely under the recruiting radar. Now just a year later, Poeltl is making a name for himself nationally with his elite play through Utah's first seven games. After a freshman season where he showed flashes of brilliance but would also disappear at times, Poeltl has put it all together in his sophomore year and is one of the top players in all of college basketball right now.
A quick look at Poeltl's numbers show the vast improvement in his game. His points per game has shot up from 9.1 last season to 21.3 this year. Rebounds per game up from 6.8 last season to 10.8 this season. Assists have increased from 0.7 to 1.3 per game, and blocks per game up from 1.9 to 2.7. He's committing fewer fouls this season, only running into foul trouble during the loss to Miami, and his minutes have increased as a result, up from 23.3 to 29.7 per game. Perhaps the most improved part of his game is his free throw shooting, which was a major weakness for Poeltl last season when he shot only 44.4%. It is obvious he spent a lot of time working in the offseason on his shot, now shooting 71.7% from the charity stripe.
The last time Utah saw this kind of improvement from a post player was in 2004-2005 when Andrew Bogut made a big leap between his freshman and sophomore seasons. The level of improvement is very similar between the two players. Bogut went from averaging 12.5 points per game, 9.9 rebounds per game and 1.8 blocks per game in his freshman season, to 20.4 points per game, 12.2 rebounds per game and 1.9 blocks per game.
The result of Bogut's improvement was a sweet 16 appearance for the team and Bogut winning almost every postseason individual award and honor he could possibly win. It's early in the season, yet it's easy to see Poeltl's trajectory taking him on a similar path. Seth Greenberg has already tabbed Poeltl as a potential player of the year candidate and if his performance continues, more pundits will follow suit.
The improvement of Poeltl's play this season has been key for a Utah team that lost Delon Wright. Much of Utah's success was due to Wright last season and in his absence, Poeltl has picked up the torch as Utah's most important player. As was evidenced against BYU, Poeltl can require multiple defenders, freeing up uncontested shots for other players on the perimeter. In a game that is full of momentum swings, having a reliable post player who can score and play defense, can slow down a game, and steal back momentum if shots aren't falling from the outside.
Considered a fringe lottery pick a season ago, Poeltl's decision to come back to school has the potential to pay financial dividends if his current play continues through the season. A true seven footer as skilled and athletic as Poeltl, is a prized commodity in the NBA and Poeltl's improvement could push him into the top few picks of the draft. There is a long season ahead of Poeltl and the Utes, but the early returns are promising and if the sophomore can match his early production through the rest of the season, Utah has a real chance to make some noise in the Pac-12 and beyond.