Jakob Poeltl will in all likelihood declare for the NBA draft before the April 24th deadline. After two excellent seasons at the University of Utah, the 7-1, 242 lb. center is one of the most coveted players heading into the draft, and for good reason. Poeltl served as the backbone for a resurgent Utah team over the past two seasons, serving as a steady presence in the middle for a program beginning to re-establish itself in the national conscience. Poeltl's unique blend of size and skill will undoubtedly earn him a nice paycheck in the NBA, but the question of where he will land and how successful he'll be remains to be answered.
Poeltl's natural athleticism is enough to make NBA scouts drool. True centers that can run the floor with the ease Poeltl can are hard to find. In both college and the NBA, the traditional 7-foot center has become a dying breed, with it having become difficult to find such players that can consistently contribute in today's modern game. Poeltl however, with his prowess in the pick and roll and passing ability proves the "true center" is still out there, just harder to find.
The Austrian could already be playing in the NBA if he wanted. After a promising freshman season where he rose from obscurity to begin the year, to outplaying last year's no. 3 overall pick, Jahlil Okafor, in the sweet 16, Poeltl proved himself worthy of a first round selection. He decided to return to school to work on his game however, and the decision has paid off. This past year Poeltl was a much more confident and composed player, increasing his PPG from 9.1 to 17.2, his RPG from 6.8 to 9.1 and his APG from 0.7 to 1.9. Maybe his biggest and most important improvement came from the free throw line, where he increased his percentage from a paltry 44% to 69%. His increased confidence and skill made him a better NBA prospect than he was a year ago and also showed his solid work ethic and desire to succeed.
For all the positive attributes Poeltl brings to the table, there remains some concern for NBA teams considering him with their pick. The NBA is currently a league where versatility is key. The NBA's best team, the Golden State Warriors and their 6-6 self proclaimed "best center in the NBA", Draymond Green, are an example. Comparing Green and Poeltl, it is fair to wonder how Poeltl would fit in today's NBA. While Poeltl runs the floor well and has shown ability to drive to the hoop, he lacks a jump shot and needs to be close to the basket to score.
While getting to the basket wasn't a problem for most of Poeltl's college career, Utah's last game against Gonzaga and fellow projected 1st round pick, Domantas Sabonis, may have served as an eye opener for many scouts high on Poeltl. At 6-10, Sabonis gave up a size advantage to Poeltl. Despite Poetlt's perceived advantage, Sabonis was able to force Poeltl into foul trouble early as well as disrupt the center's ability to post up close to the basket. Sabonis used toughness, positioning, and straight up hustle to neutralize Poeltl. Obviously frustrated during the game, this is a challenge Poeltl will face every night in the NBA. He may have a size advantage against many players, but today's center is athletic, tough and can beat you in a number of ways. If Poeltl wants to succeed in the league he will need to figure out a way to become tougher and more versatile.
Poeltl relies on establishing position in the key and using a back to the basket skill set to get down low and score. This worked more times than not at the collegiate level, but it didn't work against Sabonis and it won't always work in the NBA. Adding a mid range jumper to his repertoire would do wonders for Poeltl's future NBA career. As he showed last season by improving his passing and free throw shooting, he is willing to put in the time and effort necessary to expand his skill set and become a better player. For this reason I expect Poeltl to improve his game and go on to have a nice NBA career. Based on draft projections so do many NBA teams.
Currently Poeltl is projected as the eighth pick by Draft Express. It wouldn't be surprising to see him go even earlier. After Brandon Ingram and Ben Simmons come off the board, Poeltl shouldn't have to wait too long to hear his name called. Places Poeltl could wind up include Boston, where he would fill a low post need on a young and talented roster. Over in the midwest, Minnesota and Milwaukee could also be good landing spots for the center.
Despite all the NBA talk, Poeltl has yet to declare for the draft. He is widely expected to do so soon and no one can blame him. After a season in which he was named Pac-12 POY, a consensus All-American and most recently NABC's "Pete Newell Big Man of the Year" he has nothing left to prove at the collegiate level. If Poeltl declares he will be a lock for the lottery and it will be well deserved after his climb from an unknown prospect from Austria to All-American.