3 ways Jakob Poeltl has improved the Raptors since returning to Toronto

Jakob Poeltl has changed life for the Toronto Raptors. He’s addressed some of the team’s most salient problems on both ends of the floor, resulting in them looking like a completely different squad.

Since Poeltl returned to the Raptors in a trade deadline deal with the San Antonio Spurs, the team has gone 9-8. While that record doesn’t jump off the page, it’s the way Toronto’s looked during this stretch that’s been impressive.

The team’s defensive improvement was anticipated, as the Austrian big man fits the build of your prototypical rim protector. However, he’s also helping the Raptors’ inefficient and isolation-heavy offence by serving as a consistent paint scorer, opening up the floor with his adept passing — particularly from the top of the key — as well as giving Fred VanVleet a legitimate pick-and-roll partner.

Poeltl gives the Raptors confidence when dishing the ball down low

For much of this season, Toronto relied on All-Star Pascal Siakam to generate offence when things got stagnant, which happened often. So much so that heading into the trade deadline, the Raptors ranked last in eFG% with Siakam off the court; they were also a subpar offensive team with him on the court.

On nights when Siakam was having an off-game, he couldn’t always rely on his supporting cast to pick up the slack, either. VanVleet’s been hovering around the bottom of the league when it comes to field-goal percentage and Scottie Barnes is currently bottom 10 in TS%.

Exacerbating Toronto’s lacklustre isolation offence is their inefficient 3-point shooting. Therefore, the team’s mainstays are thrust into a quandary of either hoisting a heavily contested shot over multiple defenders or kicking it out to a shooter who’s been struggling for much of the season.

In came Poeltl, who instantly gave the Raptors another reliable offensive option. He isn’t going to impress fans with scintillating footwork or robust moves around the basket, but he will provide timely buckets in an efficient manner. Playmakers like Siakam and VanVleet can penetrate the defence knowing they have one of the preeminent finishers in the league.

Take Wednesday’s loss against the Pacers, for example. The 27-year-old single-handedly kept the Raptors afloat in the first half, posting 15 points — on 7-of-8 shooting — and five boards. Siakam was a non-factor for much of the half, while VanVleet put up 14 points on 14 shots. It was Poeltl’s adeptness around the rim that gave the team momentum on offence, as he was capitalizing on both mismatches and pin downs.

Indiana decided to play Poeltl tighter in the second half, in turn opening up the paint for Siakam and leaving ample space off screens for VanVleet to operate. Due to the respect Poeltl commanded down low, both players were able to explode offensively.

Despite the 118-114 loss, the contest showed that the Raptors have a consistent paint scorer that is comfortable receiving his touches in the dunker spot — an aspect they were lacking beforehand.

Poeltl is an integral passer for Toronto

When he was drafted by the Raptors in 2016, Poeltl was merely a rim protector that got his points off offensive rebounds. Fast forward to 2023, and he is one of the best passing centres in the league. He credits Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich for his development, lauding the style of play that San Antonio adopts.

“Playing for a coach like Coach Pop, getting to develop in a system like they have at the Spurs worked out really well for me,” Poeltl said earlier this month on Sportsnet’s The Raptors Show with Will Lou.

Poeltl’s development is on full display in Toronto, as the team regularly relies on him to create offence for others. One set that head coach Nick Nurse likes to put him in is the pick-and-roll, where he has the option to either attack the basket or pass it out to an open shooter. This play typically involves VanVleet as the maestro, deciding whether to dish the ball off to Poeltl or take it himself with the immense space via Poeltl’s screen.

This has quickly become a go-to offensive scheme for the Raptors because of Poeltl’s prudent passing ability. Unlike the other bigs on the team, Nurse trusts him in the short-roll actions to make the right read.

Consequently, the team recognizes his penchant to find the open man and responds by making it a point of emphasis to cut to the basket.

Another spot where the Raptors like to utilize Poeltl’s playmaking ability is at the top of the key. Similar to the way the Nuggets leverage Nikola Jokic’s passing prowess, Toronto will place Poeltl under the 3-point line and allow him to run the offence. This opens up the court for slashers, off-ball screens, dribble handoffs, and isolations for players like Siakam who prefer to operate closer to the basket.

One player who has reaped significant benefits from Poeltl’s playmaking is Barnes. Not only is he getting easier looks at the basket but the big man has alleviated some of the pressure that’s been on Barnes to assist his teammates.

The self-proclaimed point guard is having a solid sophomore campaign but certainly hasn’t made the proverbial jump many fans and pundits predicted. This is largely due to Barnes having difficulty balancing his time on the court as a scorer and playmaker. Oftentimes, particularly in the first half of games, the 21-year-old will look passive and make scoring an afterthought. While he usually ramps it up in the second half, sometimes it’s all for naught as the game is already out of hand.

With Poeltl, though, Barnes can focus on all facets of his game. There cease to be these intermittent spurts of non-shooting from him because there’s now another player that can serve as a periphery passer alongside Siakam and VanVleet.

In the month of March, Barnes is averaging 17.1 points per game — not including a game against Milwaukee where he had to leave early due to a wrist injury. This stretch also includes his career-high 32 points versus the Lakers. However, his assists haven’t really taken a hit. Instead, Barnes is finding his teammates within the flow of the game, in turn forcing the defence to adjust to him, as opposed to the other way around. In five of his last eight games, Barnes has posted five or more assists.

Jakob Poeltl has helped improve the Raptors' offence and defence since arriving in a trade with the Spurs. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Jakob Poeltl has helped improve the Raptors’ offence and defence since arriving in a trade with the Spurs. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

The Raptors have a legitimate defensive anchor

What was expected with the acquisition of Poeltl was that Toronto would improve defensively, and that’s exactly what’s happened. His presence in the paint as both a shot blocker and alterer has allowed Toronto’s perimeter defence to take more chances on steals. In their last 15 games, the Raptors have ranked first in steals per game.

Before Poeltl’s arrival, Toronto would run a relatively small lineup, with either Siakam or Barnes at the centre position. This left the Raptors vulnerable to teams with formidable bigs, as they would often lose the rebounding battle to them, as well as see their defence get pummelled in the painted area. Poeltl’s defensive instincts and knack for the ball have helped fix these issues. Whereas Chris Boucher or Precious Achiuwa would look to send the opposing team’s shot into the stands — and they’re often successful — Poeltl is astute in leading the offensive player into a tough shot, allowing his help defence to secure the block.

In their last 15 games, the Raptors are ranked fourth in defensive rebounding percentage, eighth in blocks per game, and eighth in defensive rating — all significant jumps from earlier in the season.

Since arriving with the Raptors, Poeltl is averaging 15.5 points and 9.2 rebounds, along with 1.6 blocks and 1.4 steals, on an incredible 72.2 percent from the field.

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