‘This Kid Loves to Play:’ Raptors’ Masai Ujiri Tickled to Land Big Man Jakob Poeltl in Draft
TORONTO — Born to parents of national team volleyball players in Austria, where basketball remains a fringe sport, Jakob Poeltl didn’t exactly take the most straightforward route to the NBA. But he’s here now and he couldn’t be happier.
That happiness is shared equally by the men who spent two years keeping tabs on him as a rising NCAA star at the University of Utah before deciding this 7-footer was their primary target at No. 9 on draft night.
Poeltl was a gym rat growing up but his early years were spent retrieved balls for his parents at volleyball practices. Poeltl, though, only had eyes for basketball and despite a somewhat small infrastructure for the game in his home country, he was fortunate to land under the tutelage of some good coaches. His obvious physical gifts and talent took care of the rest.
“Even as a little kid, I was always in the gym,” the 20-year-old centre said Friday after making the trip to Toronto from Brooklyn, where the draft took place on Thursday night. “(My parents) playing volleyball, I was like being the ballboy actually, just running around, playing around. I was super-active because I grew up in this family of athletes, a very active family.
“Basketball is really the only sport I ever actually played,” he said. “I started when I was about six years old, and I fell in love with it and I never looked back.”
Poeltl does not take the honour of being Austria’s first NBA export lightly.
“It’s still a little unbelievable to me that I’m the first from Austria to do something like come to the NBA. I hope it will positively influence basketball in Austria. So far, it’s on its way up, but it’s still not at a high level unfortunately. I hope that me playing in the NBA and with a few others playing pro in Europe, it will push the level in Austria.”
Poeltl comes in as the third centre on Toronto’s depth chart behind Jonas Valanciunas and Lucas Nogueria, but look for him to push both for playing time.
General manager Masai Ujiri and head coach Dwane Casey raved about his work ethic.
“He did play against (Jonas Valanciunas) last summer, and he was quick to tell us that he had 27 points on JV,” Ujiri said with a smile.
Later, Poeltl demurred about the matchup with Valanciunas.
“Is that gonna be a thing now?” he asked. “No, it was a friendly game, really. We didn’t have any official games last summer with the national team, it was just a couple friendly games. We went to Lithuania to play them and yeah, we had that one game where we played against each other.”
Asked if he had been warned by his former Utah teammate Delon Wright, the Raptors’ first round pick in 2015, about Valanciunas’ wicked sense of humour, Poeltl smiled again.
“No, we actually haven’t talked about that,” Poeltl said. “Do I have to be be scared? I’ll be careful.”
Poeltl arrives knowing there is plenty of work to do to get his game up to an NBA level but he was clear he is not intimidated by the opportunity.
“It’s going to be up to me putting in the work in the gym, and Coach making the decision on the sidelines to put me on the court or not,” he said. “Like I said, I feel confident I can contribute, I feel I’m the kind of guy who can do a lot of different stuff and a lot of the little things, like I know coming in as a rookie, I’m going to be there for the hustle plays, the little plays like the rebounds, screens, whatever they need me to do. That’s what I’m going to be looking for in getting better every day in the gym, and adding to my repertoire every day, and getting better out there.”
Casey was very excited about Poeltl’s foot speed for a big man. But Ujiri is more in love with his makeup.
“When you see a big guy that loves to play, and his parents were athletes and he grew up in a basketball or sports environment, and he loves the game of basketball and loves to be in the gym, just run and hug him and take him and run,” Ujiri said.
“A lot of big guys are pushed to play, right?,” Ujiri said. “That’s the reality of life. You’re seven feet, so go play basketball. This kid loves to play, he loves the game of basketball.”