Raps’ Poeltl a Big Fish in a Small Hoops Pond
From the parents of national team volleyball players in the country of Austria where basketball remains a fringe sport, Jakob Poeltl didn’t exactly take the most straight-forward 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 in Utah before deciding this seven-footer was their primary target at No. 9 on draft night.
Poeltl was a gym rat growing up in Austria, but it was normally a volleyball gym as he retrieved balls for his parents playing the game. Poeltl, though, had eyes for only 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 from Brooklyn, where the draft took place, to Toronto earlier in the day. “(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.
“For me as a kid, it was pretty obvious that I would play a sport and it was basketball. It was pretty random, but I loved it and I never looked back.”
There were limitations as to what he could get from the game in Austria, a country more well-known for producing world-class skiers than anything else, but being a big kid and rather athletic and determined to make a go of hoops, he quickly became the focus of whatever basketball was being played in the country.
“Basketball is really the only sport I ever actually played,” Poeltl 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 either.
“It means a lot to me,” he said. “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 both Jonas Valanciunas and Lucas Nogueria but look for him to push both.
General manager Masai Ujiri raved about Poeltl’s work ethic as did head coach Dwane Casey.
Ujiri even managed to stoke the competitive fires within the roster a little when he interrupted Poeltl at one point to remind him of a conversation he had with him when the Raptors worked him out in Buffalo earlier this month.
“He did play against (Jonas Valanciunas) last summer, and he was quick to tell us that he had 27 points on JV,” Ujiri said smiling.
Poeltl knew exactly what his GM was doing which he proved later in another conversation away from the podium.
“Is that gonna be a thing now?” he asked of his 27-point performance against Valanciunas. “No, it was a friendly game, really. We didn’t have any official games last summer with the national team. 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 Utes teammate Delon Wright about Valanciunas’ wicked sense of humour, Poeltl smiled again.
“No, we actually haven’t talked about that. Do I have to be scared? I’ll be careful,” he said making it pretty clear Valanciunas’ sense of humour will have some company in the room next season.
As for on the court, Poeltl comes in knowing there is plenty of work to do and plenty to learn and he’s ready to get started as soon as they will let him. He also made it clear he will not be intimidated by the league or anything that comes with it.
“I feel very confident about that,” he said. “Really, at the end of the day, it’s going to be up to me putting in the work in the gym, and the coach making the decision on the sidelines to put me on the court or not. 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.”
Casey was excited about Poeltl’s foot speed, particularly for a big man. But the man who had the final say on the pick went back to something a lot more general, but something he values highly when he finds it in a big man.
“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.”
And Ujiri is confident the basketball lovers in Toronto will quickly fall in love with Poeltl, too.
BEST OF BOTH WORLDS
Masai Ujiri wants it both ways. And he doesn’t believe he’s asking too much to have that.
The Raptors GM believes the team can win now while still developing young talent. It’s why he has no problem bringing two more young players into the fold on a team already young by contender status
Adding rookies Jakob Poeltl, 20, and Pascal Siakam, 22 to a group that already includes developing talent like Delon Wright, Norman Powell, Lucas Nogueira and Bruno Caboclo is just the way it’s going to be under Ujiri’s watch.
“You go for the best talent available,” he said of his draft approach. “We have to look at this in a very different way. We are trying to win now and we are trying to build. And building means protecting this organization in the future. We are trying to pile up talent that can help us now and help us five years from now. That’s the way I look at it.”