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Utah's Jakob Poeltl shows traditional big men aren't extinct

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The Austria native has taken a sizable leap in his sophomore season, and it has Utah surging at the right time.

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Jakob Poeltl didn't have to be playing for free this year. The Utah big man gave scouts a convincing final impression when he capped his freshman season by holding prodigious Duke center Jahlil Okafor to just six points in the Sweet 16, cementing a breakout campaign that saw him rise from a relative unknown to one of the country's most efficient two-way players.

Poeltl likely would have been a first-round pick after just one year of college basketball, but decided to return as the centerpiece of a Utah team that was losing All-American guard Delon Wright. It's a choice that's paying off in a big way right now for both the player and the team.

Utah has caught fire of late, winning four straight and nine of its last 11 after knocking off USC on its home floor Sunday. After a 1-3 start in conference play, the Utes are now only a half-game off the lead in the Pac-12. They can thank Poeltl for that. The sophomore is on a tear right now, leaving little doubt he's the best center in the country and a lottery pick in June.

After dropping 29 points on 11-of-13 shooting against the Trojans (along with 13 rebounds, four assists and four steals) Poeltl is now 40 of 54 from the field over his last four games with only four turnovers. The numbers he's putting up over the course of the season are incredible (per sports-reference):



NCAA rank Pac-12 rank
Offensive rating 132.8 8 1
Field goal percentage 66.8 5 1
True shooting percentage 68.3 6 1
PER 33.3 3 1
Win shares 5.7 7 1

For as impressive as those stats are, they don't capture the entirety of his leap. Poeltl has pulled off one of the hardest transitions in the sport: maintaining his efficiency even after a dramatic spike in usage.

Poeltl shot 68.1 percent from the field as a freshman, but he played only 56.4 percent of Utah's available minutes. That number has jumped to 73.5 this season, with his usage rate rising from 21.2 to 26.2. Poeltl's production hasn't dropped off, and it's made him arguably the biggest matchup problem in America as one of the few true centers with NBA size left in the college game.

It's clear that the game has slowed down for Poeltl as a sophomore. He hasn't seemed hurried even as opposing defenses have thrown double or triple teams his way all year. He's become a master at establishing deep-post position, and he doesn't miss with his right hand when he's in close. It doesn't matter how many bodies he's seeing.

That new-found level of composure has helped spark Poeltl's improvement as a passer. He's more than doubled his assist rate this year, going from 6.3 to 14.2. Utah likes to put three knockdown shooters on the perimeter with Jordan Loveridge (43 percent), Dakarai Tucker (40.8) and Lorenzo Bonam (37.2), and Poeltl has shown the ability to pick them out when defenses collapse on his post touches.

He's also shown an ability to squeeze in interior passes to breakout sophomore power forward Kyle Kuzma. Kuzma doesn't stretch the floor (he's 6 for 34 on threes this season), but he's been terrific diving to the basket off cuts. At 6'9, 220, he pairs with Poeltl for what qualifies as a massive front line at the college level. The two play off each other well:

Poeltl has also fixed the elephant in the room as far as his draft status goes: his free throw shooting. As a freshman, Poeltl made just 43.3 percent of the 120 foul shots he took. This year, he's making 70.1 percent with a free throw rate that ranks No. 47 in the country, per KenPom.

As an NBA prospect, Poeltl is looking as rock solid as any potential lottery pick after Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram. The only thing working against him might be the future of the center position itself.

During the week Draymond Green proclaimed himself the best center in the NBA, it's fair to wonder how Poeltl's game fits in at the next level. Green may have been joking, but he was also speaking the truth -- and it's evidence of just how quickly the center position has evolved in the last two seasons alone. Poeltl looks like a traditional five man while Green -- at 6'6, 240 pounds -- represents a new ideal that emphasizes versatility.

Poeltl doesn't have range on his jump shot and he doesn't have great length (7'1 wingspan) despite his huge frame. What he has shown this season is that he's no stiff. This is a fluid athlete for 7'1 and it won't be easy to run him off the floor:

The defensive side of the ball is where Poeltl is supposed to do his best work, but his shot blocking has slipped a bit this year, perhaps because of the extra offensive burden he's carrying. Poeltl posted a sky-high block rate of 8.9 percent as a freshman (No. 47 in the country), but it's dropped to 4.5 this year. In the process, Utah's defense has dropped from No. 6 to No. 69. The departure of Wright -- one of the best perimeter defenders in the sport a year ago -- certainly has a lot to do with it.

Poeltl's defense still passes the eye test, and it's a big reason why he's ranked as the No. 7 prospect in June's NBA draft by both DraftExpress and ESPN's Chad Ford. The more pressing issue for Utah is how it leverages this agile, mountainous man into some NCAA Tournament wins.

While big men like Frank Kaminsky, Karl-Anthony Towns and Okafor defined college hoops last season, this year's stars are largely perimeter players like Buddy Hield and Denzel Valentine. The one outlier is Poeltl, who measured at 7'1, 242 pounds at the Nike Skills Academy last summer.

During a year when even the best teams are starting centers 6'10 and under, Poeltl is the wild card that gives the Utes a puncher's chance of making a deep run in March. The way he's playing right now, the Utes have to like their odds.