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Prospect breakdown: Jakob Poeltl

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The Austrian big man is the closest to a sure-thing prospect in the 2016 draft. What can he offer Orlando if he falls to the 11th spot?

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

If there's a saving grace for this year's draft, it's that the prospective centers appear to be relatively strong. There are few projected stars among that group--nobody comes close to a KAT or a Unibrow--but the list of solid prospects runs deep, and is arguably led by Austrian-born Jakob Poeltl. In many ways, he exemplifies this year's center class: he's not going to transform a team, but just about any team would be happy to have him. Let's hit the general assessment before we look at what he offers the Magic.

PROS:

  • Very efficient around the basket. Finishes well in the post and in pick-and-rolls.
  • Good rebounder and average shot blocker. Combination of solid stats across the board and youth rate him well in various advanced stats projections.
  • Good mobility and defensive instincts. Anchored one of the best college defenses in the country.
  • Improved greatly from his freshman to sophomore seasons, improving his scoring, free throw shooting, and passing, while reducing his turnovers.
  • The Magic only have one tall white Central/Eastern European center with questionable athletic ability but a knack for finishing well in the post, so it never hurts to add another one.
CONS:
  • Not an explosive athlete. Likely won't be an elite rim protector and may struggle finishing against longer and stronger NBA competition. Needs to add strength to remain relevant at the next level.
  • Doesn't project as more than a solid role player. As a "traditional" big man, may be outdated in the modern NBA without any outside shooting ability or other elite skill.
  • As their country's first NBA player, may be a ploy by the Austrian government to insert a spy to steal U.S. secrets.
Poeltl is one of those "out of nowhere" prospects, not showing up on anyone's radar until his solid freshman season at Utah. He's continued to impress in every venue since, performing admirably in international competition and during his sophomore season with the Utes. He's a consensus lottery pick now, and may very well be the first center off the board. Still, he's within the range of the Magic's 11th pick, so it's worth considering how he'd fit in if he fell to Orlando.

The area Poeltl rates closest to elite is his incredible efficiency as a scorer in the paint. He shot a whopping 59% on post-up shots, and 69% (nice) of non-postups (e.g. pick and roll shots, put-backs). Watching the highlights, what jumps off the screen is his fluidity moving with the ball. When he's passed the ball on the go, he quickly and decisively slides toward the basket, with or without taking a dribble.

He doesn't have a vast array of post-up techniques, but he looks smooth on the simple moves he does use, including hook shots with both hands and an up-and-under counter. He's not going to jam lobs like Blake Griffin, but he has good hands that help him catch the ball in traffic near the rim.

Unfortunately, that's about the extent of his current offensive skills. He doesn't shoot jumpers, and he didn't have the greatest success against his most athletic defenders. It's one thing to dominate college-level big men, but overcoming the size and strength of NBA-caliber centers is often the greatest challenge for up-and-coming bigs.

Beyond his efficiency, what makes him so appealing to a wide variety of teams is that he's average-to-good in a wide variety of categories, with few dramatic weaknesses. He rebounds well despite lacking elite length and wingspan, using his ability to "read" the misses and go where the rebound is going the same way Kevin Love does. He blocks shots at an average rate for his position, though he was better in his freshman season than his sophomore.

Poeltl is a good defender, using his quickness and good fundamentals to stay in front of the ball and contest shots without fouling. Most importantly, he appears to be capable when it comes to switching and recovering on screen plays, an increasingly important skill in an increasingly 3-happy league. Again, the greatest concern is his lack of explosive leaping ability and his tendency to get bullied by stronger players.

If Poeltl wants to remain competitive with the NBA's more intimidating competition, he'll need to add some strength, especially in his lower body so he can hold his ground in the paint (also, if you're playing Draft Night Bingo, look to check the box when analysts discuss Poeltl needing to add "20 or 30 pounds").

When it comes to the experts' predictions, Poeltl especially shines under the gaze of advanced analytics. Both of ESPN's stat-based projections, from Kevin Pelton (Insider) and the ESPN Analytics department, rate Poeltl as a top-5 prospect based on a combination of his box score stats, scouting opinions, and physical measurements. He also gets a boost due to his age of 20 (turning 21 in October), compared to if he posted similar stats as a junior or senior, reflecting the added potential for growth.

It's also worth noting, however, that these projections predict he's very likely to be a solid player, but unlikely to be much more. For example, the ESPN Analytics model offers the likelyhood a prospect will be a star, starter, bench player, or bust. Based on their best guess, Poeltl will only be a bust 16% of the time, better than any other player in their top-40. His all-star potential, however, is also small at just 12%, well behind the big names of the draft. In other words, it backs up what the eye test suggests: Poeltl will likely have a nice career, but he's not exactly going down in the history books as one of the greats.

Why the Magic want him

Jakob Poeltl represents the opportunity for Orlando to shift away from "project" players and pick up someone who will reliably contribute to the team in relatively short order. While players like Victor Oladipo and Aaron Gordon have been drafted thanks to their defensive "potential," Poeltl offers the closest to a sure thing in the draft, and I think he would thrive under Frank Vogel. Adding a player like him would solidify the bench and start the path toward reducing the number of defensive holes on the roster, with the eventual goal of minimizing the number defensive weak links much like Vogel's Pacer teams.

The downside, of course, is the lack of upside. Poeltl has little chance of transforming the roster, and Orlando's greatest need, beyond any specific skill or position, is a star player. It's also unclear if he fixes any of the current roster problems. I joked about the Nikola Vucevic comparison, but Poeltl doesn't really offer anything new to the team. Every offensive skill he possesses Vucevic does better than him, especially shooting, and that reality is unlikely to change anytime soon. Unless he develops into a very good defender, he'll just compete for backup minutes.

Perhaps the biggest knock on his game is that he's simply "outdated." The modern NBA craves versatile big men, capable of scoring from as many areas as possible, especially at range. If Poeltl can't extend his game outside the paint, he's ultimately a limited player. That works if you're an elite athlete like DeAndre Jordan, or a defensive menace and pick-and-roll expert like Tyson Chandler, but neither of those is the likely future for the Austrian big man.

Then again, the Magic probably shouldn't expect much more from that draft pick. Stars tend not to be found outside the top-10, and that's especially likely in a weak year like this one. Getting a sure-thing in the back end of the lottery is hardly the worst outcome. If Poeltl turns into a poor man's Chandler, or perhaps a less-intimidating version of Steven Adams, then he'll fit in just fine somewhere in the league.