SAN ANTONIO — About six hours into free agency on Friday night, news broke that the San Antonio Spurs would re-sign center Jakob Poeltl on a three-year contract worth $27 million.
Poeltl averaged 5.6 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks this season in about 18 minutes per game off the bench. He started in the bubble due to LaMarcus Aldridge's injury, and kicked it up to 8.3 points and 8.1 rebounds in about 26 minutes per game.
The 24-year-old, who San Antonio acquired along with DeMar DeRozan in the trade for Kawhi Leonard, will probably back Aldridge up this year as well. After this year, the starting job could be his for the taking if Aldridge moves on.
At 7'1" Poeltl is a classic center who offers no floor spacing at this point in his career, but he's a difference maker in the paint on both ends of the floor. The box score doesn't capture the impact he makes, as the Spurs outscored opponents by a team-high 5.7 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor.
After not drafting a center, it got more important to bring him back. He's a lengthy rim protector with the agility to defend spread pick and rolls and survive on perimeter switches with guards. He sets crushing screens and rolls hard to the basket. Though he has deft touch around the rim, a player with his size and explosiveness should look to dunk the ball more.
"We're trying to get him to be a little bit more forceful rather than tactile, letting the ball come off his fingertips and giving other athletic guys a chance to get to the ball," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said after Poeltl put up a season-high 19 points in a bubble win of the Utah Jazz. "Just put him in positions where he can dunk more and take away the doubt."
Even if he never develops an outside game and simply focuses on being the best center he can be, he'll be a solid contributor on this team for years to come. Every squad needs a guy to do the dirty work, and that's what Big Jak is best at.
Early in the summer ESPN's Bobby Marks estimated his value on the market to be somewhere between $8 million and $10 million a year, and that's exactly where he wound up.
The Spurs should be happy to get back such an important piece at a fair price, and Poeltl should be happy with the length of the deal and opportunity for advancement over the course of that contract.
The Austrian center said he was a bit nervous about going into free agency for the first time, and he's excited to be back in San Antonio. The goal is to build on his past two years here, and when I asked him, he made it clear that his goal is to start sooner or later.
"I definitely think so, that's my short-term goal here is to grow my role here and grow into a starting role," Poeltl said. I think what we did in the bubble was kind of the first signs of that, with a very young team where a lot of young players had to share more responsibilities than they were maybe used to during the regular season. That's definitely what I'm trying to do and where I'm trying to get to in the near future."
It's clear that there were internal conversations about his role moving forward when this contract was being worked out, and I asked him it the Spurs had said anything about dunking more, developing an outside shot, or anything else he'd need to do to earn that job.
"I don't want to go into too much detail," he said after a thoughtful pause, "but there were some conversations about my role and how the team was gonna look in the future, because that was a big part of my decision as well. I wanted to be on a team where I felt comfortable, where I knew I would get along and play well alongside my teammates, so that was definitely a part of the conversation."