Point Centre: Raptors’ Poeltl to feature heavily in Rajakovic’s new offence

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BURNABY — Running an offence through a centre is hardly a ground-breaking strategy in the NBA.

Way back in 1967-68, the great Wilt Chamberlain led the NBA in assists, mainly, the prolific scorer said, to prove he could do it. 

Bill Walton averaged nearly six assists a game in leading the Portland Trail Blazers to the NBA title in 1977. We only got a hint of what Lithuanian star Arvydas Sabonis could do to carve up a defence, as by the time he arrived in the NBA injuries had sapped much of the big man’s mobility, but he would still routinely make passes other players – guards included – couldn’t see. His son, Domantis Sabonis, has picked up his father’s legacy and has averaged six assists a game over his past six seasons, including a career-high 7.3 assists last season as the lynchpin of the Sacramento King’s high-octane attack. 

And — of course — there’s two-time MVP Nikola Jokic who led Denver to a championship last season while averaging 9.8 assists a game, most of them on plays that only he saw coming. 

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The question isn’t where Jokic ranks as the best passing big man in league history — he’s undisputedly No. 1 — but how he compares to some of the best passers, period, as he deserves consideration alongside the likes of point guard royalty Magic Johnson, Steve Nash, and John Stockton.

All of which is to say the Raptors aren’t completely in uncharted waters after declaring that they want to run more of their offence through Jakob Poeltl, the eight-year veteran acquired from San Antonio at the trade deadline a year ago. 

The two consistent messages from new head coach Darko Rajakovic have been his plan to put the ball in the hands of third-year forward (point guard?) Scottie Barnes and to use Poeltl as a hub in the high post, where he’ll initiate the play rather than react in pick-and-roll situations. 

“Jakob is a great pick-and-roll player, but we’re going to use Jakob with the ball in his hands, we want to cut around him,” said Rajakovic earlier in the Raptors training camp in suburban Vancouver. “He’s a really good passer, very unselfish player, so we’re going to be trying to play through him even more.”

Rajakovic may be on to something. 

Quietly and without flash — this is, after all, Jakob Poeltl we’re talking about here — the big Austrian-born centre has shown signs of being one of the better-passing bigs in the league, nudging nearly four assists a game per 36 minutes with San Antonio. Last season he was averaging 4.2 assists per 36 minutes before he was traded, and that number slumped to 2.9 in Toronto, who ranked 25th and 26th in half-court offence over the past two seasons.  

Had Poeltl finished the year with the Spurs and maintained the same production, he would have ranked sixth among centres with at least 60 games played. For context, Marc Gasol — another highly regarded passing centre — averaged 5.6 assists per 36 minutes when he helped the Raptors win an NBA title in 2018-19. It will be interesting to see what happens if Poeltl is tasked with creating offence to an even greater extent than he did with the Spurs. 

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Fittingly, the first live test will come Sunday night at the Rogers Centre in Vancouver when the Raptors host Sabonis and the visiting Sacramento Kings to start their pre-season schedule. 

Poeltl earned his four-year, $84 million contract he signed in the off-season based on his ability to score efficiently and anchor a defence: he averaged 13 points, nine rebounds, 1.3 blocks and 1.2 assists on 65 per cent shooting while playing 28 minutes a game for Toronto after the trade deadline. The Raptors went 15-9 with him in the starting lineup. 

But if the 28-year-old can expand his game in season eight, the Raptors will benefit. 

“That’s the area that we want to play more through him: give him the ball at the elbow, give him the ball at the top of the key,” said Rajakovic after the Raptors open scrimmage on Friday night where Poeltl had a handful of sharp passes that he helped create with his timing. “Obviously this year he’s going to be playing with a different point guard, playing with Dennis Schroder for the first time, so it’s going to be interesting to see his growth and how he’s going to play those pick-and-rolls and DHOs with the other guys on the team, but expect him to make another jump in his career.” 

Poeltl is encouraged by the opportunity, but it’s a work in progress. 

“I think there are some situations where these cutters are going to have to be active almost every single time. So you’re going to have to like, see the ball,” he said after practice on Saturday. “ There’s been a few instances, maybe not so much in training camp now, but maybe during open gym, where guys are still getting used to that. You have got to keep your head on a swivel but all times, because if you’re open, the ball is going to come your way. I think those situations, just getting used to that, might be a little bit of a learning curve.”

Poeltl is up for it, especially after getting a taste for playing “point centre” with San Antonio last season.

I feel like it’s a very similar play style: a lot of playmaking through the trailer or high post positions. I feel like it’s something I’m comfortable with. It’s something I enjoy doing,” he said. “I like trying to find my teammates in situations like that. So it’s not unnatural to me. I think there’s still some room to grow for me, to make those reads, get them right almost every time. But yeah, I feel pretty good about it.”

If he can pull it off doubtless the Raptors will too.

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