In an unexpected turn of events, it’s been third year backup center Lucas Nogueira being bumped out of the rotation since the All-Star break and rookie Jakob Poeltl getting the nod when the Raptors are short-handed or things have gone stagnant for head coach Dwane Casey.
“I think most of it is me feeling more comfortable,” Poeltl told Pro Bball Report. “The experience that comes with every single game, you learn new stuff, figure out how to move around on the court better. I’ve been playing a lot more, so increasingly it’s going to get easier I think.
“It’s all about trying to figure out a way to get it done and I’m definitely not the most physical guy at my position, but there are other ways around it. You still got to play physical and use your other strengths.”
Casey was giving his rookie center some minutes before the All-Star break, getting into about half the games and averaging 10.8 minutes, 2.3 points, 2.7 rebounds, but where Nogueira was a +/- of +3.9 points in his time on the court, Poeltl was an inexperienced -0.7 points.
However, since the break, with Serge Ibaka soaking up extra minutes at center and Poeltl and Nogueira reversing roles in the rotation, Poeltl has been a +0.9 averaging 4 points and 3.4 rebounds in 12.3 minutes with only 2 DNP-CDs. Nogueira is a -0.6 in a dramatically reduced role.
This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. Nogueira had been playing some of the best ball of his short NBA career and getting a lot of very productive run. A five-man lineup of Lowry, DeRozan, Carroll, Nogueira and Valanciunas had a net rating of +14.3 in 108 minutes and Lowry, Joseph, Ross, Patterson and Nogueira was a +15.4 net rating in 199 minutes.
Nogueira is in the fourth and fifth best five-man units the Raptors have put out there this season, however, the eye test and obviously in coach Casey’s opinion, Nogueira still has mental lapses and makes too many mistakes. Poeltl, on the other hand, gets nothing but praise.
“He’s always in the right place, very few mistakes, he’s very physical, he’s not afraid, he loves contact,” Casey said about Poeltl. “All those things add up, this is a physical game and he meets all those criteria.
“For me, just every time you put him in, he does something positive.”
While Poeltl has expressed concerns about his ability to be physical, compared to Nogueira, he’s a beast and any lack of physicality in Poeltl’s game rests solely in his own expectations of himself. Somehow, someway, he gets to the ball and opponents’ aren’t pushing him out of position. Averaging 8.2 fouls per 48 minutes since the break, Poeltl hasn’t been shy about being physical.
“As long as it’s not a bad foul, I don’t have a problem with getting three or four fouls a game,” Poeltl said. “If I use my fouls in a good way, not giving up and-ones, dumb fouls to send them to the line.”
It’s all about fitting in for Poeltl. Knowing his role and getting the job done.
“It’s not always about me getting more comfortable. It’s also about me developing a chemistry with my teammates on offense and on defense. Once you start playing with these guys more and more, you figure out how they’re playing and how you can play together.”
While it wasn’t expected that the rookie would be getting extra minutes at center after the All-Star break or Nogueira would lose his spot in the rotation, the move has been positive for the Raptors. Poeltl has tied his career best 12 points in a game three-times since the break and more often than not, he’s come into games and had an immediate positive impact.
He is a guy Casey can turn to when the Raptors get stagnant or lack energy on either end of the court.