Raptors center Poeltl gets his bounce from volleyball roots

NBA.com Global on Feb 03, 2018 08:57 PM
Raptors center Poeltl gets his bounce from volleyball roots
Minnesota Timberwolves' Karl-Anthony Towns, right, shoots as Toronto Raptors' Jakob Poeltl defends during the second half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, Jan. 20, 2018, in Minneapolis. The Timberwolves won 115-109. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com

Jakob Poeltl went for the volleyball but stayed for the basketball.

The place: the gymnasium in Vienna, Austria, where Rainer and Martina Poeltl practiced and honed the skills that earned them roster spots on Austria’s national volleyball men’s and women’s teams.

Martina Poeltl (red uniform, second from left) was a standout on Austria's national volleyball team.

The child: Jakob Poeltl, dragged along, running loose, playing around and messing with sports equipment from whomever, wherever. Legend has it the energized six-year-old one day picked up a bigger, heavier, pebble-grained orange ball he’d found and, in that instant, began straying from his parents’ sport.

The result: Poeltl is a promising, second-year big man for the Toronto Raptors, the first Austrian to reach the NBA and a fellow for whom dunks have replaced spikes entirely.

“I was more in basketball,” Poeltl said before a recent game in Chicago. The 22-year-old, now seven feet and 248 pounds, pronounces his name “YA-kub PURR-tuhl.”

“I did play volleyball with my parents when we went on holidays. But it was never anything serious, it was always just fun. They taught me a lot -- I think I’m half-decent at volleyball. Obviously I couldn’t play it at a very high level like they did, but I still know some stuff from back in the day that they showed me.”

Ranier Poeltl (back row, second from left) was a standout on Austria's national volleyball.

Still knows some stuff? That’s intriguing as Poeltl continues to develop as an active, mobile center who backs up Jonas Valanciunas. Is it possible that any aspects of the family business transfer to NBA play, offensively or defensively? Besides the high fives, that is.

“A big chunk,” Poeltl said. “I got my height from them. I got my athletic ability probably, to a certain extent, from them too. Always, growing up, I was around sports. It was a very active family, I guess. I was always moving. They say I couldn’t stop running around.”

That’s a good start for a big man in today’s NBA. There’s more.

Future Raptors center Jakob Poeltl (left, sunglasses) plays some beach volleyball in this 2010 family photo.

“His footwork is unbelievable,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. “The athletic genes are there. Quick feet, great hands, good hand-eye coordination. And he picks up stuff so fast. I think it comes from being around that athletic background.”

Said teammate C.J. Miles, new to Toronto this season with an inside glimpse at Poeltl’s development: “He’s extremely mobile for his size. Great hands. His athleticism shows up on both ends, defensively and offensively. He’s got a tremendous feel for the NBA.

“His agility. His feet. He’s got good bounce off the floor.”

Volleyball and the NBA have a pretty long history. Wilt Chamberlain, after wrapping his legendary hoops career, picked up the sport and played it well into his 40s. He played both beach and indoor versions and was quoted in his 1991 book, “A View From Above,” saying, “For a long time, volleyball became as big a part of my life as basketball once was.” He even got involved in the mid-1970s with, and lent legitimacy to, the short-lived pro International Volleyball Association.

Bill Walton, not surprising given his southern California roots and nature-loving way, played beach volleyball. So does his son, current Lakers coach Luke Walton. On a recent trip to Chicago, the younger Walton talked about how forgiving the sand is for an NBA player whose legs and bodies don’t need any extra pounding. The Waltons honed their games with the help of Greg Lee, a UCLA teammate of Bill who became a renowned beach volleyball star.

Vince Carter played both sports at Dayton Beach's Mainland High School, earning Conference Player of the Year status in 1994. Former NBA forward Chase Budinger was more of a standout at volleyball than basketball while at La Costa Canyon High in Carlsbad, Calif. During the 2011 lockout, Budinger joined his brother Duncan briefly on the pro beach tour.

The offspring of numerous NBA figures, from Jermaine O’Neal’s daughter (Asjia, committed to Texas) to Houston coach Mike D’Antoni’s niece (Bailey D'Antoni, freshman at Marshall), have snagged college volleyball scholarships. Another former NBA player, Jud Buechler, a member of Walton’s staff, played volleyball in high school, then coached up his daughter, Reily, to a spot at UCLA.

Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid was a seven-foot Cameroonian volleyball player before he got introduced to hoops shortly before an NBA Basketball Without Borders camp. And Portland coach Terry Stotts played high school volleyball in Guam when he attended high school there, his parents taking the family overseas in their jobs as teachers.

“Volleyball was a varsity sport, so I played volleyball for a couple years,” Stotts said. “The things I would say transfer to basketball are the explosive jumping. Hand-eye coordination. Quick reflexes. Timing. Going to spike the ball is like going to get a rebound -- you’ve got to time your jump. Lateral quickness to the ball. So yeah, I would say there’s some valid skills.”

So Stotts is OK if his rebounders occasionally tap out the ball rather than grabbing it. “Robin Lopez used to do that for us on the offensive glass,” the Blazers coach said, “and we’d get a lot of three-pointers because of it.”

Said Poeltl: “I actually do that a lot. I also find myself doing a lot of tip-ins. Maybe that has something to do with it.”

The 22-year-old’s overall game has stepped up thanks largely to opportunity. Already, he has logged more minutes in 2017-18 than he did all of last season, his nightly shifts increasing by about 50 percent from 11.6 minutes to 17.8. His production has jumped accordingly -- Poeltl is averaging 13.8 points and 9.5 rebounds per 36 minutes while shooting 63.7 percent.

“The most important improvement I’ve made was getting more comfortable on the court,” said Poeltl, who is not afraid to challenge dunkers at the rim, regardless of the poster potential. “Just gaining experience. I don’t think it’s anything I specifically worked on in my game.

“The chemistry with my teammates, finishing around the rim, all of that, small things have helped me. Knowing opponents, for sure. Knowing my own game more and more. How my teammates play and how I have to play around them.”

Said Toronto forward Pascal Siakam, Poeltl’s best friend on the team after arriving as rookies together last season: “I know he looks awkward, but he’s doing a great job of moving his feet.”

Poeltl is still carrying that flag as the first Austrian drafted into the NBA, realizing a dream few others in his country had when the Raptors used the No. 9 pick on him in 2016.

Austria had a spirited basketball faction through the 1950s, with qualifying for EuroBasket competition six times. But it dropped off after that, with little or nothing to show in international competition over the past five decades.

Poeltl’s journey, however, has begun to revive basketball interest in his homeland, and he’s just getting started.

“That’s what I’m trying to do -- be something of a role model for young basketball players in Austria,” Poeltl said. “I’m really trying to make basketball more popular and get more kids to play. If I can have that kind of effect, that would be great.”

He is on the Austrian roster for the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup qualification (Europe), and participated in August in pre-qualifying games. Poeltl will remain strictly a one-sport participant, though, not crossing over to the one his parents played.

“They know better,” he said. “I think [the national team organizers] have some better volleyball players than me.”

Volleyball’s loss, the Raptors’ and the NBA’s gain.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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