He comes from a country where basketball is not at a high level. Still, he made it to the NBA via the NCAA, and now he’s signed a new contract as an asset to the Toronto Raptors. Jakob Poeltl, the European star of the Canadian club, talks in an exclusive interview for “Wprost” about the construction of Austrian basketball, the new reality in the club and the years spent at San Antonio Spurs with Gregg Popovich and Jeremi Sochan.
Summer is the time of national team games. In the NBA, the draft and negotiations with players take place at this time. In just over a month, the best basketball players in the world will start competing on the US and Canadian courts. Players from countries where basketball is not at the highest level usually spend the summer on individual training.
Conversation with Jakob Poeltl, star of the Toronto Raptors
Jakob Poeltl has come a long way to get from Austria – a country that has never played at the World Championships and has been waiting for another EuroBasket appearance for 46 years – to the best league in the world. Thanks to his good performance at the European Youth Championships, he gained recognition from the coach of the University of Utah. He spent two years in the NCAA, and then in 2016 he was selected ninth in the NBA draft by the Toronto Raptors.
He spent two years in the Canadian club, then, together with DeMar DeRozan, he was exchanged to San Antonio Spurs. Kawhi Leonard went the other way, which – as time and the 2019 championship showed – was a great decision. Over the years, the Austrian has gone from a young, uncouth player to a solid center who is entering the best years of his career. However, he will spend this time not in Texas, but in Canada, because a few months ago he was traded again and ended up in Toronto again.
Poeltl, who comes from Vienna, talks at Spurs in an exclusive interview for “Wprost” about his expectations for the new season with Raptors and his memories of his years in San Antonio. How did he remember Jeremy Sochan? What was Gregg Popovich paying attention to? Does Austrian basketball have a chance to improve its position? The 216-centimeter-tall center shared many stories and observations.
Michał Winiarczyk, “Wprost”: Can you get used to the fact that another summer passes without the opportunity to play with the team at the highest level? Many of your colleagues are competing at the world championships.
Jakob Poeltl: I don’t think so, it’s still problematic. I’m a bit worried about the basketball situation in Austria. We are still developing. We have a good generation of players, but it is getting old. It’s time for younger players to come in who would influence the position of the Austrian national team.
In recent years, I haven’t had many opportunities to participate in national team training camps. I played a few games last year, but since the change of the calendar and the introduction of international windows during the club season, I haven’t had many opportunities to play. There’s nothing I can do about the current situation.
Has your presence in the NBA influenced the popularity of basketball in Austria?
I think there has been some improvement in this regard. It’s hard to say how big it is. I’m not a star when it comes to popularity. I’m not after her. I am a private, quiet guy. However, I realize that I have little influence on children with my game. Basketball is growing globally, so it’s hard to say whether the fact that more Austrians follow basketball is due to the NBA as a whole or to my presence. We all certainly make a positive impact. I try to get involved in Austrian basketball. I organized camps for children every year. These are small steps towards improving the position of this sport in the country. The road is still very long.
This summer you signed a new four-year contract with the Toronto Raptors. Does the deal give you peace of mind before the start of the NBA season?
In a sense, yes. I like basketball, but I don’t like the business part of the NBA. It’s nice to have the contract matters behind me, because I know that now I can fully concentrate on the game for four years. Of course, I play in a league where exchanges are commonplace. I can’t influence it anymore, so I don’t worry about it. All I can do is prepare for the season and play as best as I can.
Was it easy for you to decide to stay in Toronto? You returned to the Raptors in February after nearly five years with the San Antonio Spurs.
I had no hesitation in staying. I won’t hide the fact that I checked where I stood in the NBA, what my options were, who wanted me and what they could offer me. However, I always had the belief that Toronto would be a great choice for me. The only thing left was to work out appropriate conditions and reach an agreement with the club. It all went very smoothly and I think we reached fair terms for both parties. I’m glad it all went so quickly and smoothly.
Toronto will start the season with a new coach. Darko Rajaković is the second European head coach in the history of the NBA. What impression did he make on you?
I had the opportunity to talk to him several times. After what I heard from him and other people, I think his idea for the band is very good. The key issue will be to translate the vision of the game into reality. It won’t be easy because the entire coaching staff is changing, not just the head coach. Additionally, there were many player changes. New players came who didn’t know the team. We all need time to be on the same wavelength.
Rajaković is a young trainer. He will also want to prove to everyone that he is the right person for this position. We want to play our best from the first game, but let’s keep in mind that there are many other talented teams in the NBA. We have to play our best basketball to compete with them.
Do you feel that you have already undergone a transformation from a developing boy to – some kind of – young veteran who, apart from playing on the pitch, also acts as a mentor for his teammates off it?
I don’t feel it yet, but it’s actually happening (laughter). My years in San Antonio made it clear that I was becoming an experienced NBA basketball player. Of course, there are still many players with much more experience, but at the end of my stay at Spurs or after being traded to Raptors, most of the players were younger than me. I won’t say it was a strange feeling, because I felt a bit old, but there was nothing else to do but get used to it. I want to use my years of experience to play better and give tips to those who want to learn.
What will you remember from those years in San Antonio? As a young talent, you joined a team with veterans like LaMarcus Aldridge, Rudy Gay and Paua Gasol. You left as a mature player and person.
I agree with what you said. I had a fantastic basketball journey in San Antonio. I came along as a young player who had a lot to prove – to myself and to others. I took advantage of the opportunities that came my way and I certainly developed on many levels. I was lucky to have probably the greatest coach in NBA history, Gregg Popovich. I slowly built his trust with my play and commitment. I felt it later with the freedom I was given.
Over the years, the coach allowed me to play more on my own. He trusted that what I was doing and what I was deciding on would be the best for the team. Popovich built my confidence as an NBA player. I feel very satisfied that at the end of my time in San Antonio I also played a teaching role in terms of Spurs culture for the younger players.
What is Popovich like when it comes to coach-player cooperation? The one we don’t see on TV screens.
He’s a great man. As strange as it may sound, his greatest advantage is that his head is in the right place. He is perfectly aware that basketball is a job for everyone. We have passion, the desire to win, we are brave and we want to win, but this is not our whole life. Popovich understands that the world does not end with basketball, that there are also other, more important matters for every person. He teaches basketball players and other coaches these values.
He is an experienced man not only in terms of basketball, but also in life. I appreciate that he tries to teach each of us this life balance. He can do it in a calm and cool way. Contrary to what you see on TV, he is not always as serious as he seems. He is also a funny guy who likes to joke around. When you get to know him, you feel a little surprised because you usually had a different image of him in your head. I think I built a really good relationship with him.
Do you regret missing out on the chance to play with Victor Wembanyama?
(Poeltl laughs – MW)
I suppose it would be nice, but the NBA is a league where you have no influence on many things. Who was supposed to know before the draft that Wembanyama would end up in San Antonio? I’ve already been traded twice, so I felt that certain things happen in this league and you have to accept them. I don’t think about “what if…” He doesn’t dwell on missed opportunities. I focus on the present and the future. I look at the cards in my hand today and try to make the most of them.
In San Antonio you had the opportunity to play with Jeremi Sochan for several months. How do you remember him?
Jeremy is a great guy. Considering he was a freshman last season, he was a very outgoing, outgoing, positive and loud young guy. Positive energy radiates from him. It’s impossible not to notice and hear Sochan in the locker room. You feel like there’s plenty of it everywhere.
As far as I got to know him, he did a good job in training and in matches during this short time. He is good at being an NBA player, which is not an easy thing for a man who is just getting there. I hope that he will continue to develop like this and will get a chance to show the world his best elements of the game. He has the potential to be a really good defensive player. If he adds a wider range of attacking options, he can become one of the top players in the NBA for many, many years.
You mentioned earlier that there are many things in the NBA you have no control over. You’ve already gotten to know this league well from the non-sports side. How have your years of playing changed you as a person and your approach to the sport?
Thanks, among other things, to Popovich, but also to the experiences mentioned above, I understood the great importance of balance in life. There’s no shortage of sports freaks in this league, but treating basketball like a job helped organize my life. Even though I devote a lot to this sport, it is important to have some distraction and – as I said in the case of the coach – to have my head in the right place.
Basketball is a brutal sport. Not everything will turn out as you planned. You need trusted people around you and a different world that will allow you not to torment yourself with bad thoughts. I assume that in addition to basketball, a player must also have space in his head for something that is not related to it, and which will also be a break from everyday life. Of course, you have to do your job 100 percent, but you also have to know that it doesn’t define you as a person. Not all NBA games will be as beautiful and sentimental as the first one, which I will remember for the rest of my life. Today, playing in the best league in the world has become routine, but I know that even in this routine I can still find fun.