When Utah assistant Andy Hill sat down to watch Austria face the Netherlands on the first day of the 2013 U-18 European Championships, he wasn't optimistic it would be time well spent.
Neither country had much history of producing elite prospects, nor did they have any players familiar to Hill. The only reason he didn't skip the game and spend the afternoon sightseeing in Macedonia was to fulfill his vow of scouting all 38 teams in the tournament in person.
Hill's diligence proved more beneficial than he expected when he spotted a big man worthy of his attention. Jakob Poeltl, a largely unknown Austrian center, yanked down 15 rebounds and showcased impressive speed and skill for a 7 footer, sending Hill scrambling to see if he had any interest in playing college basketball in the United States.
"Sometimes you watch a kid and it's a complete no brainer you want him," Hill said. "I would say he was one of those kids. Right away, he stood out. He was rebounding everything, he played with great energy and his attitude was outstanding. His team struggled, but Jakob never got down on his teammates. It was impressive to me that a kid so talented would treat everyone with great respect."
Forging a relationship with Poeltl before other college programs discovered him was a huge coup for Utah because the big man from Vienna is every bit as good as Hill predicted. Poeltl has unseated fellow 7 footer Dallin Bachynski as Utah's starting center, spearheaded the Utes' ascension to 13th in the AP Top 25 and emerged as one of the fastest-rising prospects on NBA draft boards.
What has been most impressive about Poeltl in his first seven college games are his shot-blocking instincts, aggression on the glass and touch around the rim. He has made a seamless transition to college basketball, sinking nearly three-quarters of his shots, posting three double-doubles and averaging 12.0 points, 9.6 rebounds and 3.0 blocks.
"I tried to come here with no expectations, so I'm a little surprised how well I've done," Poeltl said. "I was very nervous before I got here. I was coming to a new country, I knew nothing about Utah except what I'd seen on my visit and I didn't know a whole lot about college basketball. But my teammates have helped me a lot and I got used to everything pretty quickly. I'm feeling comfortable now."
Poeltl's impressive opening month has rocketed him to 20th on DraftExpress.com's list of the top 100 pro prospects and has captured the attention of NBA scouts. One scout said he liked what he'd seen of Poeltl on film so far and had already booked a trip to Salt Lake City next month to evaluate him in person. Another viewed Poeltl as a potential NBA center if he gets stronger and diversifies his offensive game.
"He is still young and needs to develop his body a lot, but he is very fluid and smooth for a 7 footer," the second scout said. "He is still raw in his all-around game but he has a chance."
Poeltl owes his excellent genetics and passion for sports to his parents, both of whom were volleyball standouts. There was no youth volleyball available to Poeltl near his family's Vienna home, however, so his parents sent him to a basketball program around the corner instead.
When Poeltl began playing for the U-16 Vienna Timberwolves at age 14, he was most comfortable in a complementary role. Over the next few years, he grew more than eight inches, developed a low-post and mid-range game and became more confident in himself.
"The most important area of improvement was in his approach," Timberwolves coach Hubert Schmidt said. "As he was a late bloomer physically, he was not really dominating when he was 14. We encouraged him to recognize how good he could become, to start to play more aggressively and to attract a bigger role. You can see now that he doesn't shy away from taking responsibility at all."
Never was that transformation more obvious than when Hill watched Poeltl for the first time in Macedonia 17 months ago. Poeltl averaged 15.4 points, 12.3 rebounds and 2.6 blocks, earning second-team all-tournament honors even though undermanned Austria only won 1 of 7 games and finished 20th out of 22 teams in the second-tier B Division.
Word of Poeltl's performance spread quickly in basketball circles, drumming up interest from a handful of Division I programs and forcing him to decide whether he preferred to play professionally in Europe or in college in the United States. That choice actually wasn't too difficult for Poeltl because he liked that college offered a chance to pursue basketball while also furthering his education as a fall-back option.
"If I went pro in Europe, I probably wouldn't have a chance to go to a university and get my degree," Poeltl said. "That was a big plus about college. I could have basketball and an education at the same time. Also I think I wasn't ready for 100 percent professional basketball at that time. College was something in between where there wouldn't be quite as much pressure on me."
The tougher choice was determining whether Utah was the best option among the colleges that pursued him.
Since basketball is an afterthought in soccer-crazed Austria, Poeltl could only watch college or NBA games via unreliable Internet streams in the wee hours of the morning. He and his mom researched Utah and the other schools by studying articles about their rosters and playing style via the Internet, pulling up league standings and rankings and requesting game film from the coaches.
"They were so well prepared and they had done their research regarding questions they needed to have answered," Hill said. "Sometimes Jakob's mom would even ask questions that she knew the answers to before she asked them. It was kind of a test as to whether or not you were going to tell them the truth."
There were several factors that contributed to Poeltl choosing Utah over Cal and Arizona after visiting all three schools in February. Cal had a great chance to land Poeltl before it hired a coach he had no previous relationship with after Mike Montgomery retired. Arizona also effectively took itself out of the running when it decided it couldn't wait any longer for Poeltl to decide and accepted a commitment from Serbian 7 footer Dusan Ristic in March.
Nonetheless, the biggest reason Poeltl chose Utah was the relationship he had built with the Utes staff.
Utah's Larry Krystkowiak and Davidson's Bob McKillop were the only two Division I head coaches who spent the time and money to travel more than 5,000 miles to Vienna to get to know Poeltl in person, a decision that underscored how much the Utes wanted the young big man. Krystkowiak met with the entire family on his first trip, had lunch with Poeltl by himself on his second one and watched games on both visits.
Poeltl also liked the idea of being coached by a 6-foot-9 former NBA forward with a history of developing young big men. Krystkowiak could not promise Poeltl a starting job since Bachynski and fellow center Jeremy Olsen were returning from last year's team, but the Austrian 7 footer came away with the impression that the Utah staff would give him a fair chance.
"I really liked the coaching staff," Poeltl said. :They made me feel comfortable and that I wouldn't get lost. I also really appreciated that [Krystkowiak] came to meet with me in Vienna. I knew they really wanted me and also needed me out here because of that."
Eight months after he committed to Utah, Poeltl couldn't be happier with his decision.
He has earned the trust of the coaching staff, logging 35 or more minutes in Utah's two biggest games of the season so far — a four-point loss at San Diego State and an overtime win against Wichita State. He has also acclimated himself quickly off the floor, forging an especially strong bond with roommates Chris Reyes and Kenneth Ogbe, a German native.
Poeltl's only complaint about Salt Lake City so far? It's tough to find good schnitzel.
Though Poeltl's early-season play has earned him praise from fans, reporters, and NBA scouts, his coaches say he maintained his usual level-headed demeanor. His focus is solely on helping Utah complete its transformation from a six-win team in Krystkowiak's debut season four years ago to Pac-12 contender this season.
"I want to focus on this season right now and not on what might happen next season," Poeltl said. "I think when the team does good, that benefits all of us."
Video of Jakob Poeltl via Go-to-Guys.de:
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