SALT LAKE CITY — It didn’t take long for Jakob Poeltl to make his mark in a Utes uniform.
The 7-footer from Austria earned the starting center spot for Utah ahead of a couple of veterans, Dallin Bachynski and Jeremy Olsen, who had started all of last year.
In his very first game, Poeltl scored 18 points and grabbed 10 rebounds against Ball State.
He followed that with a couple of double-digit rebound performances, and then really opened some eyes with 24 points, on 10-of-10 shooting, with 12 rebounds and five blocks in a win over North Dakota.
After those strong performances, NBA scouts started flocking to Utah games to see the Ute big guy, whose name started shooting up mock draft lists.
Against a couple of top 10 teams, Poeltl performed well, with 12 points, 11 rebounds and three blocked shots against Wichita State and eight points, 11 rebounds and three blocks against Kansas.
But despite the good outings, Poeltl has been a puzzle lately because of inconsistent efforts from game to game. Last week in Washington was a perfect example.
On Thursday night, he went scoreless, never even getting off a shot attempt and getting worked over on the defensive end by a couple of Washington State post players.
Then on Saturday, Poeltl came out on fire with perhaps his best half of the season, making 7 of 7 shots for 15 points, before disappearing in the second half and scoring just three points.
So what’s the deal with Poeltl?
“A lot of it could be answered to his being a freshman,’’ says Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak. “That’s normal. It’s not what you like, but often times it’s a roller coaster ride for a freshman, just getting through it all.’’
With a minimum of two more games in the season and as many as nine more games left if the Utes somehow miraculously make it to the national championship game, the big question is whether Poeltl will stay or will he go. Will he put his name in for the NBA Draft or come back to Utah for at least another year?
If he turns professional, he would be the first-ever Utah player to take that route after just one year. Andrew Bogut played for two years before becoming the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2005. Mike Sojourner, back in 1974, was another Ute to turn pro after just two seasons.
Kyrtkowiak flatly says, “I don’t know,’’ when asked about Poeltl’s intentions or even his qualifications.
For now, Poeltl is saying nothing one way or the other, using the same lines he has used all season.
“I haven’t really thought about it,’’ he says. “Obviously it’s in the back of my head a little bit, but I’m really trying to finish the season off and then I can worry about what I’m going to do in the future. So now I’m really focusing on the Pac-12 Tournament and the NCAA Tournament to finish it off and then I’ll see.’’
You get the impression he might be done when he uses the past tense in saying things like “overall it went pretty good’’ and “it was definitely a good experience.’’ But that could be the Austrian’s way of speaking English.
Poeltl also says, “I’m having a pretty good season and having a lot of fun out here’’ and he’s well-liked by his teammates and certainly by the Utah fans.
It may simply come down to what the NBA scouts tell Poeltl. If he’s a definite first-round pick and could get guaranteed money for three years, he may find it too hard to pass that up, even if he must sit on the bench for a couple or years. However, if he’s a borderline first- or second-round pick, he may be persuaded to polish his game for another year in college.
Back in December, Poeltl was listed in the 10-15 range on draft lists and now is listed on a variety of draft charts from No. 19 by Draft Express to as low as No. 35 by Basketball Insiders.
“I still have a lot of things to work on," Poeltl says, "and I have to get more consistent and things like foul trouble and free-throw shooting are things I really want to improve on.’’
Yes, the foul trouble and free-throw shooting have been problems for Poeltl, hurting himself and the team.
When he missed eight of 16 free throws in the opener against Ball State, he said that was an anomaly, but he’s actually gotten worse since and is shooting a dreadful 41.7 percent from the line. His missed free throws might have been the difference in a couple of close games and Krystkowiak has been forced to take him out down the stretch of some games to keep him off the line.
Poeltl claims he’s a much better free-throw shooter in practice and works hard at it, but admits it’s a mental thing.
“I’m way better (in practice),’’ he says. “If I have time after practice, I shoot 100 free throws and I make them a lot better. I’m pretty sure it’s mainly a mental problem I have to work on.’’
As for his foul problems, which have limited him to under 20 minutes in several games and a reason he’s only played more than 25 minutes in three Pac-12 games, Poeltl is aware he needs to get better.
Although some observers would contend he leads the basketball world in phantom foul calls, he doesn’t want to go there and says he needs to get rid of the “dumb” fouls.
“I don’t really want to talk about the refs, that’s not what I have to worry about,’’ he said. “But I’ve just got to avoid dumb fouls and unnecessary ones. It’s not the bad calls because there are some of them. It’s more the fouls where I made a mistake and I’ve got to cut those out, the ones that are a no-brainer where there’s no reason for me to hack in there. Those are the ones I need to worry about.’’
Krystkowiak isn’t concerned about Poeltl’s future plans right now as he tries to get his team back on track heading into the Pac-12 tourney and next week’s NCAA tournament.
“It’s like a lot of other things we have no control over and aren’t very important to us at this time,’’ he said. “I think what’s best for him right now is what’s best for us, which doesn’t involve talking about next year.’’
Krystkowiak is hoping that Poeltl’s best games are ahead of him, even if that means he might lose his big man for next season.
“Hopefully he dazzles and gets everybody’s attention and we win a bunch of games and it becomes a really valid point as for what’s best for him.’’