I’m a Kentucky man, through and through, so I’m not trying to throw accolades at another team but he does a great job of coaching his kids so his kids were ready. They understood the nuances of the game when they came into our program so they had a head start by playing for Larry (Krystkowiak). —Raptors coach Dwane Casey, on Delon Wright and Jakob Poeltl playing for Utah
TORONTO — Nestled among a bevy of exclusive Toronto Raptors merchandise in Air Canada Centre’s Real Sports Apparel is a white No. 42 jersey.
It’s expected for the Canadian team shop to carry the uniforms of Raptors All-Star guards DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, but former University of Utah star All-American Jakob Poeltl’s threads are now available for retail, too.
That’s a testament to the 7-foot center’s increased role and doubled production in his second season as the Raptors have tweaked their offense for better fluidity.
“I feel very comfortable with it,” Poeltl said of his role. “I like that fact that they want me to be active on defense. Be up, be back again, try and contest shots everywhere on the court. I think that suits my strengths so I’m pretty happy with that role.”
Poeltl has lifted his averages from 3.1 to 6.7 points, 3.1 to 4.7 boards and 0.4 to 1.2 blocks in 17.6 minutes per game for Toronto — the second-best team in the Eastern Conference. He is reading off guards on offense as they get in the paint and draw defenders while putting an extra emphasis on grabbing defensive boards after boxing out.
But on Friday night, the Utah Jazz rolled into town to upset the Raptors 97-93 on their home floor.
Poeltl, the 2016 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award winner, is playing alongside his former college running mate, Delon Wright — the 2015 Bob Cousy Award winner, in Toronto.
Wright, 25, is also averaging a career-best 8.7 points, 3.2 rebounds and 2.7 assists in his third season.
Against Utah, Wright ended with five points, six rebounds and three assists in 19 minutes while Poeltl logged four points, six rebounds and five blocks in 20 minutes as Toronto continues to push for the Eastern Conference’s top spot within the offensive transformation, where the team has dropped two of their last three games.
“Most of us wasn’t in the rotation last year, so we wasn’t really doing offense in a gam -setting,” Wright said. “So, once we put in the offense, we were able to adapt pretty easily because it’s all we know.”
Being around these guys every day, Raptors coach Dwane Casey has high praise for the duo and Utes coach Larry Krystkowiak’s entire program for their ability to adapt to change.
“Love them,” Casey said. “Both of them are great competitors and I say this all the time that Larry Krystkowiak did a great job with all of this players, not just those two.”
Wright, Poeltl and Los Angeles Lakers rookie Kyle Kuzma helped Utah become the only Pac-12 school to produce a NBA first-round pick in each of the last three seasons. Former No. 1 pick Andrew Bogut also appeared in 24 games with the Lakers this season before being released, but he could be signing with a new team after the trade deadline.
“You look at his program, he gets guys ready for the NBA,” Casey added. “I’m a Kentucky man, through and through, so I’m not trying to throw accolades at another team, but he does a great job of coaching his kids so his kids were ready. They understood the nuances of the game when they came into our program so they had a head start by playing for Larry.”
Poeltl and Wright won’t forget those Utah roots. Playing there was almost like having a cheat code to success in the league.
“It prepared me a lot. We had a really good coaching staff there,” Poeltl said of Utah. “They knew a lot about college basketball, but they also tried to prepare me for what’s coming in the pros. They didn’t go easy on me, let’s just say it like that.”