Former Utah college star Jakob Poeltl was surrounded by his biggest supporters on the biggest night of his life—draft night. Beside him was his mother (Martina), father (Rainer), sister (Miriam) and Utes coach (Larry Krystkowiak), who all remained hopeful that they would hear his name called early. In the weeks leading up to last year’s draft, he was projected to be a top-10 pick.
But regardless of where he went, getting selected wouldn’t only be a dream accomplished for Poeltl, but also a feat for all of Austria. When Poeltl stepped on stage and grasped hands with commissioner Adam Silver as the ninth overall pick last June, he cemented a place in NBA history as the first Austrian-born player to be drafted.
While basketball may be one of the most popular sports in the states, its interest is limited in Vienna, where he grew up. Where mountains are the prominent landscape and outdoor activities are the hobbies of choice, signs of hoops life are difficult to find. Now, Poeltl is hoping to be that game-changer to inspire Austria’s youth.
“There have been a couple of guys that have come close, a couple of guys that have played summer league, for example,” he told the NBPA. “But to be the first one to play in an NBA game was a really big deal for me personally, and I think in Austria as well. I feel confident that even if it shouldn’t go too well for the first year or two, I’m always going to have support from back home.”
Poeltl’s unique basketball journey all began at six years old, when his steady pounding of feet could be heard echoing from room to room, as he would run around the house. “I was just a kid with way too much energy,” he recalled. “So my parents were, like, ‘OK, do something with that energy. Go play a sport.'” There just so happened to be a basketball program right around the corner from where they lived. And after one practice, he fell in love with the game.
It was a great choice, as Poeltl soon found himself to be a natural. In his early teens, he was one of the better players in the program; he had the hands and the height. He just had to learn how to use his long limbs. “I was falling over my feet and wasn’t used to my own height,” he said. “It took a lot of work.”
Poeltl was determined to fix those issues, focusing on his conditioning and strengthening his core. In addition, he challenged himself by playing against bigger and stronger players in local games to improve his skills and quicken his footwork. Over time, basketball allowed him to gain control over his longer body, especially with it being fast paced—one of the things he loves most about the game.
If his parents ever wanted to try and convert him to their sport of volleyball—both were former players for the Austrian national team—they could save their breath. Basketball became a part of him and he continued to play well into high school. “I think my parents’ plan was to eventually convert me over to volleyball, but it was too late,” he said, laughing.
Aside from school and practice, Poeltl’s time was spent staying up late to watch NBA games. In Austria, to follow basketball is a daunting task, only done by the most passionate fans and players. One reason is the big time difference; the other is games are hardly televised.
“It was tough to watch basketball in Austria because the NBA games were always in the middle of the night,” he said. “And basketball in Austria wasn’t on TV anyways. The only way you could really watch was if you stayed up at night and watched it on replay or some stream online, or try to find the Euro league games online somewhere.”
Years later, Poeltl first realized he could go all the way and play professionally was when he competed in the FIBA Europe Under-16 Championship. Once he reached his last year in high school, he had to make some decisions about his future. He spent a lot of time thinking about whether to join a professional league in Europe or pursue a higher education in the U.S., where pro basketball would still be an option. “I’m going to try and go to college to make that next step,” he decided.
But because Poeltl was from Austria, he wasn’t a name in the American recruiting community. That changed thanks to one person, Utes assistant coach Andy Hill, who laid eyes on him at the 2013 FIBA U18 European Championship. Hill had vowed to scout all 38 teams in attendance, even though he had no expectations of the Austrian team. But he quickly noticed the center, who grabbed 15 rebounds in one game.
From there, Utah swooped in to forge a relationship with the future seven-foot prospect. Krystkowiak made two trips to Vienna to recruit Poeltl—the only college coach to travel overseas to meet with him.
“It was really hard for me and my mom to try and figure out what schools would be good for me, because I couldn’t watch too much college basketball. I wasn’t really familiar with it,” he said. “So me and my mom tried to do a lot of research online.”
Poeltl and his family looked up school stats, records and academic rankings, and were able to narrow his selection down to three choices: Utah, Arizona and California. Then they took off for a week for on-campus visits. While it was a tough decision, he ultimately committed to Utah in 2014.
“Cal just had the head coach that recruited me retire shortly before I made my decision. So I wasn’t sure if Cal was still a good option for me,” he said. “And then it was between Arizona and Utah. I really had a good feeling about Utah and their coaching staff. Also, I enjoyed my visit there.”
When Poeltl moved to Utah, he summed it up as a “shot in the dark,” knowing little about what he was about to experience. “All I knew was stuff that we tried to look up online and the two-day visits,” he said. Yet his teammates made his transition smoother by helping him feel welcomed, taking him out and treating him like one of the guys, rather than a foreign student.
“I had to leave home when I was 18, which wasn’t easy, but the guys at Utah, the friends I made there were like a second family to me,” he said.
When Poeltl first started playing ball in the states, he saw a key difference in the level of play.
“When I came to college, everybody, every single player, was just so hungry trying to make it,” he said. “That drive, that energy in every single practice was something that really impressed me. In Austria, there was always two or three players that were going really hard, 100 percent every practice. And once I got to college, that changed. There was more.”
Motivated by his teammates’ work ethic, Poeltl made giant strides as a player. He showed the resilience and strength of someone who left his family behind overseas to pursue something greater than himself. After averaging 9.1 points and 6.8 rebounds his freshman year, he came back with a vengeance the following season. In one game, Poeltl put up a career-high 32 points in a 74-68 win over Temple, and he went on to average 17.2 points and 9.1 rebounds, leading the team to their second straight NCAA tournament appearance.
His second and final season from 2015-16 distinguished him as one of the best big men in college basketball. He was named a first-team All-American, and received the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award for top center and Pete Newell Big Man Award. From there, he was on his way to rare air.
“[Being drafted in the NBA] is amazing,” he said. “But when you’re the first from your home country to do something, it feels even better. Just by me playing in the NBA, basketball has gotten a lot bigger in Austria.”
From Austria to Utah, and now Toronto, Poeltl is getting a taste of his third country in three years. He still longs for his family and friends who remain in Austria, and stays connected with them through Skype and messaging apps. He’ll see them all this summer when he returns for the first time since moving to Toronto. “It’s always cool to go back and see my friends and family again, be in my hometown again,” he said.
In the meantime, the Raptors’ coaching staff has embraced his culture by asking about his home country and current events happening in Austria. For one, he’s taught them about his favorite dish called Marillenknödel, which is an apricot-filled pastry.
His fellow teammates have also tried to make him feel comfortable through small, but appreciated gestures. Knowing that German is Poeltl’s first language—he sometimes speaks it, or says words he knows in Serbian or Croatian, on the court to express himself—fellow rookie Pascal Siakam tries to talk to him in his native tongue. It presents a good laugh between the two players because Siakam’s German can sometimes be “very broken,” Poeltl said. “He learned it in school a couple years back and he remembered a couple things,” he noted.
This season, Poeltl has played in 42 games, and on Sunday he had a career-high 12 points in a win over the Pacers. “We have a good team and I’m really hoping we can make a deep run,” he said. Beyond that, he hopes to play competitively one day for the Austrian national team; two summers ago, he played some friendly games with them. He would also like to start basketball camps in Vienna, with the goal of creating more excitement and awareness around the game and encourage young kids to pursue it.
Putting Austria on the map, he now finds himself in a special role to help others who were once in his shoes. He tells aspiring players back home, “Be proud that you could be one of the first from your country to make it to the NBA. And go with that and that pride, and try to represent your country in the best possible way.”