More often than not last season, Jakob Poeltl would step up to the free-throw line and miss. He shot 44.4 percent from the charity stripe last season and with numbers that low, not even he wanted to be fouled.
It’s a completely different story so far this season. With the game on the line in the closing minutes against Washington on Sunday night, he made six consecutive free throws in the final minute of overtime, four of which came in the final 12 seconds. This paved the way for an 80-75 Utah win. The big man, who was just named Pac-12 Player of the Week for his weekend efforts, no longer shies away from the line and instead embraces the opportunity.
For him to come up clutch in the last minute, especially when Washington’s David Crisp tripped him up to score a three pointer which sent the game into overtime, he couldn’t be happier to make it up when it counted.
“I was a little upset with myself because I made a little mistake in that play,” Poeltl said in an interview with ESPN 700. “Us as players got together and said we got to dial this in and we know we can beat this team and we just got to come out and play focused.”
During the offseason, head coach Larry Krystkowiak continually noted the weight Poeltl had been putting on so he could be more physical in the paint. With the size advantage he has over most defenders, he just needed to add an element of power to be even more dominant down low.
Aside from spending more time in the weight room, he also worked on his free throws and to help with this, Krystkowiak brought in an old friend.
Jack Sikma was a former teammate of Krystkowiak’s when he played for the University of Montana. Although Sikma was the team’s center, at one point while playing there, he lead the conference in free-throw percentage. Now, he’s somewhat of a free throw expert and he studies multiple aspects of it from balance, to a player’s eyes and, of course, the spin.
Over the summer, Sikma analyzed about 100 or so of Poeltl’s free throws so he could give him a few pointers on what to fix, and everyone can see the difference. Poeltl’s free-throw percentage is up to 69.5 percent this year.
“He’s a lot more still, his eyes are on the rim and he has a great rotation,” Krystkowiak said in an interview with ESPN 700. “He came back from Austria and chose not to dribble and he’s down on balance and it looks like it’s supposed to go in. It’s not as rickety as before.”
Against the Huskies, Krystkowiak knows how valuable Poeltl’s shooting was down the stretch.
“Without those free throws we wouldn’t be where we are,” Krystkowiak said in the interview. “He came down the stretch and he’s fixed that element of his game. He’s not afraid to get fouled now.”
Although Poeltl could never get a good read on what kind of defense Washington was going to throw at him, sometimes he didn’t even know where his defender was hiding — he was focused on his play and getting to the basket.
Poeltl added another double-double to his season against the Huskies, with 29 points and 10 rebounds. Overall from the line, he was 13-of-16. He also recorded four assists, one turnover and one crucial block in the final minute of overtime.
“It was a weird game to play in because they’re all over the place which made it a little tough,” Poeltl said in an interview with ESPN 700. “At the end of the day it’s all about staying focused and going up strong and trying to finish and that was pretty solid.”
With another emotional win under their belts, the Utes hope they can use this to their advantage with a couple of rematches coming up this week against Cal on Wednesday night and Stanford on Saturday afternoon. For now, the players are just excited they were able to squeeze out a hard-fought win.
“We knew we struggled at the start of conference play, but now we’ve found our groove,” Poeltl said in the interview. “We came back in it and that was a really important one for us.”