Emerging Spurs big man Jakob Poeltl could be a key player in this year's trade market

The NBA’s annual trade window unofficially opens Thursday, when the majority of free agents who signed new contracts this past summer become eligible to be moved.

San Antonio Spurs center Jakob Poeltl figures to be an important name leading up to the Feb. 9 trade deadline. Poeltl, 27, will reach unrestricted free agency for the first time in July, and that uncertainty — as with Pacers big man Myles Turner — often leads to trades that precede offseason activity, allowing a team to acquire a summer target before he even reaches the open market. Particularly a player such as Poeltl, who’s standing on the doorstep of his prime. The Nuggets acquired Aaron Gordon before his contract expired at the 2021 trade deadline, and the Trail Blazers landed Jerami Grant this summer prior to the conclusion of his deal.

Poeltl, averaging 12.9 points and 9.9 rebounds, has arrived at this point after four years of steady development in San Antonio, when the July 2018 deal that brought Kawhi Leonard to Toronto shipped Poeltl to the Spurs alongside DeMar DeRozan.

At first, the Austrian giant was buried on San Antonio’s depth chart behind longtime All-Stars LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol. And so Poeltl fixated on their minute actions while riding Gregg Popovich’s bench. In practice, sparring sessions with the pair of post-playing savants offered Poeltl glimpse after glimpse at tricks of the trade. A shoulder bump here, a quick succession of footwork there. “You get put in a spot where you’re like, ‘Oh wow, he really just got me there with this dumb little move,” Poeltl said. “You just automatically start implementing that stuff into your game. You almost, like, don’t even think about it.”

Poeltl slowly earned the trust of Spurs coaches, running the floor and contributing to the flow of San Antonio’s offense. “We had a year where we just relentlessly worked on pick-and-roll situations with Dejounte [Murray],” Poeltl said. They drilled pocket-pass floaters as well as passing reads after help defenders converged on his dives toward the rim. Free-throw shooting has remained a point of emphasis in his development, as Poeltl has converted just 51.8% of his career attempts at the line. This season, the Spurs have focused on expanding Poeltl’s abilities as a playmaker, particularly when he catches at the elbows. “Every now and then make a move, try and get creative and go to the basket out of it,” Poeltl said.

His future could very well remain in San Antonio. Re-signing appears to be an option he will strongly consider if the deadline passes and Poeltl hasn’t changed teams. He is still young enough to help push the Spurs’ rebuild as San Antonio hurtles toward the top of May’s draft lottery. Yet a poll of league executives has Poeltl’s upcoming contract valuation between $15 million and $25 million annually, and the upper edge of that range could prove a pricey addition to the Spurs’ cap sheet amid a youth movement. Either way, testing the waters this summer has brought a new level of excitement for Poeltl to pen the next chapter of his NBA journey.

“I’ve never been in this situation where unrestricted free agency is coming up. It’s a cool situation for sure, because in the NBA, a lot of times you are — I don’t want to say stuck — but it feels like you’re a little bit of a pawn. They can just trade you around wherever they want,” Poeltl told Yahoo Sports. “It’s not the mentality you should have while you’re playing, but it’s the reality of it. Your contract can get passed around, more or less, whenever and however they want. So it’s nice to be in this situation where you can kind of decide your own fate and evaluate what’s going to be the best situation for me.”

The Raptors, sources told Yahoo Sports, have circled Poeltl seemingly ever since sending him South and continue to be mentioned by league personnel as a potential suitor on this burgeoning trade market. Boston has been linked to Poeltl in the past, however, the league-best Celtics don’t appear very active in the early trade chatter around the league.

Chicago had internal conversations regarding Poeltl ahead of last year’s deadline, sources said, and the Bulls are one team rival executives are closely monitoring as a potential seller. Buyers around the league are waiting for more teams than the Spurs, Magic, Pistons and Rockets to open for business.

There are no ongoing contract extension conversations between the Bulls and Nikola Vucevic, sources told Yahoo Sports. Chicago never truly had significant negotiations to restructure their starting center's deal. Whether that points to greater trade activity with the Bulls, of course, remains to be seen. Chicago officials have told inquiring teams they believe they can make the playoffs when healthy. There was early optimism around the organization that point guard Lonzo Ball, who helped the offense flourish a year ago, would return from knee surgery in January, but there have not been further signs of Ball's clear progression toward gameplay.

What are the Lakers trying to do?

The Lakers are certainly keeping an eye trained toward the Bulls’ developments. A player like Zach LaVine would satisfy Los Angeles’ dreamiest returns for the two future first-round picks Rob Pelinka’s front office has left in their stable, although the murmured idea of flipping Russell Westbrook for Vucevic and DeRozan would appear a far more realistic outcome if Chicago does ultimately pivot from its postseason aspirations.

Los Angeles’ primary trade efforts at this juncture have centered around a much smaller outgoing package of Patrick Beverley, Kendrick Nunn and a protected future first, sources told Yahoo Sports. The Lakers approached Detroit with that proposal in hopes of prying away Bojan Bogdanovic. The pick in question, however, was heavily protected, sources said, and the Pistons seem keen to hold out for a more tangible draft asset to part with Bogdanovic. Should Beverley ultimately get moved to a rebuilding situation like the Pistons, the grizzled guard has a desire to return to Minnesota, sources said, should he reach free agency via buyout.

Elsewhere in Detroit, multiple rival teams told Yahoo Sports the Pistons’ asking price to part with third-year swingman Saddiq Bey is an unprotected first-round pick. Veteran reserve big man Nerlens Noel is widely expected to be moved ahead of February’s trade deadline, sources said, while Alec Burks, who arrived alongside Noel in a draft-night deal with New York, has drawn interest from inquiring teams as well.

Knicks want to make some changes

The Knicks, along with the Lakers and Rockets, have been described by league personnel as one of the more active teams in early trade conversations. New York has made plenty of its roster available for discussion, particularly Evan Fournier, Derrick Rose, Cam Reddish and Immanuel Quickley, sources said. The Knicks are working with Reddish’s representatives to find him a new home, and there have indeed been conversations about rerouting him and Fournier to Los Angeles, sources said.

New York appeared eager to find a deal before Dec. 9, sources told Yahoo Sports, the two-month deadline for teams to acquire a player via trade and still be able to aggregate that player’s salary into a future deal before the trade buzzer sounds in February. Eric Gordon was one of the early targets for New York, sources said, although clearly no deal came to fruition. The Rockets appear to be in little rush to move their veteran swingman for whom Houston has held a steadfast asking price of a first-round pick, sources said, for several straight transaction cycles.

The usual suspects

This week, a new three-team structure between Atlanta, Phoenix and Utah gained traction and circled around the league. This concept would have sent Jae Crowder to Atlanta, sources said, although the deal stalled with complications in determining draft-pick compensation. The Jazz have shown interest in taking back John Collins, sources said, while that does appear antithetical to Utah’s goals of adding young players owed little future salary. Jarred Vanderbilt is also known to be a target for Phoenix in any activity with the Jazz. The Suns sought Vanderbilt’s inclusion in offseason discussions that would have brought Bogdanovic to the Valley, sources said. Suns guard Landry Shamet has been another player often included in Crowder deal frameworks.

In recent seasons, the Hawks approached Brooklyn about swapping Collins for Joe Harris. But at this juncture, as Harris still returns to form from ankle surgery that cost most of his 2021-22 season, Atlanta has not presently shown interest in that package, sources said.

Another team to keep an eye on as a Collins destination is Indiana. Sources said the Pacers have told inquiring teams they’re searching for a power forward to join their rebuild that features a blooming backcourt of Tyrese Haliburton and Bennedict Mathurin. Indiana has also suggested to opposing front offices that the Pacers are open to contract extension conversations with Turner.

Some rival executives have painted that stance as a negotiating tactic to draw greater offers for Turner’s services. And before the center recently changed representation, there was no development of any contract conversation with Indiana, sources said. Turner, though, would certainly be amenable to returning to Indiana amid a career season.