SALT LAKE CITY — Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak celebrated a birthday on his first recruiting trip to Austria. Jakob Poeltl’s mother even made a cake for him.
In the years that followed, Krystkowiak and the Utes had plenty of other things to celebrate with Poeltl — like back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances.
Poeltl helped Utah win 53 games over the past two seasons. The 7-footer went on to become the 2015-16 Pac-12 Player of the Year. He also won the Pete Newell (big man) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (nation’s top center) awards as a sophomore.
On Thursday, Poeltl is expected to become Utah’s first NBA draft lottery pick since Andrew Bogut went No. 1 overall in 2005.
“It’s really cool. I don’t know how you put it into words … some of the definitions of being proud,” Krystkowiak said. “When you’re a parent and your kids do something I feel the same sense of that — a sense of accomplishment for him and I’m happy for him.”
Krystkowiak and his wife Jan are in New York with Jakob, one of his best friends from Austria, and the Poeltl family. They’re going to dinner on Wednesday and will attend the draft together at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn the following day.
“I think as far as an athlete goes, he’s a top-notch athlete,” said Krystkowiak, who praised Poeltl’s vertical jump and speed — adding that his quickness for his size is off the charts. “The thing I’ve been saying for a couple of years that really can’t be measured is he’s got as good a set of hands as anybody I’ve ever been around in terms of catching errant passes. It’s really a skill that can’t be coached. You either have it or don’t.”
Poeltl’s instincts and athleticism, Krystkowiak continued, combined with him being an unbelievably bright kid who's never going to embarrass anybody’s franchise makes him the whole package.
Through the grapevine, Krystkowiak has heard that Poeltl could be picked somewhere around ninth, 10th, 11th or 12th in the draft.
“Those are teams that need centers and that’s right in his wheelhouse,” Krystkowiak said. “So Toronto, and Milwaukee, and then Utah.
“From a selfish point of view it wouldn’t be the end of the world to have in Salt Lake so we could stay connected,” he added. “But I just want him to have fun. We’ll have fun for the next few days and then the work begins.”
Poeltl is looking forward to the challenge. When announcing his intentions to enter the draft, Poeltl said it was the next step to take in his career. At Utah, he upped his scoring average from 9.1 points as a freshman to 17.2 as a sophomore. Other improvements include rebounding (6.8 to 9.1) and free-throw shooting (44.4 percent to 68.9 percent).
The rise led to All-America recognition and accolades.
“How are you going to top it, short of some team success? Individually he addressed and accomplished everything that were his weaknesses,” Krystkowiak said. “It’s time to kick him out of the nest and bring in another group and try to do it again.”
Poeltl’s decision to return to Utah for a second season, Krystkowiak explained, will help him thrive and not just survive in the NBA.
“He made major steps of growth from his freshman year to sophomore year. I think the NBA is getting a great player,” said Utah teammate Kyle Kuzma. “As long as he keeps working hard and developing his craft, I think the sky is the limit for him.”
Looking back, Krystkowiak said that the commitment to visit Austria was pretty minute compared to how the program benefitted with Poeltl.
“If you would have told me what Jakob would have accomplished, I'd had been there every week,” Krystkowiak said.
Traveling to a place more than 5,500 miles from home didn’t bother Krystkowiak. He considers it as holding up his end of the bargain, especially with international players that are “making an unbelievable commitment to leave their country and jump into a culture that’s completely new.”
Therefore, Krystkowiak emphasized the importance of reaching out and letting people know that you’re willing to make the trek.
Speaking of paths, draft prognosticators haven’t reached a consensus of where Poeltl might land. NBA.com had him headed to Toronto with the ninth pick, while foxsports.com is picking Milwaukee (10th overall) as the destination. ESPN.com has Poeltl tabbed as the No. 3 overall prospect and SI.com lists Poeltl as the fifth-best big man.
Utah’s draft history has been sparse over the past 15 years. Besides Bogut, the only other Runnin’ Ute to be picked was guard Delon Wright. He was taken 20th overall last year by Toronto.