Poltl, Austria reaching for new heights
AMSTERDAM (FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 European Pre-Qualifiers) - It's mission accomplished this summer for Austrian center Jakob Poltl.
The Toronto Raptor still has one more game to play in the FIBA Basketball World Cup European Pre-Qualifiers at the Netherlands on Wednesday but the primary goal has already been achieved. Austria will be among the 32 teams on the old continent that, come November, will launch a FIBA Basketball World Cup qualifying campaign.
Austria are 2-1 heading into Wednesday's game in Amsterdam and assured of no worse than second place in Group B.
Poltl's presence has been vital. He has a team-best 24.3 efficiency rating and is leading Austria in scoring with an average of 21.3 points per contest.
Poltl has been outstanding for Austria
Had Poltl not played this summer, Austria still would have had a good team with some terrific players. Rasid Mahalbasic is a huge talent in their front court, averaging 19 points and almost 7 rebounds. But things would have been different, too. Austria might not have been traveling to the Netherlands with a spot in the World Cup Qualifiers sewn up. Thankfully for Austria, Poltl was able to play.
"I always knew I wanted to," Poltl said. "It was just a question of everything else around it falling into place and if we could get everything else sorted out – if it is the insurance or whatever else, the coaching staff, the communication between the national team and the Raptors. For me it was always clear I wanted to play.
For their part, the Canadian-based NBA franchise, Toronto Raptors, saw the advantages of Poltl playing for Austria.
"Obviously at first, they wanted to check out the situation and see what it is like in Austria, so I had to explain to them a little bit about how we do things back here and then my coach came out to Toronto and talked to the coaches, staff and management," he said.
"But once everything was sorted, they were happy about it. They knew I would get some playing time, more minutes on the court that would help me develop as a basketball player."
One plus for Poltl is that he has worked out under an accomplished coach in Kestutis Kemzura, the Lithuanian who guided his homeland to a spot on the podium at the 2010 FIBA Basketball World Cup.
Kemzura's coaching is one of the benefits for Poltl this summer
"It's been great," Poltl said. "Obviously a coach of his level is great to have. For me to come back to Austria and get some new perspectives from a guy that has a lot of experience and can teach me and all the other guys new stuff I have not heard of before is great.
"I think for us as a team, he can definitely push us to a whole new level. I think he has been very positive for us."
There has also been the opportunity for Vienna-born Poltl to be reunited with friends, those he has seen less of, since leaving his country to play college basketball at Utah in 2014.
"It's been a lot of fun," he said. "I love being back home. The national team gives me the opportunity to be home and be with my family, friends and teammates. Most of them I knew already. I played against or with them in my last two years in Austria."
Polt smiles and adds: "The guys are really cool and the fact they let me brush up on my German again is really convenient, too."
There have been adjustments to be made for Poltl, who played two years at Utah before declaring for the 2016 NBA Draft. He was selected by Toronto with the ninth pick in the first round.
There is something of a basketball hype right now in Austria and I hope we can continue in this way.Poltl
"Obviously it is not easy changing styles, coming from the NBA, coming back to more of a European style of basketball," he said. "All of a sudden, there are new teammates that I have to get used to and they have to get used to playing with me. But all-in-all, it's been a lot of fun. We have been playing well so I have been really enjoying myself."
Austria's two victories have come against Albania. They won their first Pre-Qualifier in Tirana and after falling at home to the Netherlands, Austria punched their ticket to the World Cup European Qualifiers with a second triumph over the Albanians.
Austria swept Albania in two games to reach the World Cup European Qualifiers
Taking part in the Pre-Qualifiers is just one of the many steps that Poltl hopes will help Austria become a stronger basketball nation.
"It's a long journey," he said. "You always have to start with the youth basketball and the kids. You have to build it from the bottom up.
"It's obviously easier said than done, but you can create an excitement for younger kids to start playing basketball and once that happens, you need to find good coaches who can develop those kids so they have a chance to become really good players and push Austrian basketball further.
"It's a cycle of this. It's a question of committing to it and of money as well. We are a pretty small country so we do not necessarily have that many kids to choose from but I think we are on a pretty good way, the way we are doing it right now. There is something of a basketball hype right now in Austria and I hope we can continue in this way."
Poltl's jump to the NBA has helped bring attention to the sport.
"I want to help push basketball in Austria," he said. "I like doing things like taking my time after the game to sign stuff for the kids and to try and promote basketball in any way possible in Austria so we can make steps forward and hopefully in 10, 15, 20 years, there will be a couple more NBA basketball players from Austria."