The Warriors Needed Jordan Poole More Than We Knew
Fourteen months ago, the Golden State Warriors faced a situation that threatened to morph into an existential crisis. They weren’t awful like the previous season, when Stephen Curry missed all but five games with a hand injury and Klay Thompson was out for the first of two full years. They were something far worse for a franchise that prides itself on being light years ahead of the innovation curve. They were … normal.
While Curry turned back the clock to his glory days, the Warriors were .500 and near the bottom of the West’s play-in picture. A roster that once proudly boasted of its Strength in Numbers motif had decayed into an awkward mix of declining past heroes, ill-fitting castoffs and unprepared youth struggling to adopt to a movement-based offensive system that was beginning to seem antiquated as NBA Heliocentrism rose in prominence.
It was around this time — March 1, 2021, to be specific — that Jordan Poole returned from his second G League assignment in as many years. When the Warriors recalled him four games early after a rash of injuries, it didn’t just signify the turning point of his career. It marked the beginning of Warriors 2.0. Just as a young Kawhi Leonard once was supposed to be for San Antonio, Poole has become the connective tissue that stitches the Warriors’ glorious past to its bright future, allowing them to cheat the eventual death that comes within a normal franchise’s life cycle.
The 2022 NBA playoffs may be Poole’s breakout stage, but his emergence has been bubbling beneath the surface since the moment he returned from ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex at Disney World, site of the 2021 G League bubble. His style of play since that day epitomizes the peak version of the Warriors. He moves constantly, squirming around screens like a slalom skier. His shot selection is audacious by design, pulling defenders out beyond the 3-point line to open up driving lanes and backdoor cuts by teammates.
His shot profile is analytically friendly while emerging from a diverse set of raw materials. Seventy-seven percent of his shots were at the rim or beyond the 3-point line last season, and that figure dropped only to just under 75 percent this year despite Poole creating his own shot far more often: Last season, 61 percent of his 2-pointers and nearly 90 percent of his threes were assisted. This season, those numbers have dropped to 41 and 71 percent, respectively.
The scary part for opponents this year is that those shots are going in a lot more often. Poole nailed nearly 41 percent of his 3-pointers after this year’s All-Star Break and is up to a sizzling 46 percent in the playoffs. His shooting at the rim dropped only slightly despite relying less on his teammates there, and that gap was more than made up by an improved showing from floater range.
More importantly, Poole generates his points in a ton of different ways. He was one of only 11 players in the league to score at least 300 total points each on drives, catch-and-shoot attempts, and pull-up shots, according to the NBA’s tracking data. The other 10: Kevin Durant, Jayson Tatum, Joel Embiid, Devin Booker, Jaylen Brown, Anthony Edwards, Tyler Herro, LaMelo Ball, Terry Rozier and Poole’s teammate Stephen Curry.
Ah yes, Steph. The comparison between the two is obvious — and not entirely superficial anymore. It’s clear to fellow Warrior Draymond Green. “When I’m out there playing with Jordan Poole, like the same little life hacks, if you will, that I use when I’m playing with Steph Curry to get him open … are the same little life hacks I can use to get Jordan open,” Green said on his podcast in April.
Nobody is Steph, but Poole is playing an increasingly effective cover of the original. The Warriors average more points per possession on off-ball screens set for Poole this season than those set for Curry, according to Second Spectrum — and in fact more than all but three of Steph’s seasons in the Steve Kerr era. On-ball picks for Curry yielded 117.5 points per 100 possessions for the Warriors this season, the ninth-highest team mark among players who received at least 1,000 on-ball screens. But Poole wasn’t too far behind, coming in 12th overall at 116.2 points per 100 possessions.
That number best illustrates Poole’s key improvement since his second G League stint. His ability to get shots off was never in question. Nor was his work ethic, or even any risk that he’d lose that unflappable confidence. But he needed to learn how to set up his teammates and leverage his passing to create better looks for himself.
The Warriors’ device to foster that improvement was simple: make a decision in 0.5 seconds or less. Most modern coaches have strived to ingrain a “point five mentality” into their players since Gregg Popovich’s Spurs embodied it in winning the 2014 NBA title. But the Santa Cruz Warriors took it more seriously than most, and that experience dovetailed nicely with Poole’s intense individual work with Warriors player development coach Chris DeMarco since the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown period.
Once Poole returned to the Warriors, he began firing passes that illustrated his growing all-around court sense. His assists generated 10.1 points per game for the Warriors this season, up from 5.1 per game last year. That number has taken another leap to 13.5 per game in the postseason. He knows to look immediately for the roller whenever coming off a screen.
And he is not afraid to fire a saucy one-handed dish to the opposite side with either hand.
His passing improvement has unlocked the final awkward part of his game: his movement cadence while dribbling. Poole is quick without being fast, a quirk that takes NBA players a long time to master, if they ever do at all. There were 55 guards who ran at least 70 miles in half-court situations this season, according to Second Spectrum. Among those players, Poole had the eighth-highest acceleration load per 100 possessions … and the 47th-fastest maximum speed.
That’s ideal for a franchise that has made constant half-court player movement its bread and butter. While Poole can certainly run in the open floor, he most often appears to be shot out of a cannon in half-court situations. He can come off a screen into a dribble handoff or catch, appear to pause without coming to a complete stop, and still rapidly change pace to catch defenders flat-footed. As Poole has improved his court vision, he’s applied that same speed-changing ability to throw pocket or skip passes a beat sooner — or later — than defenders expect.
But Poole also applies the same herky-jerky style while attacking the cup. Only five players yielded more points per chance for their teams on their direct attacks this season.1 Five are superstars who have the ball a lot. The sixth is Mikal Bridges, who attacks primarily (but not exclusively) in spot-up situations. Poole, on the other hand, is constantly flying off screens, cutting backdoor and/or moving from one part of the 3-point line to another. His style of play doesn’t usually lend itself to proficient rim attacks.
So how does he surge downhill as effectively as he glides sideways? The answer illustrates one small way Poole is pushing the rest of the Warriors into a future that was beginning to pass them by before he came along.
During the height of the Warriors-Rockets rivalry in the late 2010s, Curry and the Warriors repeatedly grumbled about James Harden’s supposed “double” stepback jumper. Harden had found a legal way to take two small steps back while the ball bounced on his last dribble, then two much larger steps back once he gathered it with two hands. The traveling rule permits players to take two steps after they gather the ball, so by the letter of the law, only the last two steps counted.
Harden could pull it off only by successfully training his body to step and dribble at different speeds, opening up a new menu of options to deceive opponents and change speeds. Players capable of controlling their dribbles and steps separately can customize their step rhythm, body gyrations, hand placement on the ball and/or dribbling height without affecting the rest of their move.
This was the new-age way to dribble — or not dribble, as it were. And the Warriors, for all their brilliance, did not have one of the players at the forefront of that innovation.
Now, they have such a player in Poole. He gets to the basket not with speed or power, but by accelerating and decelerating at uneven times between his dribbles. He throws the defense off with his footwork, loose body stance and ability to switch from upright to crouched in an instant. He covers acres of land with an improved version of Harden’s “double” stepback jumper, whether he leaps toward or away from his shooting side. His hesitation move is so elongated that it often looks like a palming violation to the naked eye. (You be the judge on these.)
When combined with his improved passing, Poole’s driving gives Golden State’s offense a new dimension without sacrificing its core ideology. Like Curry, Poole speeds into his screens, squirms through small openings and finishes creatively. Like Thompson, Poole has the size to shoot over defenders, the quick release to surge quickly into his shot and the off-ball screen navigation to generate quick catch-and-shoot opportunities. Yet Poole is a more explosive driver than either Warriors star was at this age. He uses his wiry strength to hold off rotating defenders and generates powerful one-footed takeoffs to leap from far away and extend out to the rim.
All of that makes Poole a reasonable facsimile of a Splash Brother, which is valuable enough to bridge the Warriors’ past to its future. But the real magic happens when the Warriors merge his unique brand of chaos with their incumbent mayhem-inducers to produce a devastating present that is rocking the NBA.
The unnamed “New Death” lineup of Curry, Poole, Thompson, Green and Andrew Wiggins gets most of the attention, for good reason. Just ask the Denver Nuggets and Memphis Grizzlies what it’s like to defend three whirring lights-out shooters who can also dish, cut, drive and finish.
But the Warriors don’t need to go that far if they’re afraid of being undersized. Just pairing Poole with Curry and watching the two lead opponents through mazes of screens has proven to be enough so far, no matter who the other three players on the court are.
This trend goes back to last season, before Poole emerged as a playoff breakout star. Over the last two years, the Warriors have scored 120.3 points per 100 possessions with a +13.6 net rating when Curry and Poole share the floor. That’s a sample of nearly 1,400 minutes, including the last two regular seasons, the 2021 play-in game and this year’s postseason. (Add in Thompson, and those numbers zoom to a silly 124.9 points per 100 possessions and +20.9 net rating, albeit in limited minutes.)
There are reasonable explanations for why that sample size is only 1,300 or so minutes over the course of one and a half seasons. Injuries, of course, play a part. A Curry-Poole combination is vulnerable defensively against top wing scorers, as Ja Morant illustrated in his 47-point Game 2 performance. Reintegrating Thompson after his two-year injury absence took priority over the second half of the season, even at the expense of more Poole minutes with Curry. All in all, it’s hard to argue with the Warriors’ self-described “tough love” approach to Poole if it sometimes sacrifices the short term in the name of building better long-term habits.
Still, a stat like that should petrify the rest of the NBA. If the Warriors are deadly now, just wait until they lean fully into a Poole-Curry tandem that has proven to be light years ahead of defenses. That doomsday scenario, which conjures up memories of the last time the Warriors ran roughshod over the league, grows ever closer to reality with each breakout Poole playoff performance.
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