Many players have been better than Jordan Poole currently is during Steve Kerr’s seven years as head coach of the Golden State Warriors. But never, over that span, has this team rostered a player who resembles Stephen Curry’s off-ball scoring package like Poole. This is not, of course, a proclamation that Poole is the next Steph, nor am I positing that Poole is a more lethal off-ball scorer than healthy Klay Thompson. I’m talking stylistically, and the film testifies to that.
Watch this clip.
It’s nearly impossible to not spot shades of Steph in that bucket. The jitterbug motion and lively footwork. The rerouting to flummox defenders. The pop-gun jumper without a moment of hesitation. Adding a zero to the back of Poole’s jersey would deceive lots of people.
Suggesting these similarities 6.5 months ago was far-fetched. Poole struggled mightily as a rookie, averaging 8.8 points on 45.4 percent true shooting (.333/.279/.798 splits). The Warriors, short on high-end talent, were en route to a top-three pick. The speed of the NBA seemingly overwhelmed him and he endured a season-long cold spell from deep. Even the start of his second campaign saw him relegated to deep bench minutes, aside from an occasional brief cameo.
But then, following 11 games with the Santa Cruz Warriors in the G League Bubble, where he posted a 22-5-3 line on 64 percent true shooting, Poole returned and was primed to carve out a major role on a playoff contender. Across 35 post-All-Star break games, the second-year guard averaged 14.4 points, 2.4 assists, 1.2 turnovers, and 2.0 rebounds on 57.1 percent true shooting (.426/.348/.869 split), including nine outings with 20-plus points.
Outside of Curry, Golden State predominantly lacked floor-spacing and offensive vigor. Poole provided both. While his on-ball exploits still require blossoming, he presented a level on- and off-ball duality necessary for the Warriors offense.
He’s already a legit movement shooter, capable of sprinting into jumpers, seamlessly squaring his body and firing from contested or unorthodox angles. He takes efficient angles around picks and has dexterous footwork to set up plays. According to Synergy, he ranked in the 74th percentile off screens, empowering the coaching staff to deploy him in numerous ways, many of which emulate Curry’s off-ball usage. Split actions, slide screens, pindowns, and screen-the-screener schematics are all featured. If there was ever a Curry facsimile on this Warriors team over the last seven years, Poole is it, at least as an off-ball venturer.
Poole’s off-ball similarities to Curry are not confined to the specific play-types Kerr and Co. construct for him. He’s a shrewd player independent of the Xs and Os, slipping picks as a cutter, darting backdoor, and frequenting gaps in the defense to fashion ideal scoring opportunities. Sometimes, this was muted in lineups alongside poor passers (and not particularly perceptive offensive players) such as Andrew Wiggins, Kelly Oubre Jr., and James Wiseman. But letting him cook off the ball while pairing him with Draymond Green, Juan Toscano-Anderson, and Kevon Looney was the proper platform to succeed instinctively. On-ball advantage creation is the most valuable league-wide (usually), but Poole carves out equity as an off-ball advantage creator via feel and timing.
Until Thompson returns, the Warriors should run a Curry-Poole-Wiggins-Toscano-Anderson-Green lineup to close many games. It’s probably a grouping their five best players, at least based on last season (but maybe Otto Porter Jr. or Nemanja Bjelica change that). There’s a concordant ethos among the quintet to thrive on both ends.
Last year, according to Cleaning The Glass, lineups with both Poole and Steph on the floor generated a plus-18.2 net rating across 473 possessions. That’s far too small of a sample to utilize predictively, but conceptually, it’s clear why those units inflicted so much damage for opponents. Increasing the volume moving forward and ratcheting up their two-man game — note the quality of these two looks! — seems prudent.
Poole and Steph are tailored to succeed in Kerr’s movement, screening, and off-ball-heavy attack. Flanking them with heady ball movers/cutters/screeners such as Green, Toscano-Anderson, Looney, and Damion Lee can optimize those minutes offensively and gives impactful defenders with varying skills significant burn.
For Poole, though, it’s not just about the shooting. He’s diverse and adept in that regard, but the primary distinction between year one and two was his interior efficiency. He shot 39.2 percent on two-pointers as a rookie and 54.5 percent in 2020-21, when he showcased finishing and intermediate craft. Per Cleaning The Glass, he shot 67 percent around the rim (87th percentile) and 43 percent between 4 and 14 feet (60th percentile), demonstrative leaps from the 48 percent and 38 percent clips, respectively, of a year prior.
At the cup, he embraces contact against bigs, uses his frame to shield himself from rim protectors, and can convert with either hand in an assortment of ways. He boasts brilliant footwork to tilt defenders out of position, wields crafty changes of pace, and leverages his jumper with shot fakes to threaten defenders. Although his handle is a limited in traffic, he weaponizes it to prime screens and drive defenders into them with the proper load time to string dribble moves together. There’s much to like and admire about his finishing portfolio and processes.
The reason his footwork, change of pace, and off-ball movement are critical to his creation is his traditional methods of advantage creation do not stand out as clear pluses. His burst is not particularly noteworthy, underscored by a 22 percent rim frequency (32nd percentile) and .251 free-throw rate last season. His handle in narrow quarters can often be a hindrance and a prominent source of turnovers. He is quite weak in his lower body, which hamstrings his stability and capacity for generating force.
When his footwork or pre-screen handling are not effective means of forging seamless advantages, he fails to achieve one because of an underdeveloped and unstable lower body. Adding lower body strength, ideally somewhat boosting his explosiveness, would likely be a sizable boon to his creation ceiling.
Streamlining some passing consistency would benefit his on-ball aptitude, too. Currently, he’s a bit shot-happy and will not consider lobs, laydown passes, or kick-outs as a downhill operator. In ball-screens, he has a proclivity to not account for the roller, whether it stems from missing pocket passes or complicating their path to the rim on his own drives. He’s also a bit sloppy on some deliveries. Whereas his cadence enables him when he’s wired to finish, he can assume a one-speed approach and miss chances to feed big men inside or spray passes to open shooters beyond the arc.
The passing warts are not always prevalent. He hints at versatile, nifty playmaking derived from his scoring gravity. That should be an emphasis for his development, given the shot-making and scoring baseline he established in his age-21 season. It feels reasonable to project that he’ll consistently command defensive attention when the ball is in his hands, which should simplify his reads.
Learning how to consistently open up lobs because of his floater (69th percentile on runners last season, per Synergy) is valuable. Perfecting the standard pocket pass when two defenders engulf him off the catch would serve him wisely. Based upon his off-screen proficiency and general off-ball intelligence, it seems like he’ll routinely be open in spaces from which he can comfortably score, which will prompt defenses to sell out. Becoming both a reliable passing and scoring threat in those spots is an important development. I’m tepidly confident he will and being an understudy to Steph, the NBA’s foremost practitioner of turning immense shooting gravity into facilitating, only reinforces that belief.
Passing growth would unlock more pick-and-roll viability. The limited handle, burst/lower body strength, and distributing vision coalesced to produce consistent record-scratch moments for him in ball-screens last season. He ranked in the 32nd percentile as a pick-and-roll scorer and when passers are included, he finished in the 34th percentile. Too often, he’d fail to pressure the defense around a screen, either because his handle was disrupted or he didn’t have the zip to turn the corner. Instead, he’d retreat or resort to a poor decision.
Expanding his pull-up game to these pick-and-roll scenarios might really augment potential passing strides. He averaged roughly 2.5 pull-up attempts per game last season, and though efficient results weren’t there (45.5 percent on 2s, 29.2 percent on 3s), the flashes of comfort inspire hope. Mere refinement as a shot-maker remains an underrated aspect of development and Poole has exhibited a baseline of fluency to suggest it’s relevant here.
He’ll need to touch up that handle to broaden the scope of his pull-up, but a bedrock exists. Among 162 players with at least 100 pull-up attempts last season, he ranked 99th in effective field goal percentage (44.6). That is not good, of course, but the film just portrays someone whose confidence is ahead of his ability. It’s largely a matter of merging those aspects, which he absolutely can, though it’s by no means guaranteed. These clips, however, are the look of someone whose pull-up evolution is certainly attainable.
For all the reasons to praise his offense in the interim and long-term, his defense is much more concerning. Offensively, he is already good enough to offset those concerns as it pertains to a rotation role. But without development in some or many of the areas articulated above, his defense remains a glaring issue. There are instances of competency. He’ll stymie a drive and force his assignment to reassess their plans. He’ll execute a timely rotation to engender a pass or more challenging shot. Those are blips on the radar, though.
He has to improve in various facets. His closeouts are ineffectual. He’s overly jumpy against shot fakes. As a weak-side defender, he’s slow tagging rollers, is susceptible to losing his man if they lift along the arc, and dabbles in ball-watching too much.
Because of his lack of lower body stability, he typically fails to get low prepping for screens and finds himself trailing plays. Flexibility and fluidity around picks are not his strong suits. His lateral mobility, both on the ball and in off-ball ground coverage situations, is poor. The defensive film paints a dissatisfactory picture.
Fortunately for Poole and the Warriors, this context has the defensive infrastructure to mitigate most of these issues on a broad spectrum and also needs his offensive services. Last season, they finished fifth in defensive rating and 20th in offensive rating, despite Curry being, well, Steph Curry. Poole’s contributions are vital to staying relatively afloat offensively (Klay should help, too).
As contexts shift, though, Poole must sharpen areas on either side of the floor — whether it’s his handle, pull-up volume, or various defensive problems — to graduate beyond rotation player status. To be clear, though, that is already an excellent outcome for the 28th overall pick.
Looking ahead to the imminent 2021-22 season, Poole is going to be critical for Golden State. He complements its best player beautifully on offense and fits snugly into its overall philosophy. By no means does he determine its success, but a sustained breakout or lack thereof seems like the sort of storyline that could explain the Warriors’ Western Conference standing come April.
And this is, perhaps, both a laudatory and pressurized sentiment for a player whose rise is still only in the foundational stages. But it’s a promising foundation and one that previewed the blueprint of a highly versatile and skilled offensive player, someone who the Warriors and their fans should be rather optimistic about moving forward.