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Making a Splash

Even as his career took a detour through the G League, Jordan Poole was sure he was going to make it in the NBA. Now, he’s one of the reasons the Warriors are back in the Finals and is perhaps the successor to Steph Curry in the next chapter of Golden State’s dynasty.

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Twenty minutes after scoring 19 points in Golden State’s victory over Dallas in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, Jordan Poole arrived to talk to the media. But Poole stopped just short of the press conference room and grinned sheepishly.

“You gotta say it,” Poole, beaming a million-watt smile, said to Terry Ryan, a Chase Center security guard. “You gotta say it or I’m not doing it.”

“Y’all have him for 90 seconds,” Ryan said, prompting laughter from the press corps.

Ryan has been making the same joke since midseason. The media began to request to interview Poole more and more, but the 22-year-old guard wasn’t quite used to being in front of a live microphone.

“If I could duck it, I would,” Poole tells me a day later. “I guess it’s just … we kind of signed up for it.”

There’s no way to avoid the spotlight now. After struggling through most of his first two NBA seasons, Poole emerged this season as not only an essential part of the Warriors, but also as someone who could one day carry the franchise into its next era. During the regular season, he averaged 18.5 points, hitting tough shots and running plays usually drawn up for Steph Curry. When Curry returned to the lineup at the start of the playoffs after sitting out 12 games due to injury, Poole started ahead of him and dropped 30, 29, and 27 points on the Denver Nuggets, leaving even his future Hall of Fame teammates in awe.

“To see where he’s come from his rookie year, man, it’s incredible,” Klay Thompson told me recently. “It’s one of the cooler stories in the NBA.”

Poole is back in his usual reserve role, but the attention still follows him. Cameras tracked his every move heading into Game 1 of the West finals, and the Inside the NBA crew interviewed him on the court during his pregame routine. This postseason, he’s averaging 18.4 points on 53/39/92 shooting, proving he can be just as impactful in 16 games as he can over 82.

“He’s at the top of the league in my mind in terms of work ethic,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said recently. “And how much he wants it. So it’s great to see somebody that committed get rewarded.”

This Finals berth marks a triumphant return for the Warriors. After losing Kevin Durant and missing the postseason two years in a row, the original core of Curry, Thompson, and Draymond Green has propelled the franchise back onto the NBA’s biggest stage, an accomplishment that they openly celebrated last week.

For Poole, it’s an arrival. Years ago, as he toiled in the G League, Golden State executives wondered whether the first-round pick would ever find his place in the league. But the same self-confidence that got him to the NBA, the one born in the rec centers of Milwaukee, has now allowed him to reach once-unthinkable heights.

“I knew it was going to happen,” he says. “Not everybody can come in and be a starter and get all the shots and be able to play through the mistakes and stuff. But the opportunity will present itself. You just don’t know when, so your job is to be ready whenever it does.”

Golden State Warriors’ Jordan Poole (3) reacts after drawing a foul and scoring back-to-back against the Denver Nuggets in the second quarter of Game 1 of their NBA first round playoff series at Chase Center in San Francisco, Calif., on Saturday, April 16, 2022.  Photo by Ray Chavez/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Image

The rook couldn’t stop talking. During the first week of his first training camp, Poole was the lone shooter playing against a first-string team featuring Curry, Green, and D’Angelo Russell. Poole was clearly overmatched, but he kept jawing and chucking.

“He was just all over the map,” Kerr tells me. “You could see he had ballhandling skills, but they needed to be tightened up. You can tell he had the talent, but what was he going to do with it and how was he going to respond to the inevitable lumps that he was going to take? And, frankly, I had no idea at that point how he would do that.”

That didn’t stop the 20-year-old—who spent the previous two years playing at Michigan—from answering any challenge on the court with sheer audacity.

“He talking shit because he kind of low-key cooking, but it really don’t matter because you ain’t winning,” says Juan Toscano-Anderson, an undrafted rookie at the time.

The Warriors’ veterans were struck by such boldness from the 28th pick. Some made comments wondering where the rook got this confidence. But Poole never intended to make it a scene; his tough talk is merely a means of survival learned long ago.

As a pup, he followed his dad, Anthony, all around Milwaukee. The Poole family had Bucks season tickets, so he’d study Ray Allen’s shot up close. At home, Anthony, originally from the South Side of Chicago, would pop in a tape of Michael Jordan highlights. Then, on the weekends, they’d go to the gym that Anthony ran on Sundays at Atonement Lutheran Church on the north side of the city. “It was grown men and guys that were in college that came back and played overseas,” Anthony tells me. Although eager to play, Jordan was too small to hang with the adults. So he would wait until the games were done, sneak onto the court, and shoot.

“One time, he was trying to throw it underhanded,” Anthony remembers, “and I just went up to him and said, ‘Man, if you going to do this, you got to shoot it the right way. You got to shoot it above your head.’ Even though it was a man-sized basketball, he always just kept trying to do it. He just was determined, like, ‘OK, I’m just eventually going to hit this.’”

So Anthony had Jordan shoot from 10 spots around the floor and then made his son drop down for 10 push-ups after each station was complete. “He’d be like, ‘Dad, can we go to gym?’ I’m like, ‘Dude, it’s nine at night,’” Anthony says. “He’d say, ‘I know, let’s go work out.’”

By third grade, Jordan was making 3-pointers, and by the time he was a preteen, he was on the court with the big homies, holding his own. “He could score on us,” Anthony says. “Defensive-wise, he wasn’t going to be able to maintain, and we’d have to help him. As far as scoring on us, he could do that at 12.”

Playing with grown-ups meant dealing with dirty screens, trash talk, and doubt. If Jordan even thought to complain, his pops would relay a recurring message: “No matter what, don’t let nobody tell you what you can’t do or what you can do if you’re doing the right thing,” Anthony would say. “You can question authority, as long as it’s done with respect.”

But Jordan also developed a propensity to gab. “I was never like a bad kid or I never did anything to get in trouble,” Jordan says. “But If I wanted to stand out without being obnoxious, I would—whether that’s what I wore, whether that’s what I listened to, whether that’s the things that I talked about, the questions that I asked, the people that I hung out with.”

That meant teasing his opponent after every missed jumper, or yelling out in dismay whenever he felt a foul called against him wasn’t warranted. The other players let it go out of respect for his father, until one Sunday run when Jordan was 15. He complained about the validity of an ol’ head’s foul call. “That was crap!” Jordan barked on the way down the court. “Jordan just was laying in him, just kept talking to him, just kept talking to him, and kept talking,” Anthony says. After a while, the ol’ head got mad and nudged the teenager’s face with his finger. “I kind of snapped,” Anthony says. “It was like, ‘Hey, that’s an unwritten rule. You don’t touch [Jordan.]’ And he apologized, but it was the fact that Jordan got under his skin, because we had been winning.”

Jordan, though, wasn’t shaken. He played the part for so long that he eventually didn’t have to fake it anymore. “I’m not saying you can’t show fear or show weakness,” Jordan says, “but it will become magnified if you did. Then it got to a point where it was no longer fear.”

The mindset helped Poole win a national title at Indiana prep power La Lumiere School alongside Jaren Jackson Jr. It helped at Michigan, where, as a freshman, he hit a game-winner to beat Houston in the second round of the NCAA tournament. And it helped a year later, when a good showing at the 2019 Big Ten tournament convinced Warriors assistant general manager Mike Dunleavy that Poole belonged in the Bay Area.

But in the practice facility at Chase Center in his rookie season, Poole’s mouth was getting on everyone’s nerves, and players were letting Draymond Green know about it. “They’ll come to me like, ‘Dray, tell him to shut up. He a rookie,’” Green tells me.

Except Green didn’t have much sympathy for his fellow vets. He saw something in the kid who wouldn’t shut up.

“I was a big advocate of his then,” Green says. “I think a lot of people didn’t like his attitude early on, and I loved it. I was a rookie that talked, so I’m not going to go tell another rookie to shut up because y’all think, ‘Oh, you young. You shouldn’t say a word.’ I don’t roll like that. And so right then and there I’m like, ‘Oh, you getting under people’s skin. OK. I love that.’”

And Poole had a plan to put action to those words.

“I’m always going to go at somebody, always,” Poole says. “No matter what it is. It was just a matter of me figuring out how to do it on this level.”

Jordan Poole #3 of the Santa Cruz Warriors looks on during the game on February 15, 2021 at AdventHealth Arena in Orlando, Florida.  Photo by Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images

Poole’s pre-NBA career was a quick ascent. From the gym runs to the AAU tournaments and beyond, he succeeded every step of the way. “In the grand scheme of life, everything is moving so fast,” he says. But that changed five months into his professional career, when the pandemic hit.

If his professional career had ended on the evening of March 11, 2020, when the league hit pause, it’d be forgettable at best. In his third preseason game, on the road against the Lakers, he was crossed by Zach Norvell Jr. so badly that LeBron James and the entire Lakers bench made fun of him from the sideline. But the shutdown brought time to reflect. “There’s a lot of time to really be patient and reevaluate, restructure,” Poole says. “You know what it is that you want to become, I guess. I really just sat down those couple of months and watched the film, looked at everything, looked at playoff basketball to see what that was like, ask questions.”

Most nights would be spent scouring YouTube at 2 a.m., downloading video clips of Damian Lillard’s stepback, or Steph’s shot off a curl, and sending them to Patrick Turner, his offseason trainer, with the accompanying message, “We need to work on this.” When he got to Turner’s gym, just outside of San Francisco, he’d ask more questions. One evening following a workout, he asked Turner about the toughest thing he’d ever seen somebody do in a workout. Turner pointed to the corner of the gym, and said Poole had 20 attempts to make at least 18 3-pointers without the ball touching the rim. “And I told him only two people had done it,” Turner says, “Steph Curry and Sabrina Ionescu.”

“Bet,” Poole responded. “You’re about to see the third.” And an hour later, his words came true.

“That was him during the whole pandemic,” Turner says “Just wanted to be great. Just coming in, working his ass off and getting after it.”

When NBA facilities reopened, Poole would arrive at 8:30 a.m. He would text Warriors assistant Chris DeMarco, who’d usually be in the middle of a coach’s meeting, and ask whether DeMarco could run him through drills.

“To me, that’s when the light bulb went off for him during the break,” Kerr tells me. “Because he came back that first day and knew what he had to work on and started going to work. And he hasn’t stopped since. And so that question I had in my original interactions with him, that question was answered. This guy gets it.”

Poole had always put in the work, but growing up, his sessions would focus on his favorite part of the sport. “He was always the first one in the gym, last one out, but he was always shooting,” says Jim Gosz, Poole’s coach at Rufus King in Milwaukee, where he spent his first three years of high school. “He wasn’t in the weight room, he wasn’t winning the wind sprints. He didn’t win practice a lot, but he just was an offensive-minded person.”

By the summer of 2020, Poole was doing everything. On a rare trip to Milwaukee, Anthony took his son to lift. When it was time for shoulder presses on the bench, Jordan reached for two 85-pound dumbbells, leaving his father’s jaw on the floor. “I’m looking like, ‘Is Jordan going to be able to do this?’” Anthony says. “He was knocking it out.” Then, during gym time, Poole put on a shooting display.

“I went home and I told my wife, I’m like, ‘That boy’s a pro,’” he says. “She was like, ‘Yeah, I know, he’s in the league.’ I said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘You not understanding me.’ I said, ‘I coached him all my life.’ I said, ‘He wasn’t missing them.’ I said, ‘The way he was shooting that ball, he was hitting nothing but net.’”

The improvement was needed. During his rookie season, Poole’s lack of strength meant defenders could easily get him off his spot, and his lack of desire on defense left the coaching staff shaking their heads. The Warriors lost Curry, Green, and Thompson all to injury during that 2019-20 season, leading to one of the worst campaigns in franchise history, yet opening up playing time for Poole. But Poole says he struggled to find a rhythm amid a roster of journeymen and midseason add-ons. “I didn’t know the shots I was getting, how I would get the shots,” he says.

Poole took frequent trips to the G League. He scored 23 points in his first game, helping the Santa Cruz Warriors overcome a 15-point deficit. But in his third game, he jawed with an opponent and earned a technical foul, prompting then–Santa Cruz coach Kris Weems to take him out of the game. “You can’t be doing that, man,” Weems said. “I need you to just stay focused. Don’t be worrying about dudes who are not at your level.” Heeding the message, Poole responded with one of his own. “Watch,” he said. “I’m going to win this game.” Then he scored five of his game-high 24 points in the final three minutes and 40 seconds, including two free throws to ice a 110-106 victory.

But even after his grueling summer of workouts, Poole was sent back to the G League bubble the next season. “I mean, it is what it is,” Poole says. “Right? Like, I was there. Would I like to have been at home? Would I have liked to have been with the team? Yeah. But at the time, I couldn’t do nothing about it. It wasn’t no point to trip over it. By me tripping over it, by me being upset about it or feeling some type of way, wouldn’t have allowed me to go home, wouldn’t allow me to be with my team.”

Poole averaged 22.4 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 3.5 assists in Orlando. But he still needed to prove that he could be a piece for the big-league club. An opportunity arose on May 11, 2021, in a matchup against the Suns. The Warriors, in the thick of the play-in race, needed a win. Poole scored 20 points, including a go-ahead 3-pointer, opening the eyes of the team’s biggest stars.

“I could see the moment didn’t bother him,” Curry tells me. “And you can see the passion. This matters to him. I don’t know how loud it was to everybody else, but to me, I was out there with him, and I could feel a different energy about him.”

Soon the world would see him step up on the biggest stage.

Stephen Curry #30 and Jordan Poole #3 of the Golden State Warriors look on against the Denver Nuggets during Round 1 Game 4 of the 2022 NBA Playoffs on April 24, 2022 at the Ball Arena in Denver, Colorado.  Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

Poole had a reputation for a lot of things around the Milwaukee rec centers, but one proved prophetic. “People used to call him Little Steph,” Anthony says.

In Golden State, Poole became Steph’s understudy. He’d watch Curry’s movements, run plays designed for Curry, and take all of his shots. The big difference is how Kerr approaches coaching him.

“I give him little hints all the time and things that I wouldn’t say to Steph about shot selection,” Kerr told me last winter. “I will say to Jordan because Jordan hasn’t earned that yet. In his third year, his 3-point percentage isn’t what Steph’s is. And so without trying to thwart him and keep him from being himself, I’m trying to nudge toward really high percentage shot taking rather than emulating Steph. That’s a dangerous game, emulating Steph.”

A decade ago, Curry himself was in a similar position of having to play in an MVP’s shadow.

“When I came in, I was the next Steve Nash, and people threw that out all the time,” Curry says. “And obviously, I wasn’t playing with him, so I didn’t have to look at him every day. But I feel like [Poole] understands the situation he’s in with our team. And that he’s really, truly making an impact on us winning basketball games. So whatever the conversation around that is, he embraces it.”

Embracing everything that comes with that success, though, has been a slower process for Poole.

After the Warriors clinched their latest Finals berth last week with a Game 5 victory over the Mavericks, Curry was whisked outside of the arena for an appearance on Inside the NBA. Alongside Green, he basked in the glory of their latest conquest. But about an hour after Thursday’s victory, Poole, clad in his Western Conference championship shirt and matching hat, walked up to the media room, looked toward the cameras, then over to the room where the media was waiting for him once more. “I only have two things?” he asked a team official, who reassured him he’ll be done soon.

Poole doesn’t mind talking to the media. The issue, he says, is he’s afraid to give a piece of himself to a group that he feels doesn’t actually want to hear what he has to say.

“People really don’t care,” he tells me. “They’ll ask you the questions, right? They’ll say they want to know, but genuinely, they really don’t care. I mean, you know the people who do. Those are the people that are probably close to you, are like family. It’s just conversation, blank conversation for whatever time we have. … I’d just rather stay away from it.”

The Warriors, meanwhile, have gone to great lengths to give extra attention to Poole and some of their other young players. During the previous title runs, headlined by established stars like Durant, Curry, Thompson, and Green, and aided by veterans like Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, and David West, little attention was paid to grooming the next generation. “We were already developed,” Kerr quipped following the Warriors’ Game 5 win over the Mavericks.

But last summer, the team hired several coaches with deep backgrounds in player development: Kenny Atkinson, the former head coach and architect of Brooklyn’s rebuild; Jama Mahlalela, who helped oversee the development of Raptors cornerstones Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet; and Dejan Milojevic, who helped groom a young Nikola Jokic in Serbia. The additions are the Warriors’ attempt to seamlessly bridge from one era to the next. Recent lottery picks Jonathan Kuminga, Moses Moody, and James Wiseman will likely be a part of what’s to come, but the organization sees Poole as someone who can take the reins.

“From an organizational standpoint, what we’d love to see is him taking on the mantle once the current generation moves on and Jordan steps into his prime,” Kerr says. “This is how you would draw it up if you could draw it up, where you get a talented guy who has learned from the best there’s ever been and embraces that challenge and that pressure and runs with it. And that’s the path he’s on.”

The first step may come this offseason. Poole is eligible for an extension on his rookie contract this summer, and while signing him to one may be a no-brainer, the luxury tax bill that comes with it could break records. The Warriors are already over the projected luxury tax for next season before re-signing key vets like Kevon Looney. The following season, when a Poole extension would kick in, they’ll also have to make a call on Andrew Wiggins. Paying for the present and the future simultaneously will get very expensive.

“We’re not even thinking about that now,” Warriors general manager Bob Myers tells me. “It’s the playoffs, we’re not thinking about contracts and offseason. We’ll get to it when the time is right.”

Poole is taking the same approach: “What’s actually extremely crazy is we are so close to accomplishing something so special,” he adds. “And that these guys, like the older guys, the vets, and the guys with experience, make it clear that it’s so rare that I almost can’t think about anything other than really winning the championship. People go their entire careers without it. And that’s the ultimate goal. We get that done, everything else really takes care of itself.”

A title would represent a culmination of the Warriors’ return for many of their veterans; but for Poole, it’s only a beginning. No matter what happens in the Finals, he plans on attacking his future with the same self-confidence that got him to this point.

“There was never a cap on anything,” he says about his potential. “No one has ever gotten so good or has done something so well that you can no longer do any better. So I mean, I might as well try to unlock all the potential that I have.”

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