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Jordan Poole Is the Main Character Now

A late first-round pick, a development project, a curiosity, a microwave scorer off the bench, a starter, a star … a max player? The Warriors guard has been through it all and now finds himself at the center of Golden State’s second-round series with the Grizzlies.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When a young player is making the leap to leaguewide terror, there are these moments that bubble up every so often when the player is becoming fully realized before your eyes. Sometimes they’ve known they’ve got the goods, and sometimes they’re realizing it the same time you are, and sometimes they’re realizing you are realizing it for the first time, and these things come together—a huge play in a huge game, a sign that consistent greatness is no longer around the corner but to be expected. The player is no longer on their way. They are here.

Take this play in Game 2 of the Dubs’ first-round series against the Nugs. Jordan Poole catches it on the move just beyond half court. The Nuggies are dawdling around after a make, taking their time getting back. Boogie’s forced to take Poole, picks him up on the right wing. And beyond Boog nothing but wide-open pastures as far as the eye can see. There wasn’t a single Nugget below the free throw line when Poole started his drive. He already had some steam built up and has long strides for 6-foot-4. He got downhill immediately, drove right with conviction. Boogie’s heels had just kissed the outline of the restricted area when Poole initiated his retreat. He stepped on the brakes and hit Boogie with a right-to-left behind-the-back into one of the stretchiest stepbacks in recent memory. Poole covered a lot of acreage and he covered it in a hurry. Made it from the outskirts of the right block all the way to the right corner, hit a 3 with Boogie flying at him. It’s all there: the handle, the change of direction, the skill, the audaciousness. How do you even think you can get back there? That dribble with the left in the midst of the backpedal—that was the extra bounce he needed to make up the requisite real estate to get back beyond the arc in the land of fancy. The balance and footwork, it’s balletic destruction. That move at that speed is hard in an empty gym. The kind of on-the-run dribble combo that could liquify a lesser man’s ACLs. The ball did not touch the rim.

Before the make, TNT’s microphones picked up a fan in Chase Center screaming, “Jordan Poole, you a beast! You a beast!” And I mean, seems accurate. I agree with the dude. We have arrived at similar conclusions. There is a boring segment of the basketball-viewing public who don’t like the brashness, the confidence, the talking. To y’all, I would just say if you so much as harm a hair on Jordan’s head, we will burn Utica to the ground.

After his offensive explosions, defensive breakdowns, and one odd-looking, ill-fated slap at the basketball, Poole has found himself this series’ main man. On Sunday, Memphis Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins said it was unlikely All-Star point guard Ja Morant would play in Game 4 against the Warriors. This announcement came in the aftermath of a dramatic Game 3, which saw Morant leave the game with a knee injury after being doubled by Poole and Andrew Wiggins. On Poole’s second swipe for the ball, he caught Morant’s knee. What happened next depends on who you talk to. Some think Poole grabbed Ja’s knee and gave it a little twist with his right hand while pushing him with his left. Others think the play was mainly harmless and that Morant actually hurt himself banging knees with Klay Thompson while contesting a 3 earlier in the game. Morant took to Twitter after the game to retweet a clip of the play and add “broke the code,” a reference to what Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said at the podium after Dillon Brooks’s Game 2 foul left Gary Payton II with a fractured left elbow. He would later delete the tweet. For his part, Poole said, “I was going for the ball. … I’m not even that type of player. I respect everybody. Hopefully he gets better and we can see him out there next game.” Though I have long wanted to decree something, I cannot say definitively how Morant hurt his knee. I cannot say whether Poole tried to hurt Morant, but considering Poole has zero history with stuff like this and after multiple angles, it’s hard not to believe Poole. Doesn’t make the Morant injury any less of a bummer and it doesn’t make the spotlight on Poole any less bright.

Work adds wattage to spotlights. And skill this smooth comes from work tireless and unseen. Poole’s big-time work ethic has been well-documented. Draymond has mentioned it; Steph, Looney. Why not enjoy the fruits of one’s labor? NBA players don’t talk enough. If I did anything half as cool as that stepback Poole hit on Boogie, I would Devendorf it onto the scorer’s table immediately and dab for the next five possessions. Let the fans bury me in compliments. I dunk on someone? I’d run around the court screaming, “What’s your name? Who’s your daddy? Is he rich like me?”

He’s more consistent now. A product of play-based learning. He has observed the best in their natural habitat and does what they do. At Chase, he hunts noise—wants more at all times. He’s like Curry and Klay in this way too. Makes fun decisions. Kobe 11 Barcelonas, bright mango and crimson, easy to spot. Skittles on his feet. Haymakers shot from San Francisco Bay. Defenders subjected to public torture. If the crowd’s buzzing, he wants them screaming. If the crowd’s screaming, he wants them levitating. There’s an insatiable thirst for points.

Picture it like this: ravenous crowd. Maybe the Warriors are in the early stages of one of their death marches. Coming off back-to-back 3s. They’re up 12. Thirty seconds ago, they were up six. And the Chase crowd adjusts their Patagonia vests and puts their back into it and there’s a block on one end and it’s Steph or Poole in the open court. They get their desired matchup and dance a little off the bounce, get the defender guessing, get an oooooooo going. And maybe there’s a flourish and the defender’s rattled or he slips or he falls or he’s lost or he’s there and the ooooooo turns into ooooooooohhhhhhhhh and the noise rises with every dribble, every fake, every lie. And then the shot goes in and the ooooohhhhh becomes OOOOOOOHHHHHHH!!!!!

The Warriors have always wanted to demoralize. They would prefer to humiliate. If, for whatever reason, they can’t, they’ll make do with the win, but their ultimate desire is to decapitate you in the town square, stick your head on a pike, and roast. Don’t find yourself on the wrong end of a 3-point barrage. Steph’s tapping his chest, pointing to the sky. Draymond’s flexing. Shots of a celebratory Dell, putting himself back out there, wearing Gucci belts and tucking in his snake sweaters. Kenny Atkinson, on sabbatical from sweating on laptops, looks confused. Steve Kerr, on sabbatical from pretending to laugh, looks constipated. I bet Mike Brown has great glasses recs. I hope he gets after it in Sacramento. Purple frames one game, baby blue the next. I mean really, explore the space.

When Poole, Klay, and Steph are all hitting, it’s like a basketball version of Three-card Monte. They bop around like molecules, hot-potato the ball—there and gone and there and gone again. Swing their partner round and round. Constantly searching, they dart around the court like quails. They’ll get what they want. There will be an open 3. It will be made. This doesn’t make the defense try any less. Usually it’s the opposite. Pick your analogy. They run around stomping out fires. Whack-a-mole? Or another could be, “You poured too much Coke in your cup, you went too hard, and the fizz is alive. And it is headed for the brim. And you’re rushing to get to the sink in time but you know: You will not make it.” Watching the opposing defense, you feel the stress through the television. They’re in a state of perpetual panic. What was that? Where did he go? Did you see that? I think something just touched my hair. Is that your hand, Janine? A constant scramble of no no no no no no no no no.

Poole is not a perfect hybrid of Steph and Klay. He has his differences. Steph and Klay are both varying degrees of all-time great, the best shooting backcourt in the history of the world, and something something something culture’s so important something, to the gods of splashing all praise be, but can’t neither one of them do this:

Poole has inhaled every piece of info he can from Steph and Klay and his game reflects that. The Klay-Poole dynamic in particular is interesting to watch. They get along well, say the right things, and when they’re simpatico and shots are falling, things start to look nuclear in a hurry. But in the moments Klay has looked slower than he used to, not as explosive on either end, firing blanks, it’s hard not to think Poole should be getting some of those shots. This is especially the case in games when even Klay is struggling to stay in front of guys. Maybe the GP injury renders it all moot now, but would Kerr sit Klay if he had to? Poole can do more off the bounce than a healthy Thompson ever could and, at least right now, presents as far more dangerous on and off the ball. Offensively, Poole is bona fide. A total dreamboat. Defensively, well, what’s the opposite of a dream?

He’s not above getting hunted. In fact, he would appear to have a magnet for such a thing. Not at the can’t-play-Kanter level but Poole is absolutely in his go-at-him-till-he-wilts phase. Matchup hunting is nothing new and will not stop until he makes it stop. He can be abysmal on that end. Not lost, really, more ineffectual. Stays too long in help, takes bad angles getting back. Can’t keep his man out of the paint. The Grizzlies have attacked him off the dribble without fear and to rousing success. The Memphis guards are all doing some version of the onside kick at the end of The Waterboy. Who’s it gonna be? Who’s it gonna be? Who’s it gonna be? The Warriors are doing the same with Ja.

Poole has bloodlust when he sees a couple go in. He has the same desire to humiliate that his team does, and he has a bag built for the playoffs: stepbacks and side-steps and relocations at breakneck speed. Can get to the rim. Not to be trifled with. He welcomes defenders into his personal space. Get a hand up. Who cares? Be there when he catches it. So what? Press up on him and he’ll smoove his way around. The best offensive players move like leopards. There’s no hitch in his movement. No buffering, no unintended stutters, no hard edges. The corners are rounded off. Poole glides in the open floor. Great brakes. The footwork is high-octane. Has the fluidity of movement you see in the premier perimeter scorers. Maybe a little Paul George? Not springs-wise but the way his body moves. Paul George with a personality. In the gunner tradition but so much more. The playmaking is happening now. He’s seeing more of the floor. He’s slowing defenders down. There’s an assuredness to his offense, rarely rushed. Plays loose and at his own pace. The handle can be otherworldly at times. Will just do magic in the middle of a game.

You know what people like? A variety of quality options. Will uncork 27-foot bombs off the dribble without fear or prejudice. Will come off a pick, take a couple of bounces, and hit a 15-footer. Will split the defense at the top of the key, get in the lane, and get on the rim. He’s improved his finishing, added little in-air sleights and flourishes. He does what greats do—weaponize the rim. It’s not just a hoop. It’s also a shield, an extra hand to stiff-arm a defender out of relevance. Be good to the rim and it will be good to you. Poole is as thoughtful a shooter as you’ll find. Very gentle with the orange steel. Dedicates himself anew each day to not letting the ball touch it. Not while he’s shooting it. Not on his watch. As long as he’s around, the rim is safe. As long as he’s around, never the oranges shall meet. He doesn’t need to catch it clean. Doesn’t need to be in rhythm. Can lift-fake off the bounce into a sidestep into another lift-fake and then drop in another triple.

If ever the Warriors are in the market for a new logo:

Or this:

Whoops. Wrong pic. My fault. Fat thumbs. Here’s the right one.

There we go. The Dubs don’t just want to beat you, they want your soul. They want you broken and bloody and beneath them. The joy distracts. Yes, they are smiling but they are also lighting you on fire. Yes, they are skipping and shimmying but Poole is another tool to burn people with. He’s hot on arrival. Absolutely has triples of the Barracuda and Road Runner. Well on his way to triples of the Nova.

Game 1 of their second-round series against the Grizzlies was the first game he came off the bench in a minute. Didn’t matter. Led the team in minutes and scoring. Put up 31 on 12-for-20 shooting in front of God, Jerry Lawler, and Jimmy Goldstein. For the playoffs, he’s averaging 22.5 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 5.4 assists per game on 56.5 percent field goal shooting, 46.2 percent from 3, and 87.9 percent on free throws. Aside from rebounds and free throw percentage—which Poole led the league in during the regular season, at 92.5 percent—every category has seen a significant bump. He’s leveling up. There will be time to talk about what this leap means for the Warriors long term. He arrives at an optimal moment to take some pressure off Steph and Klay as the lone perimeter scorers, and assuming health in all directions, even if Poole doesn’t improve a bit more, his positive qualities will extend their careers. But, as always, the future is for another day. In the playoffs, it has to be about the now. How do you win now? Right now, Poole makes the Warriors a legitimate contender again. Right now, Poole is under the lights. Right now, Poole is the main character, and not just because Taylor Jenkins says so.