It starts, as usual, with a shot most would consider lucky, a suggestion that his fingers could possess magic tonight. Jordan Poole, trapped in the tiny crevasse between the sideline and Jimmy Butler’s encroaching arms as the shot clock dwindles, fires and nails a stepback from the corner.
In the second quarter, from almost the same spot, he’ll cross Kyle Lowry up so badly that Second Spectrum (correctly) lists Bam Adebayo as the closest defender to this made triple.
He’ll spend the third quarter testing the limits of his magic, setting up a crescendo: a running 3-pointer from 33 feet out as the shot clock expires, followed by a 30-footer in transition that barely grazes the net on its way in, creating a deficit the Heat won’t recover from.
When Poole pulls up from 40 feet, with two defenders draped over him, trying to draw the foul, and miraculously hits the shot anyway, the likeness is unmistakable. Comparing any player to Steph Curry feels sacrilegious, but hyperbole is less dangerous than denying the clear-as-day connections the brain makes when watching Poole lately.
In the past 14 games, during which both Klay Thompson and Curry have missed time, Poole is averaging 25.5 points on a scintillating 45.4 percent from 3, while dishing 4.9 assists.
While Poole may be getting his points like Curry does, his floaters and deep triples aren’t quite as accurate. Their percentages within the paint and midrange are virtually the same, except Poole is 7 percentage points more accurate inside the restricted area. According to Second Spectrum, Poole is in the 76th percentile for drives per 100 possessions; Curry is in the 77th. Curry is in the 93rd percentile for handoffs, and in the 59th for points per chance; Poole is in the 99th for handoffs, and in the 50th for points per chance. In points created off isolations, Curry is in the 83rd percentile; Poole is in the 81st.
So what’s going on? How did a third-year guard temporarily morph into a silhouette of a two-time MVP?
The answer is somewhere in the middle.
The Warriors, prizing synchronicity between system and personnel, target role players with skill sets that can develop within the confines the stars thrive in. For Poole, whose work ethic uniformly garners compliments from his teammates, the constraints have provided a road map. He spent the offseason tightening his handle and expanding his range, preparing to run the same routes as Thompson and Curry. As a result, he’s been able to step into Steph’s role and put up similarly impressive numbers. Occasionally, like that night against the Heat, he pulls off a good enough impersonation to inspire concern trolling: Who, in fact, is the replaceable one—Poole or Curry?
But serious questions hide behind the jokes. Can Poole integrate his game into a healthy version of the Warriors? Poole is up for the rookie extension this summer; should the Warriors pay him, or is his tear just proof that their system can regenerate his production? The answers to these questions are as crucial to the Warriors’ future as they are hard to answer. The Phoenix Suns—whom the Warriors face on Wednesday night—can relate.
Suns big Bismack Biyombo converted a 10-day contract into a season-long agreement by picking and rolling in the same patterns as the injured Deandre Ayton. Backup Cameron Payne snaked pick-and-rolls like Chris Paul when the Point God went down with a broken thumb. The Suns went 29-7 in their absences, and have clinched the best record in the NBA. With Paul back in the lineup, Phoenix is firing on all cylinders heading into the postseason, seamlessly integrating its parts in a way that has eluded the Warriors, now in third place in the West after a 1-6 stretch.
The future looked a lot like the sidelined present in the fourth quarter a week ago against Miami, when Jonathan Kuminga found a post mismatch on Duncan Robinson in semi-transition. Poole kicked it to Kuminga and used a screen from Kevon Looney (normally Draymond Green) to get separation from his defender. With Adebayo distracted by Kuminga, Poole had an ocean of space, and Looney had an open lane to the rim. Kuminga, taking the Thompson routine to its logical extreme, took scoring matters into his own hands. The plethora of options mimicked the frenzy that Golden State’s usual flurry of shooting and screening can cause for opponents. Imagine what could happen if Looney actually made contact.
But the Warriors dropped their next three games, including a blowout in Memphis in which Steve Kerr was ejected at the end of the first half. After the game, assistant Mike Brown said, “We’ve got six games left before playoff time, so I think having the right formula going in, and continuing to try to give our young guys confidence while making sure we’re pointing out to them the mistakes they’re making is always a positive.”
While Poole and his young teammates are getting valuable reps, they aren’t getting an opportunity to see how they could jell with the starters.
Before Marcus Smart slide-tackled Curry’s foot, causing a sprain that’s due to be evaluated at the end of the week, Steph, Thompson, and Poole were starting to find a rhythm, creating chaos reminiscent of Kevin Durant’s presence alongside the Splash Brothers.
Here, Thompson screens for Poole, and Poole sets a screen at the top of the 3-point line for Curry. But Poole takes a page from Thompson’s book, slipping the screen and pump-faking to get an open 3. Take one look at how far Wes Matthews sags into the nail off the greatest spot-up shooter of all time. It’s not hard to envision a universe in which their similarities create continuity instead of redundancy, with a more patient version of Poole passing to a more spaced-out version of Thompson.
The Poole-Curry pick-and-pop minced the Nuggets three weeks ago, culminating in a critical fourth-quarter triple that came after a backcourt conversation between Curry and Poole.
When Poole’s decision-making doesn’t disrupt the flow, Curry’s screens for him can be equally discombobulating for opponents. Against Utah in early February, the Warriors opened the game using Curry as a screener in a double drag that gets Poole open by taking advantage of the space Rudy Gobert concedes when dropping on picks.
That momentum halted when Curry got hurt. Klay screened for Poole seven times against the Wizards on Sunday, to promising results, until Washington started switching, triggering Poole’s tunnel vision.
Poole tried unsuccessfully to barrel into Daniel Gafford’s brick-laid frame, missed a jumper off a pick, and put a bookend on the disastrous third quarter with a dribbling expedition. He shot a fadeaway that failed to leave his hands before the buzzer sounded.
If the Heat game was the crescendo, this was the nadir. Poole is still learning the intricacies of game management, of recalibrating his attack when his shot goes cold. Kerr developed a strong stomach for intrepid plays from coaching Curry, resulting in a higher risk allowance for Poole. But no shot is bad for Curry.
Poole opened Monday’s loss to the Grizzlies by drawing a foul on overzealous screen-chasing by Dillon Brooks. From there, Memphis concentrated Curry-esque attention on Poole, a reaction the Warriors are still learning to counteract. Kuminga improvised a fake handoff into a dunk. Poole got loose on backdoor cuts, but missed Green’s laser vision. Poole also isn’t setting half as many screens as Curry, according to Second Spectrum.
“For him to be who he wants to be in this league,” Curry said last month, “he has to have a little bit of versatility. Being able to play different styles. Sometimes start, sometimes come off the bench. Sometimes 30 minutes, sometimes 15. You’ve got to be able to be yourself through all of those situations. At some point, we all kind of go through that. I think he is built for it, and he is going to have something to show for it.”
Curry’s own play is a road map. His answer reveals a tacit belief that Poole, mistake by mistake, will find his way. It’s easier to forgive his slips into hero ball with the understanding that he won’t do it as often in the future. He’s no Steph, but it’s fun to watch him try.