How Jordan Poole's past is helping him forge the Warriors' future

Before Stephen Curry claimed his first MVP trophy, before he placed that first bedazzled ring around his finger, Warriors ownership had already begun plotting its new palace of a stadium. Across the water from the Warriors’ old Oakland home, it purchased the 11 acres that became the Chase Center — at 3rd and 16th Streets in Mission Bay — all the way back in 2014.

Golden State now eyes another future. After four championships in eight seasons, the Warriors still see riches on the other side of a different river, yet no clear bridge to that vision. They see more championships beyond this miraculous era, all while Curry is still shimmying and Klay Thompson is still splashing from distance, even as they approach their 35th and 33rd birthdays, respectively.

Right there lies the inherent challenge of threading this needle between present and planned. There is no panicked hurry, because this current window is not closing. Yet the Warriors are .500, and none of Golden State’s string of recent lottery picks has emerged strong enough to keep that window confidently ajar. A young Kawhi Leonard once clawed the keys to San Antonio right from Tim Duncan’s clutches, but the Spurs’ own prolonged title hopes still didn’t live to tell the tale. It has thus far been proven impossible to reign over the NBA for two full decades and beyond.

But what if? These Warriors have always dared to dream bigger than any before. And what if the Warriors’ own understudy in their backcourt, the 28th pick in the 2019 NBA draft, could one day become the franchise’s very solution? Last season’s third-leading Warriors scorer, who averaged 25.4 points — shooting 44.4% from deep — with 3.9 rebounds and 4.9 assists in March, all while Curry and Thompson both missed time due to injury. Who cosplayed as an All-Star when playoff seeding depended on it.

See, Jordan Poole has always, not believed, but understood the depths of his powers with that orange ball. An athlete who harbors a conviction as vicious as his actual crossover. That’s why the Warriors made sure to extend his contract this summer — four more years, over $123 million — part in fear of some rival hurling a maximum deal at Poole, drawn by his magnetic pull, and handing him the wheel before Curry relinquishes his grasp of Golden State. But few players are wired to be the man and actually deliver. That is part of why Poole slipped down draft boards to begin with, part of why he has been assigned to wait in the Warriors’ wings. Behind these walking legends, he’s had to tiptoe a tightrope between confidence and conceit. His development has been as much of mindset as dexterity.

“It wasn’t that these older players, people who have been in the game before, aren’t willing to give you answers. It’s like they’re just not gonna give them to someone who doesn’t care,” Poole told Yahoo Sports. “They put their hard time, their blood, sweat and tears, years of sacrifice, stress, so they don’t want to just give away their gems, the things that have made them so successful in their careers, to just anybody. They gotta know that you’re willing to go the extra mile. You’re willing to sacrifice yourself.”

You have to keep it secret, too, that’s the thing about having a gift. About holding a talent that’s more rare than being struck by lightning twice. Those are just the odds of making the NBA, better yet blooming into someone who has the abilities, if absolutely honed, that could shoulder a whole city’s expectations. Especially when one of the game’s greatest is right there in front of you, where Curry has fueled this dynasty with a remarkable blend of modesty and his monstrosity of skill. Especially in a league where any given teammate can view your success as a means to his own end, and one even throws a fist toward your face.

So Poole has learned the equal power of his silence. Both in the proverbial sense, letting his game do the talking, and quite literally not saying a damn thing. His eyes bulge like a cartoon character, two white orbs popping from their sockets and into memes across the internet. His thin mustache wraps around his exasperated gasps at officials and flatlines as he purses his lips and squints in disbelief. He pumps his brows and cocks his head and shakes it side to side.

“I’ve always been an expressive person. Ever since I was a kid. I would try not to talk back and stuff like that,” Poole said. “[But] some things just be too outlandish for me. There just be sometimes where I’m just like, ‘No way. No way, you actually said that?’ I’m not gonna say that verbally. I’m just gonna show that in my face. It takes less energy, less time. But I care enough to show you that’s outlandish.”

He isn’t biding time before accepting the Warriors’ mantle. That has not been promised to Poole or to anyone. But he is readying for it, if the baton is ever passed. Poole has perpetually positioned himself for next. He has constantly groomed himself for whatever role, whenever it’s presented, like a cat grooming its coat clean and smooth.

“I always kind of looked at it as if there were just some people who were gonna get that chance. That’s a small group of people. Then there’s everybody else,” Poole said. “You’re gonna have to make the most of your opportunity, to put yourself in the situation to be as successful as possible, at whatever it is that you’re asked to do. I never wanted any moment to be too big and not be prepared. Because you never know when the opportunity is going to present itself.”

Jordan Poole's vision was always there

In high school, he rode the pine as a freshman, because no freshman had ever started varsity at Jim Gosz’s Rufus King program in Milwaukee, and certainly not the 5-foot-7, 125-pound Poole. “He couldn’t back up that swag in his earlier years,” the coach told Yahoo Sports. But Poole could shoot the ball. He could always shoot the ball. And come that year’s sectional title match, down three, with seven seconds left, Gosz scanned the full length of his bench. “He kept looking at me with them sad dog eyes, ‘Put me in coach!’” Gosz said. “We put him in, he got loose, took the ball right across from our bench, and nailed a 3-pointer to send it into overtime.”

He arrived at Michigan, 6-4 and a consensus top-100 prospect, but was forced to watch — playing just 12.5 minutes per game — and linger for next dibs. Fourth-year senior Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman steered John Beilein’s offense that 2017-18 season instead. He rarely turned it over, even if he lacked Poole’s sizzle. Better yet, he could teach Beilein’s offense, all five positions, in any given sequence.

So Poole observed and he studied, and when Wolverines coaches organized “All-Stars” scrimmages for low-usage players, the diaper dandy would unleash his volcanic skillset he was holding beneath the surface. “He’d be doing some stuff you’d be like, what the heck? This guy’s a problem,” said DeAndre Haynes, then a Michigan assistant. “He was more advanced in his craft than anyone else out there.”

And by March, as the Wolverines faced a two-point deficit to Houston, with the clock dwindling in the second round of the NCAA tournament, it was Poole who launched from deep beyond the right wing as time expired, his legs scissor-kicking with his release. It was no miracle, Michigan had drilled that exact sequence. Over and over. Poole still has clips from the team's practice saved on his phone, artificial crowd-noise blaring over the loudspeakers, where he calmly sinks the same heave that forever etched his name into March Madness lore. The Wolverines don't dance to the title match without Poole's heroics. "I was calling him a little pup and a little pitbull," Haynes said, "and look at him now."

"As a young kid, it's kinda cool to find your groove in your personality and who you are through the midst, through the heat of all these unusual situations. You live for these moments. These are the shots that you're shooting counting down in your driveway," Poole said. "It's just cool to do it in front of 18,000 people now. Like, the moments? The moments now? The big moments, the end of the quarter, the end of the game, the end of the shot clock, those are nothing now. Like, pressure? Nah, there's like real-life stuff that people should use pressure for. Real-life stuff. Basketball may be a little nerve-racking for, like, 30 seconds."

His dark brown pupils widen as he talks. In conversation, Poole is subdued but sharp. Thoughtful and poignant. He grits his teeth as he scrolls through his cell to flash photos of his long-haired Maine Coon and his other house cat, “So you can put names to their faces.” Sometimes he sinks into his chair, scratching his goatee in contemplation. Other times he leans forward because he’s got a story to tell.

Poole is constantly searching for loopholes. Those gaps in the rules that hang over classrooms and practice gyms that, when exploited, can unlock what’s yet been imagined. “We taught all our kids, always believe in yourself. No matter what. We even told them you can always question authority, as long as you do it respectfully,” said Anthony Poole, the Warriors guard’s father. When most youngsters played rec ball on lowered rims, Anthony’s 8-year-old followed him to pick-up runs at the Atonement Lutheran court and hurled triples while the grown man guarding him spat junk in his face. “I could live with it,” Jordan Poole said, “because it feels better when you take something.”

But he wasn’t just playing against them, he was testing these elders, searching for glints of knowledge between those painted lines and life itself. “I was always a curious person and I was always with older people. When you’re around them and around their situations, if there’s stuff that you don’t know, that you want to know, you just gotta ask,” Poole said. “My mom would tell me all the time, ‘If you don’t know something, just ask. Why are you scared of asking?’”

He has channeled that spirit of inquiry among Golden State’s veterans. His brain deconstructs solutions as if playing “Jeopardy!” in real time, with even richer stakes. He sees the answer — Curry flying off a screen at a certain angle, Thompson forcing a ball-handler to his preferred hand — and works backward. He lobs humbled questions at this game’s greatest masters, and then actually listens, understanding they were once uninformed apprentices of their own.

"I'm kinda, like, writing this blueprint for myself, and I had to see what it looked like, what I had to do, what I had to figure out after my first couple months in the NBA," Poole said. "Then I had a foundation of like, this is what I want to work on? OK, boom, boom, boom. This is what I need to do to get better at that? Just being around Steph, being around Klay, just being around these people, it really comes out. 'What's this? What are you thinking for this? This isn't 23-year-old Jordan asking as a professional athlete. This is 15-year-old Jordan, basketball fan, asking because I've seen you hit 29 threes in a game, you know? I just wanna know! It just happens to be that I'm in the situation where I can apply it to my life and apply it to my game and apply it to my style of play and still add on my personal, natural flair."

He can instruct his own course now, on the difference between training hard and training intelligently. “There’s always been a purpose to the work with Jordan,” Warriors assistant Chris DeMarco said. “The drill work is game speed. The film work is purposeful. When he’s struggling a little bit, we tend to go back to the court and put in more work and put in more work. That’s sort of what’s helped him and kind of been his therapy.”

The path to Warriors success

It was a challenge, remember, for Poole to earn his consistent run. To flash that flair with a professional’s control. He spent 11 games in the G League his second season with Golden State. And the pandemic afforded Poole a window to sharpen the rough edges of his learning curve. “A lot of people went back home, they wanted to work on their hobbies, they wanted to get away from basketball.” Here, Poole’s eyes steeled and he shook his head. “No. No way. I couldn’t afford it. I just locked in. If I could have slept in the gym, I probably would. During that time, if I could have put a mattress in there and just slept in there for a full week, give me food and nutrition and I probably would be good. Dead serious, bro.”

Poole visited the Warriors’ facility multiple times on days when league rules permitted, where he rehearsed different reads within the Warriors’ whirring offense. Was it a finish, or a drop off to the roller, or should he spray a pass out to the perimeter? They mimicked stressful situations Poole would face in the postseason, viewing traps and defensive pressures as a blank canvas instead of chaos. “The creativity that he has, it’s what you look for in the NBA to differentiate yourself from other players,” DeMarco said. “And now it’s about continuing to find ways to use that, but in a simplified game. Be efficient, make sure you pick your spots.”

Poole visualizes his theatrics in advance. As he’s resting his head at night and rising in the morning. He’s dialed Haynes when he can’t sleep. His former coach is now an assistant at Marquette, but with Poole on the other line, seeking guidance for how to guard Kyrie Irving the following evening, Haynes knows the Warriors guard is standing next to his bed. So there both men are, squatting in a defensive stance before their tangled covers, trying to imagine the impossible task Poole has been assigned.

On game days, he strolls through San Francisco's greenery with no planned route, no set agenda but escaping into the thin air. He gets his legs moving and his brain churning, pondering basketball and being. Otherwise, Poole would risk napping until right before he's due at the arena. His headphones will blare out the world — listening to everything but country, only because he hasn't yet found his type of country — although he won't reveal his favorite spots for this pregame ritual. "We're lucky we're in California. We have a lot of super-fire places. But I can't give that list out. I'd have to sell it for some money."

Poole even visualized landing with the Warriors. By faith, not by choice. He was flying back from a pre-draft workout in Orlando. The sky was full of clouds, but he peered out the oval window to his right and pleaded God for a sign, any hint or peek at where he would be heading. The clouds soon opened, he maintains, and Poole saw a gold streak pierce the ground and ripple its way toward a river.

Now the focal point of Golden State’s second unit, he’s facing the final challenge befitting a franchise centerpiece in progress. “He’s getting the best defender on the floor. Every night. And so that’s the next step for him, is to learn how to combat that,” head coach Steve Kerr said. This season, Poole’s 3-point accuracy has indeed dipped. His turnover rate has jumped. Poole’s father sees his son overthinking when to get his and when to create for others — although he’s still posting 17.7 points and 4.6 assists each game.

“Steph’s doing a really good job of mentoring him, talking to him about that kind of stuff,” Kerr said. “There’s a lot of growth ahead for Jordan, which is exciting because he’s already very good.”

Can he be good enough? Can his bite consistently match his bark? There will be no replacing Curry, when his wisdom and his presence all together leave Chase Center forever. But those banners that Golden State envisions adding to the rafters, they will need some catalyst. Odds are those who try will fail. But if there’s one player in the Warriors’ orbit primed for that attempted launch, it might as well be the playmaker with the googly eyes and the scowl and everything in between.