SAN FRANCISCO — Jordan Poole didn’t spend long enough with Golden State to become synonymous with the Warriors, but that doesn’t mean four formative years inside that machine didn’t leave an indelible mark.
Moving on has been shaky. Poole has spent his first three months as a Washington Wizard playing some of the ugliest basketball of his career, given his championship résumé. His numbers are the lowest they have been since before he established himself as a key member of Golden State’s rotation ahead of the 2021-22 season, his third year in the NBA — he entered Friday averaging 17.2 points and 3.6 assists in 26 games. His shooting has seen a bigger dip, at 41.2 percent from the field and 31.7 percent from the three-point line. That’s better than only his rookie season.
Statistics hardly tell the tale of his glum body language after errors, his off timing and loose handle on offense. In Thursday’s win over the Portland Trail Blazers, he flailed so egregiously on one play that he was called for a flop with 3:28 left to play and assessed a technical foul.
As he returned to Golden State for Friday night’s late game for the first time since he was traded to the Wizards in June, Poole was well aware he is having a rough adjustment period. Off the court, there is no issue. He is a well-liked member of the Wizards’ locker room, a player whom teammates laud for his work ethic, earnest desire to improve and lighthearted demeanor.
But on the court, Poole knows precisely why things aren’t going as he would like them to. He is having a hard time getting the Warriors out of his system — and no, he doesn’t mean the lingering effects of Draymond Green’s infamous punch last October.
“Everything that I’ve been taught is the opposite here,” Poole said in a recent interview. “ … That’s the transition part. It’s like I’m rewiring my mind to translate to a new situation.”
As it turns out, Poole has found that spending four years working to fit cleanly inside the Warriors’ unique offensive system has made it hard for him to adjust to something new.
“The looks that I’m getting here are completely different,” he said. “Coming from Golden State, they were such a unique offense. It took a little bit of time to get that figured out.”
He explains it like this: As he learned how to function as an NBA player, he didn’t play alongside a four-man or five-man who shot the ball much. Golden State’s offense flows through its guards, which opened what felt like endless shot opportunities and fostered a feeling of offensive freedom. Playing alongside Stephen Curry certainly didn’t hurt.
“If a regular four-man shoots nine shots and a regular center shoots nine times, that’s 18 shots,” Poole said. “Now, you divide those 18 shots between three guards, that’s an extra six shots. So you maybe don’t have to know where your specific shots are because you’ll get a different set of looks, and you’ll know that opportunities will come back just through the rhythm of the offense.
“[In Washington], we got more people bringing up the ball. We got everybody pushing the pace. We got guys who post up — we [in Golden State] didn’t have any post-up players other than [Andrew Wiggins].”
With the Wizards, Poole is learning how to operate around forwards Kyle Kuzma, Deni Avdija and Danilo Gallinari, all of whom do get their work done in the post. He is doing all of this while facing more targeted defense than he ever did with Golden State, when he played within an offense whose specialty was scrambling defenses.
Wizards point guard Tyus Jones said that has resulted in Poole overthinking his role in the offense and fretting about when his next shot is coming. After two of Poole’s best performances this year — a season-high-tying 30-point game against Indiana on Dec. 15 and a 28-point performance featuring a career-high-tying eight three-pointers Monday against Sacramento — Jones said both times Poole’s success was because he struck the right balance between patiently waiting for his shots and being aggressive in getting to the rim.
Wizards Coach Wes Unseld Jr. agreed finding that harmony is the key for Poole.
“I still think he’s feeling that balance of being a lead guard at times versus playing off the ball. You think about Tyus, who’s proven to be very deliberate in his execution … then you add Kuz and Deni who are more grab-and-go, which for our team, it’s been terrific,” Unseld said. “So it’s been a balance of slowing it down and getting certain guys the ball at certain times and facilitating versus, ‘Here’s a guy, get it to him and push, now we play.’ I think he’s kind of feeling that out, too, and I think it takes some time to get comfortable.”
That’s just the offense.
On defense, Poole gives an example of the type of mind rewiring he is referring to when he talks about adjusting in Washington. Both Golden State and Michigan, where he played college ball for two years, sent defenders baseline, where the Wizards send their players more to the middle of the action.
“I was taught not to get backdoor cut, so I would be below my man. But our team principles are to be up and fill gaps and trust that if somebody gets back door, you get help,” Poole said. “That’s different for me, and it’s going to take a little time to get naturally comfortable with it.”
To be clear, Poole doesn’t sound like he is complaining when he is talking about these schematic differences, more like he is stating facts. The 24-year-old’s belief in Washington’s rebuild is obvious.
When he speaks about working with assistant coach David Vanterpool, whom he sits next to on the bench during games and whose mentorship he sought because of Vanterpool’s track record molding guards such as Damian Lillard, Poole mentions another difference between Washington and his experience with the Warriors. Poole spent the past four years drilling what he was good at.
With the Wizards, he is trying to shore up weaknesses.
“More so practicing for what’s coming than what it is — for, like, in three years, two years, when we’re in the playoffs,” Poole said. “That’s what I mean about rewiring my brain. Prior, everything was right in front of us. It was, ‘If you don’t win this game right now, we’re not going to win the Finals,’ type of vibe. Now I’m practicing and planning for what’s coming.”
Poole sees himself as a leader in that future he and his team are manifesting, which means the new information he is trying to absorb on offense and defense is coexisting in his brain with things such as being aware of his teammates’ feelings and what to say — if anything — during timeouts.
He takes a burgeoning role in the D.C. community just as seriously. While he admits he hasn’t had the time during the breakneck pace of the season to participate in as many events as he would like, Poole beams when talking about the community work he has done.
Last week, he presented Ben’s Chili Bowl founder Virginia Ali with her own bobblehead at Ali’s 90th birthday party at Lincoln Theater.
He studied a packet of details on Ali’s family and the history of Ben’s Chili Bowl in the days leading into the event, composed a speech and sat with Monumental Basketball senior vice president John Thompson III, a family friend of Ali’s, to fill in any information gaps beforehand.
“It was a really, really dope experience,” Poole said. “It was just cool to meet her and see how good she looked. She’s just done so much for the city.”
That element of the move to Washington — connecting with people in the city and his teammates — has been the smoothest part of Poole’s adjustment so far. Although the guard clearly gets frustrated on the court during what’s been a challenging season, he said he isn’t frustrated by the process. He’s been through this before.
It took about two years for Poole to find his groove with Golden State.
“You’ve got to just keep going, every day. The plan is the plan,” Poole said. “Someone just told me that the other day, and I kind of like it. Everything will pan itself out, you know? You’ve just got to keep doing what you’re doing, as long as you’re doing it with the right intent, which I believe in 100 percent. It’s just a matter of time.”