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Jordan Poole’s off-ball brilliance and achieving offensive balance

The possibility of filling in for Klay Thompson as a starter and being the focal point of the second unit may do wonders for Poole’s development.

SFChronicleSports Scott Strazzante/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Klay Thompson won’t be coming back right away when the 2021-22 NBA season kicks off.

A projected late-December/January return for the Golden State Warriors’ star two-guard brings with it the obvious question: Who will Steve Kerr and the coaching staff tap to fill Thompson’s starting spot?

When pressed about it during the team’s media day session, Kerr understandably did not have a clear answer yet, instead trusting the process of training camp and letting candidates compete for the chance to be Stephen Curry’s backcourt partner.

“We are not going to figure out anything over the next few days,” Kerr said. “It will be over the next few weeks. And obviously by opening night, we’ll have a decision. But we’ve got a lot of really good candidates. You know who they are, so I won’t go down the list.”

A popular name whose candidacy is becoming louder and louder each passing day is Jordan Poole, the incoming third-year guard who experienced a mini-breakout last season. After averaging 8.8 points during his rookie year, Poole improved his scoring by a considerable amount — up to 12.0 points per game. His shooting splits and scoring efficiency also improved: from 33/28/80 splits and 45.4% TS during his rookie year, to 43/35/88 splits and 58.1% TS the following year.

Per-36 numbers also paint him in a good light, and it may portend the nature of his production should his 19.4 minutes per game last season increase due to a starting role: 22.3 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 3.6 assists — all of which approximate Thompson’s production trends.

That’s not to say that Poole will have the same kind of success Thompson has had as Curry’s Splash Brother; after all, extrapolation is an imperfect indicator of similarity. It would take a gigantic leap for Poole (31.6%) to match Thompson’s elite three-point shooting (41.9%). Defensively, Poole has shown brief flashes, but problems with strength and laterality at this stage of his career render him a much inferior perimeter defender compared to Thompson’s pre-injury form.

But just because Poole cannot be an All-Star level, all-time-great sharpshooter at this point of his young career, it doesn’t mean that he cannot act as a capable substitute and a situational doppelganger. The skill-set he has flashed so far projects him to be an offensive sparkplug off the bench, but it may also be sufficient to act as a placeholder until Thompson returns.

Off-ball scoring and advantage creation

There is precedent for the success of a theoretical starting lineup of Curry, Poole, Andrew Wiggins, Draymond Green, and Kevon Looney. Although the sample size is small — a mere 11 minutes were logged on the floor last season — such a lineup outscored opponents by a whopping 62.4 points per 100 possessions.

That figure is obviously not sustainable, and 11 minutes isn’t representative enough to be conclusive. But the fit in terms of offensive firepower and cohesion — specifically when it comes to the duo of Curry and Poole — is undeniable.

The presence of Curry on the floor automatically makes him the fulcrum of the offense, the center of the Warriors’ solar system where everything else must revolve around; to do otherwise would be strategical malpractice. That fact relegates Poole to a mainly supplementary scorer and secondary playmaker, who must make the most of Curry’s supernatural pull to find his own windows of opportunity.

Those windows often include — but aren’t limited to — spot-up shooting, screening, and cutting. Poole is adept at positioning himself to take advantage of a compromised defense through off-ball movement. Not unlike his more experienced veteran, he can be a perpetual motion machine whenever he wants to be.

Per Synergy, Poole scored 1.56 points per possession (PPP) on cuts, albeit on a low volume of possessions, given the opportunistic and reactive nature of cuts. Nevertheless, Poole feasted on curls and overplays, exacting a heavy toll on top-locking defenders who provided him a lane toward the rim.

Such off-ball excellence extended to his exquisite movement shooting. Again, not unlike Curry, Poole is a skilled operator around screens. He is an expert at puppeteering his man toward a screen, occasionally forcing them smack against a solid pick. At the least, they are delayed just enough so that they fail to mount a proper contest against Poole’s shot.

His ability to create numerous advantages off the ball and sow chaos and discord upon defenses allowed him to thrive as an additional favored passing target for the Warriors’ playmakers. His number was often called during some of the Warriors’ most common read-and-react sets, such as low-post split action, “Motion Strong” (staggered down-screens for a corner shooter), “Chicago” action (pin-down into a dribble hand-off), “Wide” action (off-ball down-screen toward the ball), and “HORNS Flex.”

Nevermind what the name of the action was — as long as it involved Poole curling and moving around a screen, there was efficient offense to be had (74th percentile on off-the-screen possessions, per Synergy).

Refinement of his shot was paramount to Poole shaping his role as a perimeter threat, a reputation that previously failed to cross over from his collegiate days. A catch-and-shoot success rate of 29.9% during his rookie season wasn’t feasible, but a near eight-percentage-point improvement of 37.8% during his sophomore season provided a more optimistic outlook on his future as a knockdown shooter.

Balancing off-ball scoring with on-ball creation

Poole earning a starting spot alongside Curry and him being the second unit’s offensive fulcrum do not have to be mutually exclusive. Theoretically, an ideal substitution pattern for Poole would be Thompson’s: benched at the four-minute mark during first and third quarters, and starting second and fourth quarters as the lead guard.

With Curry sitting down, the majority of the creation load would naturally fall upon Poole’s shoulders. Captaining second units involved a considerable amount of on-ball possessions for Poole last season. It was common to see him tout proficiency as a ball-handler in the pick-and-roll, partnering with roll-gravity threats such as James Wiseman and short-roll playmakers like Green and Juan Toscano-Anderson.

Poole leveraged the threat of his downhill attack — which consisted of a rim percentage of 67% (84th percentile, per Cleaning the Glass) and a floater percentage of 46.2% (69th percentile, per Synergy) — to manipulate defenders into untenable positions. He would then use such situations to his advantage, either through lobs to rollers or drop passes to stationary roamers in the dunker spot, or kicking out to corner shooters to punish low-man help.

But the bigger picture surrounding Poole’s effectiveness as a pick-and-roll decision maker — and as an on-ball creator in a general sense — paints a mixed bag. A pedestrian 0.884 PPP on pick-and-rolls that included passes (34th percentile) sheds a light at his tendency to miss reads altogether. Tunnel vision can get the best of him; the penchant to score often results in passing reads being completely missed.

That may be why, despite Poole having shown much promise in that area, Kerr has shown reluctance in completely handing over significant on-ball reps to Poole. Touting proficiency as a passer does not necessarily make one have the mindset of a pure playmaker.

Being an effective combo guard entails having a healthy balance between creating shots for others and creating shots for oneself; while Poole can potentially capture that balance based on his developmental trends, he may still be leaning a tad bit toward the latter.

Considering the personnel the Warriors just acquired during the off-season — playmakers and floor-spacers who have the capacity for reading and reacting to situations and defensive coverages — the on-ball creation burden for Poole in second units may very well be reduced. While he may still be counted on occasionally to create out of the pick-and-roll, the presence of multiple playmakers on the floor will allow him to function more in his off-ball comfort zone, drawing attention around screens and carving defenses with timely cuts.

Any combination of Poole as the lead guard in the second unit with the likes of Andre Iguodala, Otto Porter Jr., and Nemanja Bjelica automatically raises the playmaking and shooting potency to levels that were barely reached — if at all — last season. A backcourt partnership with Avery Bradley or Gary Payton II, both of whom are frontrunners for the 15th and final roster spot, could shore up and alleviate any defensive deficiencies.

Poole is in the unique position of wearing two hats: a secondary scorer complementing Curry in the starting lineup (until the return of Thompson), and the focal point of the second-unit offense who may not need to carry significant creation burden. The next step in his development could be mastering such a balancing act between the two offensive identities — a prospect that, should it occur, could soar his stock toward the heavens.