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The Jordan Poole route-running extravaganza

The rise of Poole as a dynamic off-ball weapon.

NBA: Finals-Boston Celtics at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The surprise and awe showered upon everyone by Jordan Poole’s exponential improvement was like finally chancing upon the center of a Tootsie Pop — including the painstakingly long process of having to get to it. But for Poole, the process was anything but a breeze.

Even with his work ethic — by all accounts, he’s known to be a hard worker — Poole himself seemed rather surprised at just how much he was able to do on the offensive end. Like a superhero newly bitten by a radioactive arachnid, or one who gains improved physical properties and superhuman traits after being exposed to an experimental serum, there was a sense of wonder and gleeful experimentation with his movements, pushing the limits of his newfound abilities to the edge.

So much so that, at times, he found himself slipping and falling — figuratively and literally. As is true of most people who rapidly ascend to a higher level, they overexert themselves due to excitement and lack of restraint. Self-indulgence without moderation is common among those who acquire power expeditiously; in Poole’s case, discovering that the combination of his athleticism and guile as a movement shooter occasionally left him reeling and tasting the hardwood — but it would also unlock his potential and transform it into a dynamic kinetic force.

Poole not only had to discover the thin line that represents moderation; he had to learn how to tread it with balance and poise. The delineation is occasionally blurred and murky, but there’s still a difference between being all over the place and being all over the place.

The satisfaction of watching Poole — without the ball in his hands — whirl and twirl like a pinball bouncing around after being launched is matched only by the exploits of his stylistic mentor, Stephen Curry. At times, it can come off as directionless; to the untrained or casual eye, it can give off the perception of moving around for the sake of moving around, without apparent purpose.

Randomized chaos isn’t an ordered concept, and most people are wired to stay away from things without order. But if you’ve spent enough time watching these Warriors, they thrive on a diet of discord. They are unique in the sense that they chose the path of being trendsetters, but the trend they’ve established is near impossible to approximate by everyone else.

Curry is the main reason behind that near impossibility — and Poole is developing the requisite skill set to nudge it into bona fide impossibility.

Being a doppelganger of the king of off-ball movement seems unfair to opponents who are already hard pressed to defend Curry around downscreens, curls, and cuts of every kind. Instead of *simply* worrying about a transcendent whirling dervish who can shoot the lights out at a moment’s notice, defenses now have to keep tabs on another whirling dervish who, while not quite at the game-changing standard that Curry established, exudes enough of a threat to command nearly the same kind of attention.

Off-ball playtypes

Upon first glance, Poole’s movements without the ball seem like they don’t follow any predetermined path. The routes aren’t pre-planned; they come on a whim, which for most players is a basketball life lived dangerously.

In reality, what Poole does on the court is an unholy union between calculation and improvisation. By internalizing off-ball routes and imprinting them within the fabric of his muscle memory, Poole can throw a wrench into opponents’ carefully crafted schemes and rules. Counters are met with quick-hitting counters of his own.

A dive cut inside is snuffed out by timely help, but Poole sniffs an opening to his right and continues his motion. A brief moment of respite from his defender turns into a nightmare of an outcome — all because Poole creates something out of nothing.

His partnership with screeners and handoff hubs is a fine example of his improvisational chops. By tapping into his seemingly bottomless well of energy — fueled by youth and buoyed by exuberance — he can string his defenders along for the ride.

The routes he takes in transition are varied: from looking like a speedy wide receiver running a go route, to handoffs that catch defenders on the backfoot, or taking advantage of a scrambling half-court defense in the secondary break, Poole’s dynamic nature as an off-ball weapon arguably shines the most during fastbreak situations.

To some, Poole’s herky-jerky exploits are nothing more than products of recklessness and a devil-may-care attitude; to others, it is disguised movement with little rhyme but plenty of reason. Like most things in life, the truth lies somewhere in the middle (or in this case, slightly above it). Poole does occasionally wander over to the spectrum of unnecessary excess, but as was more the case last season than in previous ones, he effectively justified his jitterbug movement.

Poole thrives in an environment that engenders creativity. To stifle his improvisational skills is to clip a bird’s wings. Much like how Steve Kerr’s philosophy of constant movement has helped unlock Curry’s otherworldly talents, Poole’s propensity for freedom and randomness is a ready-made fit for a free-flowing and oftentimes randomized scheme.

Of course, there needs to be a certain level of control and limit. Too much improvisation runs the risk of overly straying away from the intent of the offense. Poole recognizes that he needs to be an important cog within the larger machinery; to have a veteran like Curry who sanctions the overarching ethos and willfully participates in it compels Poole to follow and imitate.

For example: The Warriors’ staple “modified” low-post split — occasionally termed as “Bilbao” action or “Post Stagger Split” — is an action centered on Curry getting loose around a split-cut downscreen, typically preceded by a curl and dive cut around a screen that Curry himself sets.

Such is an example of Poole being a capable substitute and doppelganger. Without a hitch, he is able to take on the role of Curry as the initial screener and eventual downscreen recipient — or as the curling dive cutter around the initial screen, a role that Curry occasionally takes.

Seamlessly shifting from an on-ball primary initiator into an off-ball movement shooter is also well within his wheelhouse. The innocence of an early-offense spread ball screen turns into a quick-hitting pass-into-pitch-back handoff — an action the Warriors call “Thumb Out” because of the hand-sign they use for it.

A culture espousing a perfect balance of order and chaos fits Poole’s profile to a tee. The freedom with which he is allowed to be himself manifests through his explosiveness, burst, and craft as an off-ball mover. A significant reason behind his evolution as a player has been knowing how to maximize such talent without flying too close to the sun.

With a leash that is, for all intents and purposes, extremely loose, Poole is spreading his wings and soaring toward a higher stage. With a championship in hand, plenty of room to grow, and a reputation that has exponentially grown, there are no limits to the routes that his career will take — both on and off the court.

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