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Jordan Poole’s defensive warts stem from an inability to do his work early

Poole’s defensive film hasn’t been pretty.

Golden State Warriors v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s getting extremely difficult to skirt around this topic all season long, so it definitely has to be said.

Jordan Poole needs to be much better on defense. And I mean, much better.

It would be foolish to pile most of the Golden State Warriors’ troubles on defense (especially on the road) on one player. Basketball is a team sport, but it’s on the defensive end of the floor where the team aspect is arguably much more pronounced. Everyone needs to be connected and in sync; if there’s even the slightest hint of miscommunication and confusion, the whole thing falls apart in an instant.

To be a good defensive team, there also needs to be an emphasis on fundamentals. Individually, point-of-attack defenders must be in a good defensive stance: hands up, crouched, with feet moving laterally and hips ready to swivel open like a door with well-greased hinges.

Schematic fundamentals depend on team concepts and coverages. It all boils down to execution — each man must do his job to the best of his abilities.

For instance, defenders at the point of attack must do their absolute best to navigate screens if the coverage dictates that they should fight over. If the man they’re defending is especially deadly in terms of pull-up shooting, it wouldn’t be advisable for them to duck under screens.

Knowing your personnel is key. Doing your work early — whether that’s denying the ball handler from using a ballscreen and going middle (‘Weak/’ICE’ coverage) or fronting a man in the post to make entry passes harder — goes a long way toward making it hard for offenses to generate efficient half-court looks.

The truth of the matter regarding Poole’s defense — or lack, thereof — is that he isn’t capable (or isn’t willing) to do his work early.

Take this possession against the Atlanta Hawks, for instance:

There are a couple of things that raise my eyebrow with the possession above:

  1. The Warriors’ have been adamant about not letting ball handlers gain middle penetration. The aforementioned ‘Weak’ (shading a ball handler toward his weak hand) and ‘ICE’ (shading a ball handler toward the sideline and away from the middle) coverages have been their modus operandi all season long. Poole doesn’t even try to do either one of those by electing not to do his work early and jumping out to deny Saddiq Bey from using the screen.
  2. Instead of fighting over the screen against Bey (who shoots 36.8% on threes for the year and 48.3% on decent volume in his 12 games with the Hawks), Poole ducks under. Not only does he duck under — he dies on the screen and doesn’t make a concerted effort to recover for a contest.

Fortunately for Poole, Bey misses. Unfortunately for the team, the Hawks get the ball back and AJ Griffin drills the corner three.

A possession like this is equally head-scratching:

It’s easy to fool Poole on rejected screens because he’s not in a defensive stance — upright, hands on the side, and bad fundamentals by leading out with his left foot, allowing Dejounte Murray to attack him and touch the paint.

The screen navigation troubles are also there off the ball. The importance of making sure you’re attached to movement shooters has never been more pronounced in this day and age of deadly sharpshooters who need just a tiny sliver of space to get their feet set.

Poole simply hasn’t shown that ability to stay attached to someone. He easily loses connection because of a blatant ball-watching habit. If it’s not that, it’s his inability to get over screens.

Sometimes it’s a lack of strength; other times, the effort is just plain absent. The knowhow in terms of proper routes is also glaringly lacking.

Poole has clearly been a key target of opponent scouting reports:

Again, it’s also a lack of doing his work early. Instead of Poole “top-locking” (preventing Bogdan Bogdanović from using the screen by denying the top-side route), Poole stands idly (peep at JaMychal Green pointing at Poole as if to tell him to top-lock).

To make matters worse, Poole takes a bad route and ends up underneath the screen, setting Bogdanović free for the open look.

The off-ball troubles also extend to being out of position when it comes to help-the-helper situations. Granted, said situations are often not initiated by his troubles at the point of attack — it’s more of a team-wide failure rather than just an individual’s shortcoming — but Poole also has to do his part to make sure that the entire machinery doesn’t fall apart.

For example, take this possession against the Los Angeles Clippers:

With Steph Curry and Jonathan Kuminga giving up the soft switch, Curry is forced to defend Kawhi Leonard at the elbow — a clear mismatch. That compels Green to come over and help Curry by doubling Leonard.

This triggers the “sink and fill” concept. Donte DiVincenzo comes over to “sink’ on Mason Plumlee to help the helper (Green). Poole’s responsibility as the “fill” man is to cover cutters and shooters on the weak side — which makes it his responsibility to zone up on both Eric Gordon on the wing and Nicolas Batum on the corner.

But Poole is too pinched in toward the “nail” (middle of the free-throw line), which makes any close-out toward the wing or corner long. He’s also not in proper position to quickly turn around — his body isn’t facing the half-court mark and too directed toward the ball itself.

What should be an “X-out” rotation (Poole closing out toward the corner and DiVincenzo closing out toward the wing to account for a potential swing pass) is instead a bullet to Batum, with DiVincenzo forced to close out toward the corner after sinking in deep.

There’s the argument that Poole hasn’t exactly been given the proper defensive ballasts around him. The Warriors’ best defensive players have been sidelined for a variety of reasons: Draymond Green was suspended against the Hawks for incurring 16 technical fouls; Andrew Wiggins hasn’t returned from a personal matter; Gary Payton II has yet to suit up for the team this season.

But that doesn’t excuse Poole’s lack of effort, pride, and fundamentals. Quite simply, he has to do much better on defense, even if he is inherently disadvantaged physically and in terms of strength.

If he is truly to become a worthy understudy of Curry’s, he should also take note of how his stylistic mentor — disadvantaged by lack of size — compensates through effort, tenacity, and knowledge of schemes and fundamentals.

If Poole can’t do the work required of him to survive on defense — all while being inconsistent as an offensive centerpiece — real questions need to be asked in terms of his future in the Bay Area.

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