How Jordan Poole is making the most of his new beginning with the Wizards

You could see the imagination in Jordan Poole’s face. The empty sea of chairs at 11 in the morning was actually roaring with another sellout Madison Square Garden crowd. Poole was not the fifth-year guard finding his new home with the Wizards. He was Carmelo Anthony, elbow tucked, all head fakes and jab steps as the leading man for the New York Knicks. He was the precocious preteen Poole’s father would bring to grown-man pickup and the 24-year-old who’s inherited the keys in Washington all at once.

The Wizards are now in Poole’s hands, at least in his eyes. He watched Stephen Curry’s steps throughout the Golden State franchise, throughout their run to the 2022 NBA championship, and imagined the day when the baton would be passed his way. “Obviously, I wanted to be in a position to have my own team, and then if it did come, how would I go about that?” Poole told Yahoo Sports. “Luckily, I’m able to do that so young, after learning from some of the best. It’s cool. It’s a smooth transition. We’re building everything from scratch, essentially. Building up a new foundation. Everything in Golden State was already established, so we kinda had to fit into the mold that they have there.”

Wizards folks have deemed this stretch a “reshaping” after moving on from Bradley Beal under a new front office. Three banners already hung from the rafters when the Warriors drafted Poole in 2019. There was culture from a fabric of particular stitches, weaved by Steve Kerr’s coaching staff and predicated within their player development. Everything, rightfully, orbited Curry’s historic shooting and the system that became further mastered with Klay Thompson and Draymond Green at his flank.

CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA - NOVEMBER 08: Jordan Poole #13 of the Washington Wizards drives to the basket past LaMelo Ball #1 of the Charlotte Hornets in the first quarter during their game at Spectrum Center on November 08, 2023 in Charlotte, North Carolina. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)
Jordan Poole of the Washington Wizards drives to the basket past LaMelo Ball of the Charlotte Hornets in the first quarter at Spectrum Center on Nov. 8, 2023, in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)

League observers can either look at Poole’s trade to Washington during the afternoon of June’s NBA Draft as one of two things, or perhaps a combination of both. The deal that swapped Poole for longtime Golden State foe Chris Paul, and the veteran’s non-guaranteed future salary, marked the first real brush of wealthy contenders punting long-term money — the four years, $123 million owed to Poole — under a more stringent collective bargaining agreement. Or, this was the banishment of a scapegoat for last season’s Warriors shortcomings. The truth always lies in multiple factors and then more.

Regardless of the real narrative, Poole does appear past his San Francisco exit and his NBA beginning. There’s a lightness to him and the thicker mustache that’s bordering his expressive smile. His change of scenery has brought a change of greenery, another city that’s flush with parks and outdoor spaces to escape. “It’s a bit different, too, like, once your contract is signed and once you got a ring. Essentially everything that needed to be done in Golden State got done,” Poole said. “I got a ring. Made sure my family is straight. A good situation to come in [to Washington] and just kind of have my own team, play my own type of basketball.”

Poole’s on-court style trends toward spicy, at times the spark Golden State needed to capture its fourth championship behind Curry, at times a little too flavorful for the Warriors’ bigger plans. Deep pull-ups, an even deeper bag of handles. The same was said about Kyle Kuzma’s special blend next to LeBron James and Anthony Davis, while that Lakers duo captured the 2020 league crown. This season, Poole and Kuzma face a first attempt to merge into something stirred by floor general Tyus Jones, which Poole has dubbed the “JP-Kuz sauce.”

“We’re gonna bring our own little flair to the nation’s capital,” Poole told Yahoo Sports.

So does this sauce have a recipe?

“Aw, pshhh,” Poole said. “That’s undisclosed information. That’s undisclosed information. I can’t.”

OK, they’re secret ingredients?

“Yeah, I can’t tell just everybody.” Poole looked incredulous. “The sauce?”

Well, one ingredient must be buckets?

“Definitely,” Poole grinned. “Definitely the main component is buckets.”

Poole would turn his morning ’Melo into 41 preseason points against New York. Two weeks later, he turned a runout steal against Atlanta into an off-the-backboard lob for Kuzma. Boos sang from the home crowd, mocking the Wizards’ highlight that had merely trimmed their deficit to the Hawks from 21 points to 19. And there was Washington’s game versus Memphis, when Poole channeled Curry, turned his back to the basket and his face toward the Grizzlies bench after hoisting a 3-pointer, only for the attempt to clank off iron.

Through seven games, his Wizards are just 2-5 while surrendering 119.7 points per 100 possessions — the side of the floor where Poole has never been proficient — which falls just a hair below the mark San Antonio set a season ago for the worst defensive rating in NBA history.

Simply put, there will be more buckets than stops and wins in the short term. Washington can label this era anything it wants, but the Wizards are leading the NBA in pace — 106.2 possessions a night, per — like most rebuilding teams aspire to achieve. The faster, the junkier, the better the chance to overcome talent disadvantages. And who’s to say a downturned contender won’t dial the Wizards’ front office hoping to pry Jones’ sturdy table-setting along the way?

Poole is still adjusting to drawing opponents’ best defenders instead of jittering around as a secondary scorer. Despite the viral clip of Kristaps Porziņģis swatting Poole’s whirling triple in transition, he is not jacking jumpers like his critics would have expected, shooting 15.1 attempts per game compared to 15.6 tries last season in the Bay. He is moving the rock and extending possessions and vying to run some semblance of competitive offense — with some heaves mixed in, to be sure.

If there’s one pronounced trait both Poole and Kuzma embody and execute with ease, it is surely confidence. Something their greener teammates must mimic in their own way in order to survive a league that can build you up and tear you back down — like Poole has witnessed firsthand. Self belief can be the difference between a prospect and a problem for any rival team to consider.

“He’s not afraid. He won’t back down. He’ll go in on five 7-footers and try and finish and make plays because that’s just who he is,” said Pistons guard Isaiah Livers, a close friend of Poole’s. “A guy like that who feels confident that no one can check him on the floor, that’s tough.”

So Poole and Kuzma organized an offseason gathering for Wizards teammates in Los Angeles, with pickup games at Proactive Sports Performance in Westlake Village. Kuzma barked during open runs. Poole pulled teammates aside for private chats. “We’re also just such big personalities. A little bit different, a little bit of polar opposites. He’s more outgoing, I’m more, like, internalized,” Poole said. “But we know what it takes in order to build relationships, talk to people, get your teammates on the same page just as people, not just players. That goes such a long way.”

Poole moved his locker next to Wizards prized lottery pick Bilal Coulibaly, a gangly 19-year-old who arrived from France in the shadow of former teammate Victor Wembanayama. Poole remembers everything spinning all around him as a rookie, jumping onto Golden State’s train that was a chugging locomotive, and has now empowered Coulibaly to wonder aloud at whatever he’s missing, no matter how big or small.

“He’s the first one to come and say, ‘Do you have a question? Ask it,’” Coulibaly told Yahoo Sports. “At first he was more coming, but now I’m asking him when I got a question.”

In exchange, Poole is picking up pieces of French. He enters the locker room and shouts, “Bonjour ca va!” toward the young swingman. “I’m trying to get fluent,” Poole said, so one day he can strategize with Coulibaly on the court like Kobe Bryant once communicated with Pau Gasol in Spanish.

One day. One day that seems quite a bit beyond the horizon, but with plenty of sauce in between.