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Barber: Warriors’ Jordan Poole trying to escape history

Jordan Poole is having a historic season for the Warriors, and not the good kind. His shooting has been historically bad.

This seems unkind to a young man who turned 20 the day before the Warriors drafted him last June and spent just one year as a college starter. A lot of NBA rookies struggle with their shots, and the Warriors threw Poole into heavy action long before they really wanted to.

But I’m not offering an opinion here. Going strictly by the data, Poole’s first year has been among the worst anyone has seen in decades.

As the 2019-20 season progressed, I started to repeat a small mental exercise. However many field-goal attempts Poole had at that time, I used the site basketball-reference.com (a tool I might die without) to calculate how many previous NBA players had sat at that low of a percentage while launching that many shots. Or more accurately, I looked at how far back in time you had to retreat to find those players, because apparently no one could shoot to save his own life in the early days of the league.

The record was damning.

After 29 Warriors games (the point at which the team assigned Poole to Santa Cruz for a few G League outings), he was shooting 25.4% on 249 attempts. No NBA player had been that inaccurate, on that many attempts, since the Baltimore Bullets’ Les Pugh in 1949-50.

After 50 games, Poole had nudged the percentage up to 27.5, on 357 shots. That still didn’t get the rookie past 1949-50, though; at that point, he was tied with five different gawky white guys, all shooting at milk crates with two hands during the Truman administration. Modest progress.

Through all of it, coach Steve Kerr and the rest of the Warriors enveloped their top draft pick in support. Their message to Poole was unified: Keep shooting. Don’t be nervous. Don’t be ashamed. Put the ball in the air and eventually the shots will fall.

The love wasn’t lost on Poole.

“If you’re going through a struggle or you’re not playing to your potential, to continue to have a coach that wants to push you, push you, push you and, you know, knows what your limits are, and your strengths - just kind of beyond blessed to be in this situation,” Poole said Sunday.

The Warriors’ patience wasn’t unlimited, though. They used that G League stint to clear Poole’s mind a little. And he didn’t start any games between Nov. 15 and Feb. 11.

You may have noticed a change lately, though. Poole has begun to be more efficient in his scoring. As I said, he made 27.5% of his shots in those first 50 Warriors games. In the 11 games since then (Poole missed one of them Saturday with an ankle sprain), the number has shot up to 45.8%.

That’s a dramatic shift. A couple things go a long way in explaining it. One is that Poole has been playing more point guard since about a week before the All-Star break, a move necessitated in part by the Warriors’ trading D’Angelo Russell to Minnesota. Ultimately, Poole is probably more comfortable at shooting guard. But he has experience at the point, and in this case the change of duties seems to have been good for him.

Just maybe not in the way you think. Looking at the numbers, it would appear that Poole has found his outside stroke. But his 3-point shooting has remained nearly constant. He hit 26.8% of his shots from distance through 50 games; since then, he’s at 27.8%.

It isn’t Poole’s aim that has gotten better. It’s his shot selection.

Sometime before the break in February, with Russell gone and Poole handling the ball a lot more, the rookie started attacking the rim. Here’s another split from the Warriors’ 50-game mark: Before that, Poole was taking 4.5 3-pointers and 2.8 2-pointers a game. Since then, he has attempted 5.7 threes and 6.2 twos per night.

He is no longer perched at the 3-point arc, awaiting his next 22-footer.

A valuable reminder occurred late in the first quarter Sunday evening when Poole missed a 3-point shot. Teammate Eric Paschall grabbed the rebound and quickly found Poole cutting along the baseline. Poole pump-faked, pulled it down while in the air and banked in a nice reverse layup - oh, and drew a foul on Washington’s Moritz Wagner. On the final play of that game, Poole faked a 3-point shot to get the Wizards’ Gary Payton Jr. in the air, passed the ball to Juan Toscano-Anderson, got it right back and drew another foul on a drive. The game was meaningless. These plays were not.

A few days ago, I asked Kerr about the reasons behind Poole’s evolution.

“More just the opportunities, and the confidence that he’s gained as he’s gone through the season,” the coach said. “That’s kind of what your rookie year is about, is figuring things out as you go and finding where you can make an impact. How fast the game is, when to attack and when not to and that kind of thing. I think he’s getting a better sense of that.”

I asked Kerr if he thinks Poole’s improved inside game can eventually lift his outside game.

“I think it’ll come,” he said. “I’m confident long-term Jordan will be a good three-point shooter. It takes time. He’s very young. But I would say that that’s coming, for sure.”

Here’s Poole’s take on the subject: “I think it’s just taking what the defense gives me. Being able to play the 1 (point guard) and kind of get other people involved, but also still being aggressive. I’m out there longer now, and I’ve got the ball in my hands more. So being able to play-make, you’re able to see things a little bit differently.”

Earlier in the season, I had serious doubts about Poole. I wasn’t writing him off. Of course not. But while Kerr and teammates said they loved Poole’s confidence, to me that self-belief looked misplaced. Randomly jacking up miss after miss certainly wasn’t helping his team any. Poole was drafted as a scorer, and he wasn’t demonstrating an ability to score.

Now that Poole has shown a willingness to adapt and mature, I’m more optimistic about his future. I’m still not sure he’ll be an important part of the team when Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are back to full health, or that he’ll one day be a legitimate NBA starter. But at least that seems possible now.

As for Poole’s battle to escape 1950, he’s getting closer. He is currently at 472 shots and a 32.2% success rate. The last players to hit those “benchmarks” were Jim Loscutoff and Woody Sauldsberry in 1960-61. That’s at least considered the modern NBA, right? Sort of?

Poole now has some thoroughly modern targets to, uh, aim for. If he can get to 34.4 % by the time he takes his 517th shot, he’ll match his Warriors ancestor Vonteego Cummings (2000-01). It he’s at 34.8% and 529 shots, he’ll reach Marcus Smart (Boston, 2015-16).

But here is Poole’s real motivation. The rookie should be hoping he can ratchet up that shooting percentage to 35.8 by the end of the season. If he can get there, he’ll be able to tell people that the last NBA player to take that many shots, and make so few of them, was Kobe Bryant during his final season in 2015-16.

What becomes a legend most? Shooting that pill, even when it’s not going in the basket.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@?pressdemocrat.com. ?Follow him on Twitter: ?@Skinny_Post.

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