Jordan Poole

Hope for JP's revival remains amid ex-Warriors star's struggles

NBC Universal, Inc.

SAN FRANCISCO – Few things in sports are more poignant than the fall of a once enchanting star. They become the subjects of 3,000-word stories and 300-page books. In the savage cauldron of social media, such tales invite international ridicule.

It is a dreadful, unwelcome life. Jordan Poole, once thought to be a cornerstone of the post-Stephen Curry Golden State Warriors, is living it.

When the Warriors traded Poole to the Washington Wizards last July, with Chris Paul coming in return, JP’s potential projected as a foundational member of his new team early in the rebuilding process. It also represented a fresh start for someone who desperately needed it.

There is nothing fresh about Poole’s first four months in Washington. It has been a tale of sheer futility and abject failure. The Wizards are 9-48, and the elite skills that convinced the Warriors to sign Poole in October 2022 to a four-year contract worth $128 million mostly have amounted to an “out of order” sign.

Can one incident – Poole being assaulted by Warriors teammate Draymond Green during a preseason practice, which was leaked on social media – so dramatically change the trajectory of an athlete?

In the case of Poole, it already has. He has not been the same player.

The Poole the Warriors will see when they face the Wizards on Tuesday at Capital One Arena bears little resemblance to the mesmerizing dynamo that fortified them in the 2022 NBA playoffs, where he averaged 17 points per game on 50.8-percent shooting from the field, including 39.1 percent from deep.

Poole, 24, was acquired to be Washington’s cornerstone, the franchise’s next NBA All-Star, a highly entertaining combo guard capable of filling the shoes of the once-great John Wall.

Poole is averaging 16.1 points per game on 39.9-percent shooting, including 30.9 percent from distance – all the lowest numbers since his rookie season with Golden State. After starting the first 52 games, he was demoted to the bench last week. He has been less than a rumor of the breakout star the Wizards were expecting.

He is making regular appearances on “Shaqtin’ a Fool,” the popular video segment in which Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal holds a so-called competition that mocks “entertaining” mistakes and missteps made by players.

Then there was the shot fired off the tongue of ESPN’s Bobby Marks, a respected voice who previously spent almost 20 years in various capacities, including assistant general manager, with the Brooklyn Nets.

“A lot of teams are calling the Jordan Poole contract one of the worst deals in the NBA right now,” Marks said in an interview with 95.7 The Game last week.

Marks added that the Warriors “caught a break there.”

Poole still has many fans in the Bay

Amid this deeply disappointing season, Poole needs all the support he can get. He still has many fans in the Bay Area, particularly among those with whom he toiled during his four seasons with the Warriors.

“I try to have fun with him and think about all the positive things,” Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins, one of Poole’s closest friends with Golden State, told NBC Sports Bay Area. “One thing about Jordan is he’s a gym rat. I have no doubt in my mind that he’s going to figure it out because he stays in the gym.”

Wiggins and Poole were drawn toward each other partly because their locker spaces were close and partly because of their contrasting personalities. Poole was the brash and demonstrative prankster, quick with subtle sarcasm. Wiggins is relatively austere, and deliberate with his outward thoughts. There was mutual appreciation between jokester and straight man.

Warriors center Kevon Looney is another ex-teammate who had a tight bond with Poole, theirs built upon their hometown of Milwaukee. Poole often told stories of Looney’s exploits during a decorated high school career – “You should’ve seen him” – before multiple hip surgeries after college forced him to alter his style.

Like Wiggins, Looney also had an up-close view of Poole’s spectacular skills under the bright and sometimes harsh lights of the NBA postseason. When Poole struggled last season with the Warriors, it was reasonable to trace that back to the preseason incident with Green.

This, though, is different. Poole is working for a franchise operating 2,500 miles away from the Bay Area. This was supposed to be a mental restart.

“He’s a real emotional guy,” Looney told NBC Sports Bay Area. “I know it’s really eating at him that he’s not having the kind of season he wants to have.

“It’s tough to see because I want to see him succeed. He’s one of my better friends. I’m used to being there for him. When he was struggling here, I was able to help him through it. It’s kind of a hard to do that from a distance, but I know how much he cares and how much he wants to succeed.”

Poole’s work ethic never was questioned during his time with the Warriors. He was ultra-confident but willing to do what it took to meet his high opinion of himself. He was serious about chasing stardom, even if at times his play, particularly last season, seemed unserious.

Poole’s performance this season, thrust into a leadership role in a new environment, is appreciably worse than last season.

“When I do talk to him, I always try to give him encouragement,” Looney said. “I know he’s going to figure it out. He’s a great player and a great worker. Usually, when you work that hard, you’re figure it out.

Another member of the Warriors’ circle, neither player nor coach, slowly shook his head when I asked about his reaction to Poole’s play in Washington.

“It’s eating me up,” said the individual, who occasionally played straight man to Poole’s jocularity. “Such a good kid. I hate seeing him go through this.”

The cruelty of a leaked video

Warriors coach Steve Kerr on several occasions last season pulled Poole aside for one-on-one chats. Kerr during his playing days with the Chicago Bulls had been punched during a practice by a teammate named Michael Jordan, so he might be familiar with some of the thoughts bouncing about JP’s head last season.

The big difference – and it’s massive – is that only one of those incidents went public in real time in the age of social media and the 24-hour news cycle. Video does not lie, and it did Poole no favors.

Though it’s pure speculation to suggest that Poole is haunted by the events of Oct. 7, 2022, such prolonged and startling regression makes it conceivable.

When asked last week about Poole’s difficult season in Washington, Kerr paused for five or six seconds before replying.

“I don’t like seeing anyone struggle,” Kerr said. “This league is unforgiving. Players are subjected to so much criticism and judgment, so I hate to see anybody struggle.

“I’m pulling for Jordan to get back to being the player he was a couple years ago.”

The Wizards are hoping the same. In March 2022 as a member of the Warriors, Poole averaged 25.4 points per game on 49.5-percent shooting from the field, including 44.4 percent from beyond the arc. He started 11 of the 16 games during that span. That affirmed the belief that he had special talent.

Coming off the bench for the third consecutive game on Sunday, Poole scored 31 points in a loss to the contending Cleveland Cavaliers. He shot 11 of 20 from the field, 6 of 13 from deep, 3 of 3 from the free-throw line. It was perhaps his best game of the season and, hopefully, an indication of recovery.

“He was moved to the bench, but he’s been hooping,” Wiggins said. “When your back is against the wall, that really shows who you are. And he’s been responding well.”

Poole’s work ethic, by at least two accounts, remains impeccable. There are quiet concerns about his mindset, just as there is some suspicion that he misses the court-altering presence of Curry. The game is coming harder now.

Still, the hope is that one incident will not be the first thing that comes to mind with Poole; that he overcomes that image and regains the magic that made him such a big contributor to the Warriors’ last rise to the top.

That he rises far above his most uncomfortable professional predicament, for just as failure can invite pity and scorn, revival tends to inspire.

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