Shortly after Jordan Poole committed to Michigan, John Beilein took in one of his high school games. Poole didn’t score.
“That really didn’t make me go back and say ‘Wow,’ “ the Wolverines’ coach quipped Thursday.
That being said, it was somewhat understandable. With a reputation as a lethal scorer preceding him throughout high school, Poole could count on getting the opposing team’s best effort defensively — defenders denying him the ball, pushing him out of dangerous areas and living in his jersey when he did get possession.
It’s the challenge that most talented high schoolers face. The ones that go on to play college basketball, especially at a major program like Michigan, are usually the best players on whatever court they step on.
At the next level, that isn’t the case. It wasn’t the case for Poole last season, and his play reflected that. He rarely saw playing time as a freshman because of inconsistency, on-and-off defensive focus and a lack of playmaking — in other words, the things that usually limit the playing time of freshmen.
As a shooter, though, Poole was unquestionably college-ready. So when he did take the court, it came with the guarantee that he was going to get shots up. Poole attempted 14.7 field goals per 40 minutes, the second-highest of any Wolverine in the regular rotation. He made his fair share, too, hitting 37 percent of his three-pointers and averaging 6.1 points in just 12.5 minutes per game.
It was that scoring promise, a perceived dearth of shot creators on the roster and, of course, The Shot against Houston, that allowed many to foresee a much bigger role for Poole this year.
Halfway through his sophomore season, Poole has without a doubt arrived in that role. After a slow start — just 1-for-10 from deep in the season’s first three contests — the Milwaukee native has been on a tear. Since Nov. 17, Poole has shot 55 percent from three and 56 percent overall, creating his own offense inside and outside the arc in averaging a cooly efficient 16.4 points per game.
Michigan’s 68-55 win over Penn State on Thursday wasn’t Poole’s best game of the season — 17 points on 5-of-9 shooting (just 1-for-4 from downtown) and four turnovers. But maybe more than any game previously, it showcased how far he’s come.
The Nittany Lions had no intention of making Poole’s life easy. Ace defender, Josh Reaves, worked hard to limit Poole’s touches, often forcing him far outside the three-point line to make plays.
“This hasn’t happened since high school, so I feel like it was definitely a compliment in a way,” Poole said. “But you gotta adjust.”
“It’s frustrating at first, but you just gotta know that you’ll get your shots eventually,” said sophomore guard Eli Brooks on Friday. “The ball will always find you. But it’s just other people's time to step up.”
Poole seems to understand that now in a way he wouldn’t have earlier in his career. His play Thursday reflected that.
In the ball-screen game, he created opportunities for himself and his teammates. In the first half, he delivered possibly the assist of Michigan’s season: a deft, behind-the-back flick to set up a slam dunk by redshirt sophomore center Austin Davis. As the Nittany Lions threatened down by just eight late in the second half, Poole manuevered around a screen at the top of the key, probing to the left elbow and flushing a key jumper over Mike Watkins.
“We got all these drills with people running around, giving him looks, it’s like a video game that he's gotta see who’s open, and he's growing in it,” Beilein said Thursday. “ … Whether it's Iggy (Brazdeikis), somebody besides Zavier (Simpson), one of those three, we're going to continue to grow their areas so we can use the ball screen effectively from really four spots.
“Jordan's really important because he's probably our number one in-between guy that can pull up in-between and shoot it, which is the way everybody's playing now with the catch guy or icing you pushing down. You gotta have that in-between game. He's probably got one of our best.”
While the pick-and-roll is a new development for Poole, he still found the time to get buckets the way he did last season despite stingy defense. Early in the first half, Penn State big man John Harrar had the misfortune to find himself mismatched with Poole on the perimeter. All it took was a few jabs and a nifty stepback, and the ball flew through the nylon.
“We’re playing against really good teams, guys who are extremely good defenders on the ball and off the ball like Josh Reaves,” Poole said. “But being able to find a way to still get my shot, to get the right shots, but also make plays for others … that just all comes with the game, and the coaches are trusting me a lot to put me in a situation to make the right play.”
If Poole’s growth continues, the Wolverines, despite a 14-0 start, might be far from hitting their ceiling. Beilein stated Thursday and reiterated Friday that he wants multiple players who are able to create out of screens. Poole adds another dimension in that area.
“We’ve got three or four guys that we all can play through,” Beilein said Friday. “I guess that depends a lot on matchups and depends a lot on strategy, that hopefully we can be in a situation where we can dial up several guys when we see matchups or trends in how they're playing us, or who's got the hot hand. That's a big thing.”
Added Brooks: “It opens up a lot of opportunities for other players, a lot of driving lanes for the guards, no gap help on Jordan really opens up the driving lanes and opens up Jon (Teske) and Iggy.”
It’s that development, coupled with the things that Poole did last season, that have cemented him as a such a threat. Teams aren’t merely viewing him as the “microwave” he was last season. As Beilein stated Thursday, he’s become “a little bit of a marked man.”
“With Reaves on him, that's the challenge he's going to see right now,” Beilein said Thursday. “His success is going to merit that if he really wants to be a player, it’s not going to go away.”
Indeed, Jordan Poole is becoming "a player." And teams are starting to notice.