For a few seconds on Sunday, Jordan Poole played like one of his idols: Kobe Bryant.
In the second half of Michigan’s win over UC Riverside, the freshman guard cocked his arm back — his head seemingly floating just below the rim — and emphatically rejected a layup attempt. Seconds later, Poole jogged up the floor and found himself with the ball two feet beyond the three-point line.
The ball went up, arced and swished through the net. It was the loudest Crisler Center had been all afternoon.
“Shooters shoot,” Poole said. “I think it was a quote Kobe said, he said he’ll go 0-for-30 before he’ll go 0-for-8.”
The sequence was an introduction for the former four-star recruit, who scored 11 points on 4-of-9 shooting Sunday.
“It was a big-time play,” Poole said. “Just the environment itself…I don’t know, it was unreal.”
Added redshirt sophomore forward Charles Matthews: “It was so exciting. Just seeing those guys work so hard — they might not get the opportunities others get — so when you do see the success those guys had, you’re very happy for them.”
Despite coming in as the Wolverines’ top-rated freshman, Poole fell far behind his classmates in coach John Beilein’s rotation. In fact, Poole was best known for his creative bench celebrations, as he watched both point guard Eli Brooks and forward Isaiah Livers receive significant playing time.
According to Beilein, Poole struggled to cut down on “normal freshman” mistakes such as turnovers and poor defensive positioning.
Then, just before the Wolverines left for the Maui Invitational, the light turned on for Poole.
“Up until that point, it was kind of up-and-down,” Poole said. “I was a little inconsistent in practice. But I think I went four or five straight practices where I was just doing everything right. … Just being able to do what they wanted me to do and not having to think too much, it clicked.”
That showed during Michigan’s second-round game in Hawaii against Chaminade. In nine minutes, Poole scored 10 points while adding an assist and steal in his first action since the season opener.
Poole says he’s become more relaxed in Beilein’s system, and after another game in double figures, that certainly appears to be the case.
“(I feel) way more comfortable,” Poole said. “Obviously (I’m) going through the freshman struggles, and I’m still trying to learn the offense a lot. But then obviously just working on the craft, it started to flow. I think it’s starting to become more natural.”
But the road to more playing time is far from clear for Poole.
For one, he’s still competing with sophomore Ibi Watson for backcourt minutes — a battle that Beilein hopes will produce a clear-cut option to provide a spark off the bench.
After rotating within the Wolverines’ practice squad a season ago, Watson has also displayed flashes of an improved offensive ability with an air of confidence that wasn’t there his freshman campaign.
Sunday, Watson connected on two pullup jumpers — a shot he’s made with relative frequency thus far — for four points in seven minutes.
“Jordan Poole and Isaiah (Livers) and I thought Ibi had a good day too,” Beilein said. “It’s up for grabs, and it’s still up for grabs. Every game, I’m going to go, ‘Who practiced well? Alright, he practiced well, he practiced well — go in.’ ”
Added Poole: “I heard some stuff where it’s like, either Ibi’s gonna play, or I’m gonna play. But at the end of the day, we just try to go out there and make each other better.”
Perhaps what will boost one of them over the other is the improvements each makes on the defensive end, where both have had their struggles. In the first half against UC Riverside, for example, Poole switched to the wrong guy on a pick-and-roll, leaving the Highlanders with a wide-open 3-point look.
“Like most freshmen, defense and value for the basketball is really difficult,” Beilein said. “And he’s shown great strides in that area — very talented player. But we don’t want him to be the MVP in our games. He’s learning how to play defense, how to take care of the ball — and he’s really got some things that you can’t teach.”
The shooting is there. The question is if Poole’s defense can catch up.
Still, Poole’s sequence of brilliance Sunday shows what might happen if the two blend together.