Here is Jordan Poole, growing but unchanged
It was June, and Jordan Poole wanted to talk.
He dialed John Beilein, fresh off a flirtation with the Detroit Pistons, and secured a meeting. The two, along with assistant coach DeAndre Haynes, sat down in Beilein’s office. This wasn’t the first time the trio met over the course of the Poole’s first year in Ann Arbor, but the tone had changed — and that change had come from Poole.
The sophomore wanted Beilein to know that he was ready to be a leader. He wanted Beilein to know he was locked in, putting in hours at the gym. He wanted Beilein to know that, with Duncan Robinson, Moritz Wagner and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman gone, he was ready to step up and help fill the void. More than anything, he wanted Beilein to know that freshman year was behind him.
Haynes quietly smiled throughout the whole thing.
“He was proud, I guess, for the way that I called the meeting,” Poole told The Daily, all 6-foot-5 of him hunching forward in his chair. “Cause he was in all the other meetings that weren’t so good, earlier on in the year.”
Three months before making that phone call, Poole etched himself into Michigan lore with a game-winner that sent the Wolverines to the Sweet Sixteen and added a sentence to his epitaph. He ran laps around the arena that night in Wichita, then embraced a horde of cameras disproportionate to his playing time as the Wolverines carved their way through the NCAA Tournament field.
That moment is what his freshman year — and perhaps his entire career with the Wolverines — will be remembered for. It’s not what his freshman year was about.
Five days after that shot, against Texas A&M, Poole jumped a passing lane when he should’ve stayed put, handing the Aggies’ Robert Williams an uncontested dunk. Poole went straight to the bench. That wasn’t what his freshman year was about either.
Rather, it was finding the balance between those two moments — the unafraid shotmaking that extended Michigan’s season and the undisciplined flashes that would send Beilein into a conniption — that defined the last year for Jordan Poole.
“I was just outgoing,” Poole said. “And coming from a high school where I’m always able to be the man, and the coach who has been here so many years and he wants things his way. And a kid with so much confidence — I wasn’t gonna let him break me.
“… It was definitely like a clash.”
Jordan Poole is a walking superlative — unique, outgoing, confident. Anyone who has ever met him will tell you this, and it doesn’t take long to see.
Once Poole arrived at Michigan, it took all of one pickup game for that to become apparent.
“He came in and just fired the first shot,” said Ibi Watson. “I knew that from right there, he wasn’t lacking any confidence.”
It wasn’t just the first shot though. It was the first shot, on his first touch, in his first pickup game, of his first year, and it was a deep 3-pointer. The next time down the floor, as soon as he touched the ball, Poole launched it again. Oh, and he hit them both.
“It’s not that it’s disrespectful or anything like that,” Robinson said. “But it definitely kinda put everyone else on notice.”
Poole said he felt like the most ready freshman of the group, and it showed in those early practices. He talked trash. He was loud. He took every shot that came to him.
And he backed it up. Poole hit a whole lot of those shots — teammates knew right away he would have a role to play down the line. Beilein did too, but Poole had to learn to play with structure.
When Beilein culled the rotation, about a week before opening night, Poole wasn’t a part of it. Instead, for the early part of the season, he was resigned to the scout team.
In his year at LaLumiere, a prep school in LaPorte, Ind., Poole was the sixth man — a product of the talent on the roster, which included five-star recruits Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brian Bowen II. Even then, Poole estimated he still played more minutes than the starter at shooting guard.
The scout team — that was unheard of for someone with Poole’s talent and effervescent confidence.
“When (Beilein) first said it, I was kinda like, in shock,” Poole said. “... And then that hurt, for a little bit. But then I realized why I was on the scout team. I was gonna get up more shots and be aggressive and just hoop at the end of the day. That’s kinda what the scout team really is. It wasn’t as bad as people make it seem.”
Sitting in Crisler Center’s media room with a year of perspective under his belt, knowing how well things worked out, Poole can say that. At the time, it wasn’t so easy.
Poole is, for good and for bad, himself. That means wearing his emotions on his sleeve, and at first, this one was disappointment. The rest of the team could feel that he was unhappy. Beilein rode him, calling Poole out in practices whenever he saw something. Poole took it personally. At times, responsibility fell to Wagner, Zavier Simpson and Charles Matthews, who took care to make sure Poole was attentive, listening and above all, encouraged. Poole was too good — too important — for them to let him get down on himself.
“We all kinda knew that we were gonna need him,” Wagner said. “And he kinda needed to understand that. … We really pushed him to keep focus on the practice, even when it seemed like it wasn’t gonna have any impact, which is not true.”
It didn’t take long for Poole to play his way off the scout team. He got his first big chance on Dec. 2 against Indiana, when Matthews got in early foul trouble. Then he ran with it, scoring 19 points on 5-of-10 shooting from 3-point range. The fourth of those five — a pull-up jumper over the Hoosiers’ Zach McRoberts from a step inside the 28-foot line — set the tone for the rest of his season.
Poole, still, took risks. He took those deep threes (and made a good amount), ball-watched on defense and turned it over more than he assisted. One December day, sidelined with an injury and watching a practice in which Poole was playing well, Wagner turned to Beilein.
“Man,” he recalled saying, “this kid is really good.”
“You know what’s crazy?” Beilein responded. “He can be so much better. That’s what I see.”
“I probably have said that to many, cause you could see the talent oozing out of him,” Beilein told The Daily. “But knowing how he can be more efficient with his game. If you saw his assist-to-turnover ratios — you didn’t see the practice ones — and you saw his shooting percentage, you’d say, ‘He’s better than this. These are like, tough guys that aren’t very good players.’ ”
Beilein is a perfectionist, and every bit as stubborn a personality as Poole. Just days ago, he walked into a press conference and called the Wolverines’ performance at Selfie Night — a fan-friendly open practice the team puts on in lieu of Midnight Madness — a “defensive massacre.” More than that, his system demands adherence.
Poole needed to understand that this wasn’t about shot-making, it was about the little things. Watching film. Defense. Playing within the system.
“I didn’t know what a bad shot was, but I wouldn’t stop taking bad shots,” Poole said. “... I wouldn’t really lock into film as much as I should have, only because I was more thinking about, ‘Let me show (Beilein) I can make this shot.’ Or, ‘Let me show him I can do this. Let me show him I can do that.’
“I was just out there hooping, but then when I really settled down and looked at film and started thinking, ‘Alright, what’s a good shot? What’s a bad shot?’ And try to think more about the game without thinking too much about the game is where I found a happy medium.”
Nearly everyone asked pointed to either the Maui Tournament over Thanksgiving or the Indiana game a week later as the place where that medium was found. Everyone except two people: Jordan Poole and John Beilein.
Those games got Poole into the rotation, but that was about it. Still, the same issues existed, and Poole struggled to rectify them. For both Poole and Beilein, finding that medium took the whole year.
“I think that in high school, he was a really, really good player. Certainly the best player on his team,” Beilein said. “And, perhaps, it was very difficult, where he probably thinks, ‘Oh, I gotta carry the load for this team.’ And he doesn’t. He’s got other good players around him. And then you get there and the pressure on a freshman, especially one as highly recruited, or highly-rated, to live up to expectations, it just wraps them all up.”
“I didn’t realize it until the end of the year that it wasn’t more like, he was picking on me ’cause I was a freshman. It was more like he just wanted me to be able to do this,” Poole said. “... As the year starts to go on, you realize that he just wants the best for you. He wouldn’t have recruited you if he didn’t know what you were capable of. I realized that later in the year, and that’s when our relationship really started to grow.”
Most of that adjustment was Poole’s to make. But some of it fell to Beilein. As the gregarious freshman learned to tone things down and focus on film sessions, the coach learned that Poole does well with positive reinforcement.
Now, when Beilein sees Poole commit turnovers in practice, he doesn’t get on him unrelentingly, instead asking the sophomore what he saw and working from it.
“As I watched him adapt, right, I could see that he was trending in the right direction,” Beilein said. “And it’s never fast enough for a coach, but I could see him trending in the right direction. So, I embraced that.”
That doesn’t mean Poole’s personality is gone — it’s very much intact and always will be. That’s part of the package, and there’s a notable upside to his personality.
Poole talks people up, taking his confidence out on the rest of the team. He saw himself as a leader from the moment he stepped in the door at Michigan. At the Final Four, he walked the walk. Beilein mentioned his “leadership possibilities,” but for Poole, that’s already a reality.
When he talks, people listen. It has been that way at every level Poole has played basketball, he said, and it was no different last year despite his freshman status.
“We use technicalities as like, the juniors and seniors are the leaders of the team,” Poole said.
“But I feel like I was always trying to find a way to give us a boost.”
Still, he could get away with having a bad day last year. That’s not the case anymore. When you’re always on, you always need to be on. Otherwise, it’s noticeable, and it rubs off.
One day this year, Poole let himself have a bad practice. The rest of the team followed suit. That’s the burden of being the guy who calls Beilein over the summer asking to meet.
The challenge in front of Poole has shifted. Now, he wants to be the one pulling someone aside to offer help instead of the person receiving it. Yet, in so many ways, it comes back to the same theme, one that Poole has wrought through the last year of ups and downs — sulking on scout team, hitting that shot, embracing those cameras, calling that meeting.
Through change and through growth, Jordan Poole will always have the challenge of being himself.