Ann Arbor — Times are changing for Michigan sophomore guard Jordan Poole and so are opponents’ game plans.
Poole has arguably been Michigan’s most steady presence over the past month and has done more than just emerge as a consistent scoring option for the Wolverines.
By averaging 17.6 points while shooting 58.5 percent from field (55-for-94) and 53.7 percent from 3-point range (29-for-54) over the past nine games, Poole has formed a three-headed attack with freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis and redshirt junior wing Charles Matthews.
And as Poole’s numbers have soared, others have taken notice. Against Penn State last week, Poole was hounded by senior guard Josh Reaves and was denied the ball out on the perimeter for the first time all season.
Welcome to life as a marked man.
“I mean, this hasn’t happened since high school,” Poole said. “I feel like it’s definitely a compliment in a way, but you’ve got to adjust. We’re playing against really good teams, guys who are extremely good defenders on the ball and off the ball.
“Being able to find a way to still get my shots, get the right shots but also make plays for others knowing that they’re icing (ball screens) and I got a double coming, like hitting Jon (Teske) on the roll or being able to find (others), that’s all what comes with the game when the coaches are trusting me a lot to put me in those situations.”
According to Michigan coach John Beilein, the next progression for Poole is to better recognize how he’s being covered — “They want me to go this way, can I get the other way with one little fake?” — when the ball is in his hands.
To get comfortable doing so, assistant coach DeAndre Haynes has repeatedly put Poole in ball-screen situations in practice to build repetition and help him get used to keeping his head up.
“We have all these drills with people running around and giving him looks. It’s like a video game that he’s got to see who’s open and he’s growing in it,” Beilein explained. “This is Tim Hardaway’s growth, this is the Caris LeVert growth. This is what this guy needs to be able to do because somebody besides Zavier (Simpson) — one of those three (Brazdeikis, Matthews and Poole) we’re going to continue to grow their areas so that we can use the ball screen effectively from four spots.
“Jordan is really important because he’s probably our No. 1 in-between guy that can pull up in-between and shoot it, which is the way everybody is playing now with the catch guy or icing him, pushing him down. You’ve got to be able to have that in-between game. He’s probably got one of our best.”
Poole put that on display against Penn State. He came off a screen set by Teske atop the key, pulled up at the left elbow and knocked down a shot over the outstretched arm of Nittany Lions forward Mike Watkins.
Against Indiana this past weekend, he showed more progress. After an Indiana defender hedged a ball screen atop the key, Poole used a hesitation dribble followed by a left-to-right crossover to lose Hoosiers guard Zach McRoberts and buried a mid-range jumper before another defender could rotate over in time.
Then when the Hoosiers hedged another ball screen out on the wing, Poole split two Indiana defenders and sidestepped another in the lane before finishing at the rim with a scooping layup.
Still, it has been a gradual process for Poole, who has transformed from a complementary floor spacer a season ago to a dynamic playmaker capable of shimmying, shaking and jab stepping his way free of defenders.
Beilein admitted he didn’t think Poole was being put in enough ball-screen scenarios early this season as the team was trying to figure itself out. But Beilein added he’s confident Poole will continue to grow as a facilitator and improve his assist-turnover ratio.
So far, Poole has 33 assists and 26 turnovers in 486 minutes this season, which both rank second on the team. In 476 minutes all last season, he had 22 assists and 25 turnovers.
Combine that with a better understanding of what a good shot is, what winning basketball is and what it takes to defend at a high level, Poole has been allowed to operate with seemingly no restrictions.
“Coach is definitely giving me the green light, but he also trusts me a lot. He wants to put the ball in my hands and he definitely trusts me on making the right play,” Poole said. “He also knows that when we need to make a big bucket, he knows he can come my way and I won’t force up a bucket, but I’ll try to put us in a situation to get a bucket. Being able to have the head coach giving me as much freedom as I have right now is definitely huge.”
How much freedom opposing defenses give Poole moving forward, though, likely won’t be as accommodating.