After five straight trips to the NBA Finals that produced three championships, the Golden State Warriors experienced quite the shakeup.
Kevin Durant went East to the Brooklyn Nets in free agency. Klay Thompson has yet to suit up this year while rehabbing from an injury he sustained in last season’s playoffs. Stephen Curry broke his hand back in October and has been out ever since. Kevon Looney just recently made his return to the court. Prized off-season acquisition D’Angelo Russell has also been in and out of the lineup with injuries.
This version of the Warriors hardly resembles the team that once struck fear across the league. But there’s always a silver lining to everything.
Out of necessity, the Warriors have been relying on a lot of young players this year. The season outlook has changed from trying to hold down the fort until Thompson returned to development. The absence of Curry and Thompson has opened up an opportunity for minutes in Golden State’s backcourt, an opportunity that both Jacob Evans III and Jordan Poole have tried to take advantage of.
Evans was a rookie last season and only played in a total of 30 games — better, he’s already up to 25 games this year. He’s a natural shooting guard, but this season he’s been asked to do something he’s not quite accustomed to, he’s been asked to play point guard. When he declared for the NBA Draft, his defensive ability is something he was drafted for, but he’s struggled at times on that end of the floor as he’s tried to adjust to his increased role. He’s been aware of his struggles defensively, and it’s something he takes to heart.
“Being one of the best defenders on the team, that’s what I always try to pride myself on is the defensive end,” Evans told Basketball Insiders. “Like fouling on a three, I can’t do that, I got to know better than that. As you get experience, you learn for the future.”
Evans has also been hit with the injury bug. He was sidelined for 21 games early in the season with an adductor injury and most recently was out for three games due to a concussion. During summer league and the preseason, Evans looked solid in making his transition to point guard. But during the regular season, it’s been more of a gradual learning curve.
One aspect of his college game that he’s been able to translate to the NBA level is his outside shooting. He was seen as being one of the better 3-and-D prospects in the draft. He didn’t shoot so well as a rookie from the three-point line (26.7 percent), but this year he’s up to 38.7 percent.
“This year is an opportunity to go out there and show everybody what I’ve got,” Evans told said. “For me, it’s locking up defensively, rebounding, getting us into certain things, playmaking, organizing, stuff like that. Knocking down shots and just being solid.”
In Poole’s case, he was thrown to the fire from the get-go. Poole was drafted with the 28th overall pick this past summer and found himself immediately thrust into the Warriors’ rotation. However, he struggled mightily to begin the season. His shooting and decision-making suffered and he was sent to the Santa Cruz Warriors, Golden State’s G League affiliate, for seasoning.
He returned a different player than before. His shooting touch came back and his thought process, especially when being tasked with running the offense, was much improved. Poole grew up playing point guard in high school but transitioned to more of an off-ball role at Michigan. Here in the NBA, he’s being asked to do a little of both.
“I come and try to play the right way, try to play team basketball,” Poole told Basketball Insiders. “I try and be aggressive and put our team in the best situation to win.”
In mid-January, after returning from the G League, Poole put together a string of some of his best games this season. During a four-game stretch from Jan. 12 to Jan. 18, Poole scored 13, 17, 10 and 21 points respectively. He shot 41.8 percent from the three-point line and averaged 2.8 assists.
He’s averaging 7.3 points per game on the season and he’s now emerged as one of the Warriors’ most dependable reserves on the year. Back during his early-season struggles, he leaned on the team’s veterans and counted on them to provide guidance and leadership for him in order for him to keep his head up.
“When you’re around so many good people and players, you try to find a way to learn and grow from them,” Poole told Basketball Insiders. “Just in general, I want to try to continue to get better every day. Just learn as much as I can from them.”
Part of learning to become a good team means having to experience close games, especially on the road against elite teams. Last month, the Warriors put up a good showing against the Los Angeles Clippers on Jan. 10 at Staples Center. They led for a good portion of the game and, although they eventually lost, they showed the resiliency and toughness necessary for ultimately win those kinds of games.
Of course, the Warriors’ vets have been through this before — but for all the young players in the rotation right now, this is all new to them. It’s something that Golden State head coach Steve Kerr believes is crucial for their development.
“You have to feel that pressure. You have to feel what it’s like to have a lead on the road and have a team like the Clippers coming downhill at you like they were,” Kerr told reporters after the Clippers game. “You have to be able to withstand that kind of force to be able to win on the road. It’s a great experience for our guys.”
Poole agrees that those types of games will only help get the young players ready for next season when everyone should be healthy.
“I feel like it’s very valuable, it’s very key. You’ve got to make winning plays and go through that in order to put yourself in a position to win,” Poole told Basketball Insiders. “You don’t get that without experience and having experience. It definitely helps a lot.”
Evans also echoes the sentiment in that this season is progressing with two main objectives in mind. The first is the growth and development of the young players, while the second is trying to see where all the pieces might fit once the key cogs all get healthy again.
“It’s going to pay off in the long run. It’s getting us ready for pressure situations when we’re fully healthy,” Evans told Basketball Insiders. “That’s how I try to approach every game and every day, being really solid in my role. Keep working on my skills and then everything else will fall into hand.”
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