Ann Arbor — Given the celebrity status he gained for his NCAA Tournament heroics, it’s hard to believe anyone wouldn’t recognize Michigan sophomore guard Jordan Poole.
Yet earlier this month, assistant coach DeAndre Haynes admits there was a moment he had to do a double take.
“I think (a few) practices ago I didn't even know it was him,” Haynes said during the team’s media day earlier this week. “He just looked totally different.”
It’s not that it had anything to do with Poole’s physical appearance. Instead, it had everything to do with looks — the wide-open ones he was facilitating for his teammates.
“He's really focused on making plays for others because we're telling him, 'You're going to get your shots. You got to make sure you find these guys when they're open,’” Haynes said. “He's being so unselfish right now and guys are starting to see that so when he's open, he's knocking down his shots.
“He's a tough guard so when he gets into the lane, he's finding the open man and that's what's going to be great for him and this team to have a guy like him that's going to score at a high rate and create for his own team.”
It's the next phase of Poole’s evolution as he shifts from a super-charged spark plug to a steady, reliable presence Michigan coach John Beilein plans to play through more this season.
As a freshman, Poole averaged 6.0 points in 12.2 minutes off the bench, shot 37 percent from 3-point range and recorded his share of highlights — the memorable winning 3-pointer against Houston in the postseason and dunk and stare down at Penn State, to name a few.
And while he was never shy about letting it fly in Year 1, Poole is striving to fill the void left by Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman by being more of a playmaker who constantly makes the right play in Year 2.
“There's 30 seconds on the shot clock, so you know the ball is going to come back to whoever is being more aggressive,” Poole said. “I'm a scorer and I know that I have guys around me who I can trust to score as well, so just putting them in position to where they can get easy baskets.
“Being a sophomore, everything has slowed down a little bit, but I’m just trying to be more consistent than anything. Don't go up and down and be on the roller coaster I was last year. Be consistently aggressive in scoring and in playmaking.”
It can’t be understated how much Abdur-Rahkman meant to Michigan’s success the last few years. A consummate teammate and savvy all-around player, Abdur-Rahkman logged a team-high 34.9 minutes per game last season and did so many little things that made a huge difference, like making the extra pass, setting a brush screen or getting a key stop.
Of course, Abdur-Rahkman and Poole couldn’t be more different from a personality standpoint. Abdur-Rahkman had a more quiet and subdued presence, whereas Poole is a talkative and energetic force.
Their freshman seasons were also nothing alike. Beilein said Abdur-Rahkman was content sitting on the bench until he was pressed into the starting lineup due to injuries, while Poole was champing at the bit to be thrown into action.
But watching and playing behind Abdur-Rahkman left an undeniable impression on Poole. Beilein said Poole has shown a poise and patience about his game and is playing at a better pace compared to last year when he was “full-go” and had a mindset he had to either shoot or make a play every time he touched the ball “or this grenade is going to go off in my hand.”
That has led to better ball security and impressive distribution numbers. Beilein said Poole’s assist-to-turnover ratio this preseason is similar to Abdur-Rahkman’s, which is saying a lot since Abdur-Rahkman ranked second in the nation with a 4.40 mark last season.
“I think he's learned a lot from Muhammad, about you don't need to be all out there like that to be really good,” Beilein said. “You just need to have substance to your game.”
While Poole tries to strike a balance of being a scorer and facilitator — Beilein noted Poole needs to shoot more and sometimes is looking for too good of a shot in practice — his offensive numbers haven’t been lacking. According to Beilein, the team has done at least 30 shooting tests and Poole has yet to fail one.
What has impressed Haynes and Beilein the most, though, has been Poole's improved performance at the other end of the floor. They have seen a willingness from Poole to take on Abdur-Rahkman’s defensive mantle, a drive to be a better defender, which has shown in his defensive numbers the team charts in practice, and a desire to prove he’s more than that one shot that will forever live on in Michigan lore.
"We told him last year, 'Man, you got to play both ends of the floor.' And now he's starting to do it," Haynes said. "He's starting to realize if I do these things I can stay on the floor, but I also can help my team win. I think Muhammad, he shows you what it took and I think JP is doing that.
“He has stepped up to the plate and he's ready for the challenge.”