“Do you speak any other languages besides English?” Jenkins asks. Poole waits a half-beat before answering, “Buckets.”
This is Poole starting anew. Lighthearted and funny, with no dearth of confidence, the 24-year-old guard’s arrival in D.C. was — like his punchlines — right on time.
When new Monumental Basketball president Michael Winger and general manager Will Dawkins initiated a teardown this summer by trading Bradley Beal to the Phoenix Suns, their rebuilding task extended beyond constructing a new roster. Winger needed to reset the environment within the organization, one that had devolved into despondency as the Wizards spent the past several years stranded in the NBA’s no man’s land where they were just good enough to miss out on top draft picks. Poole’s inviting combination of levity and sincerity was welcomed.
“Every single guy we talked to said: ‘We love playing basketball. We just want to have more fun doing it,’” Winger said last month when describing interviews he had with holdovers from last season’s roster.
Poole, of course, had spent the past year of his career mired in his own drama after then-teammate Draymond Green punched him in the jaw at a Golden State Warriors practice last October. Golden State ostensibly backed its rising young star in the aftermath, signing him to a four-year, $140 million contract extension just 10 days after the incident. But the Warriors were fractured from the moment Green’s hand met Poole’s face, and it was Poole who paid the price: His career, still burgeoning, was defined by the incident. Then he was the one who was sent packing in a June trade that followed the Beal move.
Poole got his payday. But when asked if he felt properly valued by Golden State — not in terms of dollars but for what he meant to the organization — the guard wasn’t so sure.
“It’s hard to say because you’re talking about one of the greatest teams of all time. That’s what makes it complicated,” Poole said in a recent interview. “If it was any other group of guys, it probably would be a little bit different. Because I don’t even think they knew what they had. Like, we won a championship, the team that we had over there the last couple years. … I don’t know. We got a ring out of it. I just think I don’t know what they had, in terms of being valued. But it was cool.”
Poole often says some variation of “things are cool” when speaking about his recent past. His dismissive tone betrays him, but it’s the attitude he’s going with as he turns the page with the Wizards, who open their season Wednesday night at the Indiana Pacers.
That extends to a flat refusal to discuss anything surrounding the punch, including meta questions about his year-long stance to not comment on the scuffle publicly. In Washington, he is trying to move on with humor and a serious commitment to anchoring a rebuilding franchise, a new challenge after spending four years as a role player in the league’s smoothest-running machine.
“An opportunity? Of course,” he said of his fresh start, and Poole knows this one is consequential. He has won a championship already, but his peak years are still ahead of him, and now he has a locker room to lead and license to command his own offense.
After a year spent in the spotlight because of something that happened to him, Poole is finally in position to define his next chapter.
He begins by dispelling the notion that a leadership role will be an adjustment. He opened his NBA career as a tertiary character, sure, but has spent far more time in life as the main feature.
From the time he was in fourth grade, Poole explained, he was the best player on his basketball team. He learned what it meant to carry a team’s expectations from a young age and as he entered AAU ball discovered he had to recruit players to come suit up alongside him. His father, Anthony, was his coach growing up, and a young Poole became an ambassador of sorts for his dad. He was the de facto host at team sleepovers and a consigliere on the roster, navigating off-court friendships with teammates whose parents might not agree with his dad’s decision-making.
“You have to know what it’s like to bring a lot of kids from other teams and have them be accepted. You have to manage your friendships, relationships, on the court, off the court. You go to high school, and I was a freshman on varsity, so I had to figure out how to conform, but I also wanted to figure out how to stand out with my play. Sophomore year I was the best player, and then I go to college …” Poole said, alluding to his two seasons at Michigan that included a legendary performance in the NCAA tournament his freshman year. “So at all of these levels, it was a little bit of a different challenge, but I always felt like I was a guy — someone who was important enough to help us win.”
Talent doesn’t automatically make a leader, and Poole draws the confidence to lead from his work ethic. In Washington, he is routinely the last player on the court at practice, sticking around for conversations with coaches or extra shooting drills. He takes pride in learning the game’s history, so the week before the season, he was spending free time brushing up on Wizards great Gheorghe Muresan.
“He’s just a worker. A worker, daily; he’s dedicated,” Wizards point guard Tyus Jones said. “I don’t want to say he’s not happy, but he’s not happy with where he’s at in his development. He’s not satisfied.”
As a kid growing up in Milwaukee, Poole was obsessed with the physics of basketball, that with enough tries he could make a ball go through a hoop over and over and over again no matter his location or obstacles in his way. He was equally certain his NBA dreams would come true as he was aware of the realistically small chance of making the league, so he focused on the only thing that wasn’t overwhelming to think about — practice. A good, hard practice was always achievable.
In that way, Poole is a proud product of his environment.
“Being in Milwaukee, being in Wisconsin, it’s not a big city, it’s cold, right? So we have to work for the stuff that we want. If you want to have money, you have to go do a job,” Poole said. “It’s not like we have acting gigs or crazy athletics or crazy opportunities for schools and dance and music. It’s pretty regular. So you essentially just had to go get a job, 9 to 5, and grind, work on some American Dream vibes. That’s all I knew. I’d go work out, I’d hang out with my friends, make the most of the opportunities that I had.”
Poole wasn’t just adept at maximizing opportunities as a youngster; he also had a knack for spotting them. He opted to spend his senior year of high school at La Lumiere, a boarding school 2½ hours from home in Indiana. He roomed with Jaren Jackson Jr., the Memphis Grizzlies forward who is the reigning NBA defensive player of the year, before heading off to Michigan with a year’s head start on adulthood.
After two seasons with the Wolverines, Poole was selected by Golden State with the 28th pick in the 2019 draft, and he was certain his opportunity to earn a spot in the Warriors’ rotation would come even as he was occasionally frustrated with intermittent trips to the G League. That was the big adjustment in life — suddenly being the low man on the totem pole.
He proved his worth after getting called up from the G League for the last time in March 2021, working his way into a meaty role during the 2021-22 season. He started the first five playoff games of Golden State’s championship run in 2022 while Stephen Curry came off the bench after missing time because of an injury; poured in 30, 29 and 27 points against the Denver Nuggets in the first three of those starts; and proved a crucial element in Golden State winning its fourth title in eight seasons. Poole didn’t just show up when the Warriors needed a big game; he also spelled Curry so the point guard could be fresh when the team needed him most, filling in with ease and running plays designed for the two-time MVP.
“I was so obsessed with making the most of the opportunity when it came, I don’t know if I could live with myself if it came and I wasn’t prepared,” Poole said. “Opportunities, they don’t come often.”
Those contributions, and the work he put in to be able to meaningfully add to a team that was already so high-performing, make the fallout from last year’s punch difficult to swallow. Even if Poole was ready to move on.
Here’s where the guard is certain he’ll have to adjust: As Washington’s top offensive player, he’ll be the primary target of every opposing team’s defense.
He got a small taste of that in the Wizards’ final two preseason games, when he dropped 41 points on the New York Knicks on 10-for-19 shooting in 27 minutes at Madison Square Garden, then had just seven points in 20 minutes on 1-for-15 shooting as the Toronto Raptors keyed on him two nights later.
Dawkins, Washington’s general manager, has said he is looking for Poole to take more “thoughtful” shots this season. Coach Wes Unseld Jr. trusts his new star guard to make the shift over time, explaining that thoughtful shooting isn’t the same as reining Poole in.
“He’s a volume guy. He’s been around enough to know [that] when he’s got a rhythm, he’s made a couple threes, made some tough shots, he’s got a license to maybe take another one,” Unseld said. “But feeling the balance of tough contested ones versus getting to the rim, getting to the free throw line — worst case, collapsing the defense and finding the open man — there’s a balance to that, and I think he knows and understands the difference.”
For his part, Poole is looking forward to expanding his game as the Wizards put the ball in his hands more and he learns to operate outside Golden State’s system. Washington is starting fresh, too, and Poole is one of eight new faces set to play their first Wizards game in the season opener.
He and Jones, who was acquired from Memphis this summer in the three-team trade that sent Kristaps Porzingis to Boston, have been having extensive conversations about how they can combine their experiences from playing in two vastly different offenses. He and Kyle Kuzma, who is entering his third year with the team, have discussed the big picture, talking about how they want to shape Washington’s future. They both know that foundation will come in large part off Poole’s play.
“With him, it’s all about being consistent and making others better, because we know he can score. And we need him to score, night in, night out,” Kuzma said. “Because that’s going to be a huge emphasis — but doing it consistently, those things matter.”
Poole has no misconceptions about how this season is supposed to go. Winger and Dawkins are taking the focus off strictly winning — ESPN predicted the Wizards will win just 24 games this year — but after Poole joined a dynasty midway through, he is genuinely excited to be here at the start of something.
Washington reminds him of Milwaukee, where he grew up watching Michael Redd, Mo Williams and Andrew Bogut — “just regular basketball players. And I was so invested in those games,” he said.
Being around for Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks’ ascent to a championship means Poole knows how sports can change a place. He saw buildings built and the city’s energy turn, its pride swell. He has more control over his career now, an open invitation to share his opinion with the front office, to work collaboratively with coaches and the organization.
In his next chapter, he wants to be at the center of change.
“Obviously, basketball is always the number one, keep that the number one. I’m always going to be locked into the hoop. But I saw what [Milwaukee] was and how, when the energy gets built up and they want to build around a player or they want to build around a group of guys, a duo or a team they want to get behind, streets get packed out on the weekends. It’s good energy,” Poole said.
“D.C. is . . . a big market [and] a basketball city, which I keep hearing over and over and over and over, which I think is so dope. And I’m excited to tap into that, tap into the community, interact with the youth at the games, giving out shoes, throw T-shirts into the crowd. That’s the stuff that gets you excited as a basketball fan. It’ll be cool to see us grow over the next four years or however long I’m here. Forever, hopefully.”