The fearless mindset of the Warriors’ Brandin Podziemski: ‘He’s got a delusion to him’

SAN FRANCISCO — Nearly a year ago on the dot, Mike Dunleavy, the Golden State Warriors’ future general manager, and Kent Lacob, an ascending front office personnel voice, hopped in a car and made the quick 50 mile trip south to Santa Clara’s campus.

They were primarily there to see Maxwell Lewis, the possible lottery pick out of Pepperdine. Lewis played fine. He’d eventually get selected 40th in the 2023 NBA Draft. But he wasn’t the best player on the floor. Brandin Podziemski, a 6-foot-4 guard who was only beginning to creep onto the draft radar, made every significant play to lead Santa Clara to victory. His 23 points mattered. But it was the 18 rebounds that had Dunleavy’s and Lacob’s antennas up.

“Mike and I walked out of the game like, ‘Um, that guy might be a first-round pick,’” Lacob said.

Podziemski competed in the NBA Rising Stars Challenge at All-Star Weekend last Friday. He leads all NBA rookies with 14 games of at least 10 points, five rebounds and five assists, making him a clear candidate to finish on the All-Rookie first team.

He turns 21 this week, but has already pushed his way past Klay Thompson into the Warriors’ starting and closing lineups, a vital glue piece of head coach Steve Kerr’s favorite five-man group, which has outscored opponents by 57 points in 107 minutes.

The relationship between Podziemski and the Warriors can be traced to that February night. That’s when they first began to take Podziemski seriously as a prospect. In the ensuing 12 months — with a bunch of important inflection points along the way — he has won over every level of the organization, most crucially his veteran teammates.

Podziemski’s future surfaced recently in the visiting locker room in Salt Lake City. He’s a prototype role player right now, but has dreams of becoming an All-Star. There are roadblocks ahead and limitations to overcome. But anyone who has doubted Podziemski to this point has continually been proven wrong.

“The ceiling is high,” Draymond Green said. “He’s still learning. Still figuring s— out. But when you start looking at people who are going to succeed him…”

Green points three lockers down. Stephen Curry is getting dressed after torching the Jazz. Curry’s prime may extend until 40. But he turns 36 next month. When Curry is 40, Podziemski will be 25.

“It won’t look the same,” Green said. “Totally different. But you’re very comfortable when he’s out there on the court. That says a lot for a rookie on this team — that you feel the amount of comfort you do when he’s out there running the show.”

The Warriors’ front office reconnected with Podziemski at the draft combine in Chicago in May. Most top prospects don’t do much court work. He tested out better than expected athletically and was already rising on boards, getting first-round buzz. Some in his position may have skipped the scrimmages. Podziemski didn’t.

“I got nothing to hide,” he told the Warriors brass, led by scouting director Larry Harris.

Podziemski then went out and crushed the scrimmage portion. His stock spiked again. In-person workouts cranked up. Podziemski traveled the country, intent on impressing. He went to Houston. Chuck Hayes, currently in the Warriors front office, was working for the Rockets at the time. He remembers Podziemski killing the workout while letting the gym know about it.

“BP,” Hayes called out before a recent game. “You remember talking trash to John Lucas in the Rockets workout?”

“Oh, yeah,” Podziemski replied.

Podziemski and Lucas, the former NBA point guard and legendary development coach, were arguing about who was the greatest lefty guard in the building. It was an early peek into the mindset that has earned Podziemski so much respect.

“He talk s— all day,” Green said. “That’s all he do.”

Podziemski thought he crushed his workout in Miami. He figured the Heat might draft him 18th. They went with Jaime Jaquez Jr., also a Warriors’ favorite. Golden State was up at No. 19. Podziemski thought he fit, but didn’t feel quite as optimistic about how he performed at his group workout in San Francisco. The Warriors were sure.

“He was great on the court,” Lacob said. “Like, really good. Clearly the best player in the workout.”

The Warriors then brought him into the film room and had him break down two games of tape. They don’t often learn much in these sessions. Podziemski was different. They slowed down some of his pick-and-roll decision-making against Gonzaga and defensive possessions.

“He could reference personnel on the other team,” Lacob said. “Names, tendencies, opponent actions. His memory recall was super impressive.”

Podziemski popped in the Warriors’ analytics model, put together by their vice president of analytics Pabail Sidhu. They value it with increased frequency. Podziemski’s 8.8 rebounds per game led his conference. That juiced the analytics model. When it was all wrapped together, Podziemski finished top-10 on the front office’s consensus final draft board.

“There was a belief that he was clearly a Steve Kerr system fit, but also a consensus belief it was more than that,” Lacob said. “The talent combined with the IQ and the personality was something to bet on.”

Cam Whitmore, considered a pre-draft top-five prospect, was still available at 19. So were plenty of other valued players. But the Warriors didn’t flinch. They took Podziemski. It was Dunleavy’s first draft selection as general manager. The room agreed on Podziemski.

Green sprained his left ankle just before training camp. He missed about a month. In his ramp-up to return, the Warriors set up a scrimmage in Sacramento the morning of their second game. Podziemski was out of the rotation, so they had him play on Green’s team. They lost the first scrimmage after Green turned it over.

“We can’t have a turnover for game!” Podziemski told Green. “You cannot turn the ball over for game.”

Green was stunned. They’ve had rookies who barely say a word to him the entire season.

“I was like, ‘OK, cool, you got it. No problem,’” Green said. “Here we are playing a pick-up game, a game to get me ready and he’s yelling at me. That to me said a whole lot. I was like, ‘You know what? No problem. But make sure you speak up like that all the time.’”

Green and Podziemski high-five during a game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. (Alonzo Adams / USA Today)

The Warriors had an extended stay in Los Angeles during the preseason. They had some workouts on UCLA’s campus. After one practice, the guards set up a King of the Court style one-on-one. Score and stay. Podziemski was up against a group that included Curry and Chris Paul.

“We were at UCLA, right?” Paul asked Moses Moody. “When BP beat us in ones.”

“Yes,” Moody responded, grinning at the memory. The rookie was giving it to two of the greatest to ever do it at the point guard position and alerting anyone within earshot of the damage.

“He did the Tiger (Woods) fist-pump,” Paul said, shaking his head.

“‘Let’s f—g go!’” Curry remembers him taunting. “That was hilarious.”

Podziemski’s first NBA taste was bitter. He struggled in summer league, mostly with his jumper and floater. The more he stewed, the more it snowballed.

“I had a little bit of doubt after summer league,” Podziemski admitted. “But the rest of that July period and August and September, I just attacked. I focused on what I needed to work on to be a role player on this team.”

Podziemski attended every team workout that Curry, Paul and Green organized across the summer. He was in the team facility on Aug. 1 and a mainstay almost every day after. He entered camp confident he could make some noise, even if most figured he’d spend the majority of the season in Santa Cruz with the Warriors G League affiliate.

Kevon Looney remembers the new rookie guard bashing into him and clawing over rebounds. He initially told Podziemski to quit stealing them away. Then he realized it was part of his game and attitude.

“I remember in those mini-camps, he’d be grumbling after scrimmages like, ‘Oh, I’m tired of losing,’” Looney said. “I was like, ‘You should just be happy you’re on the court.’ He’s like, ‘Nah, we gotta figure out a way to win. They need to pass me the ball.’ I’m like, ‘Uhh, I don’t know about that.’”

Looney saw a quote from Podziemski soon after the draft that said he wanted to be a triple-double guy.

“That’s pretty bold,” Looney said and laughed. “But I know most Wisconsin guards have this crazy confidence to them. (Jordan) Poole. Tyler Herro. He’s got a delusion to him that makes him good.”

Podziemski grew up in Milwaukee in what he describes as a “competitive” family where his father, John, and his mother, Barbara West, didn’t allow him to win at anything. He needed to earn it.

“From that competitiveness comes confidence,” Podziemski said. “Knowing how much you put into the game, why would you come in here nervous or timid?”

Podziemski stays extremely late after games. He strolls around the locker room and converses with anyone in his orbit. He tried to set up an NBA-related quiz after a game early in the season to get some spending money off Thompson and then compared their salaries when Thompson was hesitant. Thompson told him to stop “pocket-watching.”

“It’s easier to tame a lion than get a sheep to show some oomph,” Curry said. “The most annoying parts about him are the greatest parts about him. He’s still coachable. That’s a big part of it. You can say all that stuff but if you can’t accept coaching, that’s where it turns into being counterproductive.”

Podziemski trails Curry for postgame workouts and studies what makes him great. He might be the most active member of the team’s group chat, according to Green, and told Green he was coming for him via text messages.

“I wouldn’t do this if I were you,” Green warned. “I don’t play fair.”

Podziemski then sent a bunch of old photos of Green to the team, the funniest he could find.

“He was like: ‘Wham. Wham. Wham,’” Green said of the flood of texts and then remembered he hadn’t retaliated. “I still gotta popcorn his car.”

After a low-energy loss to the Heat in late December, a distraught Podziemski went to the podium and blamed himself as the biggest reason for the loss. Anyone who watched the game would’ve placed his decent performance far down the list. Curry went 3 of 15 shooting. Andrew Wiggins was in a slump. Defensive breakdowns were everywhere. But there he was pinning himself as the night’s wrongdoer.

“Geez,” Thompson said when he heard about it. “Dramatic, rookie.”

Kerr has been most impressed with Podziemski defensively. In camp, they track deflections during scrimmages. Podziemski led the team. That was an early sign.

His rebounding numbers translated, which was particularly important for a team that leaned small. The Warriors are the third-best rebounding team in the NBA and Podziemski’s 5.8 rebounds per game in 26 minutes per game rank behind only Green and Looney. He gets on the glass more relentlessly than Wiggins and Jonathan Kuminga, their bigger wings.

“What this team has lacked, what it lacked last year, he gave us,” Kerr said. “The connection. The connector. The ball-mover. The cutter. There’s a feel and a recognition of what’s happening on the floor that makes him playable in any lineup. He enhances every lineup.”

The Warriors nearly blew a huge lead to the Spurs in late November. They won, but it was a bad overall performance and Podziemski’s first real stinker. He missed all five of his shots. Kerr entered the locker room postgame expecting the team to be down and Podziemski to be in hiding.

“I would have been holed up in my apartment for three days wondering if I’d ever make a shot again,” Kerr said of his younger self. “But I went in there and he was the most upbeat guy. I loved it. Because when you play poorly and still can bring team energy and maintain confidence and swagger, that’s a great sign.”

One of the more consequential plays of the Warriors’ season so far came in Portland in mid-December. They entered a wobbly 11-14, needing desperately to beat a bad Trail Blazers team. But Curry struggled and they were having a tough time putting the win away.

Curry missed a free throw with four seconds left. The Blazers, down two, didn’t call timeout. Shaedon Sharpe pushed the ball upcourt in a scramble drill. He had what appeared to be a path to the rim to tie it. But Podziemski stepped in front and took a game-winning charge. Here’s the possession:

That was Podziemski’s 11th charge drawn. It has become his signature defensive move. He has drawn 27 this season, which leads the NBA. He tracks the leaderboard, knew who led the NBA in that category last season (Oklahoma City’s Jaylin Williams) and even mentions some of the greatest charge-takers in recent history when discussing it.

When discussing Podziemski’s defensive upside, Kerr compared him to Austin Reaves of the Lakers.

“Like when I coached Austin this past summer, what stood out to me most is just that there’s zero fear defensively. And he’s strong as s—. That’s what they have in common. They’re very similar (in) size. Six-four and really physically strong. That’s what you need, I think, in today’s game. The guys who struggle defensively are the guys who aren’t physically strong. If you’re going to be on the small side, you’ve got to be strong,” Kerr said.

Podziemski has, in a roundabout way, compared himself to Gary Payton II and Draymond Green this season, overly ambitious on its face but Payton and Green seem to understand the general point. He sees the floor and the patterns and has an appetite for disruption like both of them. But that comes with a downside. He roams.

“He gambles way too much,” Kerr said. “That’s great except we really only need one guy (Draymond) doing that. If you have two guys doing that, the defense will be screwed up. But I’ll take that any day over the guy who isn’t aware. The guy who isn’t aware is standing on the weak side while the guy is laying it in. He’s the opposite. He sees every cutter. He’s trying to help on everything. We just have to help him streamline and help him understand his job isn’t to do everyone else’s job.”

Adds Green: “He gets lost sometimes. But the reality is I used to get lost all the time. People may not remember, but they couldn’t play me on shooters for a long time. It’d be like we’re playing the Pelicans, I’d guard Anthony Davis. Then they’d switch Ryan Anderson or Nikola Mirotić and they’d be like: ‘We got to get Draymond out of the game.’”

Podziemski strayed too far off Jordan Clarkson during a recent game against the Jazz and learned the lesson on the bench from Payton, another high-risk gambler.

“He sees what Draymond does and tries to mimic it,” Payton said. “But I told him when you’re guarding a problem like Clarkson, you can’t roam as much as you’d like. Because it’s a swing, swing, high percentage catch-and-shoot. It’s all a feel.”

On the other end of the floor, Podziemski is a low-risk playmaker. In February, he has 52 assists and nine turnovers. In January, he had 41 assists and 12 turnovers. He had a 27-assist, 0-turnover four-game stretch recently that broke rookie records.

But his ultimate upside will be determined as a scorer. Podziemski’s shot diet is limited to 3s, floaters, sweeping hooks and sneaky layups. He stays out of the midrange and doesn’t live above the rim. He struggled with his 3 for some of the season but has made 12 of his last 19 to up his season percentage to 38.5 percent. He has scored in double-figures in 28 games this season, sixth-most among rookies, and hit 20 four times. If that can become a regular benchmark as he nears his prime, the ceiling will continue to rise.

“I want to be an All-Star,” Podziemski said. “You know, Jonathan has taken that next step of really being in that conversation. To see his growth just this year has been pretty special. So going into the summer after this year elevating my game to another level, doing the things that I’m deficient in now and making them as efficient as possible, I think I can get there. I’m never gonna just settle for being a role player, especially after my first year. I got a long career ahead of me.

(Photo illustration: Rachel Orr / The Athletic; photo: Brian Babineau / NBAE via Getty Images)