Warriors rookie Podziemski’s path to the NBA pivoted on a Santa Clara detour

Less than two years ago, after committing to the Fighting Illini for the chance to contribute immediately, he found himself buried on the depth chart. Some nights, Podziemski cried in his dorm room as he questioned his abilities: Was he not as good as he’d thought? And if so, what could that mean for his future?

His Warriors teammates would struggle to reconcile that doubt-ridden 18-year-old with the confident, even borderline overconfident, 20-year-old impressing in his first NBA preseason. With backup point guard Cory Joseph out three games with a strained lower back, Podziemski excelled as a primary ballhandler and showed he might be ready for meaningful minutes.

In doing so, he also offered hope to any big-conference college player unable to crack his team’s rotation. After totaling just 69 minutes as a freshman at Illinois, Podziemski transferred to Santa Clara, where he blossomed into the WCC co-Player of the Year last season before going No. 19 overall to the Warriors in June’s draft.

No other player in recent history had become a first-round draft pick just one year after swapping a high-major program for a mid-major one. Almost everyone who had a trajectory like Podziemski’s washed out of the NBA quickly, which made some scouts wonder whether his production at Santa Clara was more about inferior competition than his skills.

Logic suggested there was a solid reason Illinois head coach Brad Underwood reportedly told Podziemski at the end of his freshman year that he wasn’t good enough for the Big Ten. Underwood, who has enjoyed eight 20-win seasons as a Division I coach, must have seen something in practices or workouts that indicated Podziemski hadn’t deserved his four-star recruiting ranking. Right?

Not necessarily. The harder Podziemski makes it for Warriors head coach Steve Kerr to sit him, the more absurd Underwood’s evaluation looks.

“For me, it’s all about impacting the generation after me and the generation after that,” said Podziemski, who is tied with Chris Paul with a team-high six assists per game this preseason. “It’s just a testament that when you put hard work and opportunity together, anything is possible. You just need one team to like you. Hopefully, I can be an inspiration.”

To many, Podziemski already is.

Mid-major coaches throughout the country have started pitching transfers on what some call the “Podz Model”: parlaying a stint at a lower level college into a seven-figure NBA contract. Just look at Santa Clara, which used Podziemski’s story to help it ink a five-player transfer class headlined by highly touted Arizona forward Adama Bal.

But getting drafted is one thing; becoming a helpful NBA player is something else entirely. After shooting just 26.3% from the field (21.7% from 3-point range) in five games at the Las Vegas summer league, Podziemski approached Stephen Curry, who had once labored himself at summer league. In addition to giving Podziemski some pointers on his shot, Curry invited him to work out.

After an Oct. 13 preseason win over the Lakers, Podziemski lifted weights and hoisted jumpers alongside Curry for about an hour. Moments earlier, Podziemski had dazzled in 26 minutes off the bench, posting a team-best plus-16 as he paired his 10 points, 10 assists and six rebounds with no turnovers.

What stood out more than the stat line was how composed he looked. Considered more of a shooting guard coming out of Santa Clara, Podziemski was at ease initiating the Warriors’ offense. On top of executing the occasional pick-and-roll, he throttled the pace up and down at just the right times, read the defense well and moved off the ball when necessary.

“He’s a very instinctive basketball player,” Kerr said. “He’s always in the right spot, and he sees the game, as indicated by his rebound totals (at Santa Clara): 8.8 per game. He’s just constantly where the ball is, and that translates to a lot of other areas. We’re very excited about him.”

Podziemski still has no guarantee, though, that he’ll open the regular season in the rotation. When Joseph made his preseason debut Wednesday against Sacramento, Podziemski watched the entire game from the bench.

Few can fault Kerr for preferring the ever-reliable Joseph, 32, as his third point guard behind Curry and Paul. But given Podziemski’s upside, some believe he eventually will leapfrog Joseph on the depth chart.

It only helps Podziemski’s chances that he has experience learning from the sideline. During his lone season at Illinois, he notched double-digit minutes only once.

That was quite the letdown for someone who had picked the Illini over such bluebloods as Kansas and Kentucky for a shot at a featured role as a freshman. But when guards Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams returned for their extra season of eligibility granted because of the pandemic, Illinois suddenly had a crowded backcourt.


Then there were the departures of Orlando Antigua and Chin Coleman, the two assistants most involved in Podziemski’s recruitment. Without an advocate on Underwood’s staff, Podziemski languished on the bench, averaging 4.3 minutes over 16 appearances.

At first, he thought he might not belong at the high-major level. But by the season’s midpoint, after a slew of memorable practices, Podziemski knew he could thrive — somewhere.

“I just tried to get what I could out of the experience,” he said. “I did my best imitating (Purdue’s) Jaden Ivey and those other top guys on the scout team. And when I did actually play, I did my thing.”

Santa Clara assistant coach Ryan Madry noticed. When he watched video of Podziemski scoring seven points in eight minutes against Missouri, he saw the same crafty left-hander who had become the first player in Wisconsin high school history to score 2,000 points in three varsity seasons.

With the Broncos last season, Podziemski was one of three Division I players to average at least 19 points, eight rebounds and three assists. His competitiveness, deep shooting range and versatility made him a favorite of the Warriors’ analytics department. Though most mock drafts projected Podziemski to go in the late first round or early second round, Golden State had him 11th on its board.

Less than four months removed from draft night, that doesn’t look so outlandish. What does is the fact that Podziemski couldn’t crack a college rotation less than two years ago.

“He’s a very confident guy who feels like he belongs and puts in the work,” Curry said. “You guys have seen him. He’s got a presence about him. That’s what you want to see from a rookie. He’s fearless.”

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