Dwight Powell was a mere throw-in when the Dallas Mavericks swung a trade for Rajon Rondo last season. Now the sophomore could get an opportunity to be a key cog in head coach Rick Carlisle's rotation next year.
With DeAndre Jordan opting to return to the L.A. Clippers, the Mavericks have scrambled to put together a somewhat competent frontcourt. Zaza Pachulia will start at center, and Samuel Dalembert was recently brought in as the designated backup at the 5. But after that, it gets a little grim.
Dirk Nowitzki should ideally play below 30 minutes per game, and Powell may very well be the second-best power forward currently on the roster. Carlisle has little patience for developing young players and letting them matriculate through blatant errors, but there is no better time to bet on Powell than now.
A Versatile Skill Set
Powell was drafted 45th overall in 2014, and he hadn't played any meaningful NBA minutes until he got to Dallas. He never managed to crack the rotation, but the seven-game spurt in January, during which he averaged 18.6 minutes per game, had a lot of fans excited about his future.
Everything Powell managed to show in his limited minutes last season was put on full display in the recent NBA Summer League, where he averaged 18.8 points, 9.2 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game.
He's an extremely versatile offensive player. He is mobile, and he can translate that into points in various ways. He can put the ball on the floor, get to the rim and finish with dunks, layups or nifty floaters. He occasionally looks like a guard when driving to the rim, and he has no problem blowing past bigger guys who defend him on the perimeter.
Powell also has a smooth jumper. With the likes of Dirk, Deron Williams and Chandler Parsons next to him, he's not going to be getting the ball nearly as much as he did in summer league, so the fact that he can stretch the floor and knock down shots will keep him active within the offense.
Even though he was merely an afterthought last year, it's clear that Powell will be provided with a legitimate opportunity to prove himself. His dominant performances in the D-League and summer league might not count for too much, but people within the Mavericks organization aren't hiding their excitement when the versatile big man is brought up. Team owner Mark Cuban said, per Earl K. Sneed of Mavs.com:
Dwight is the hardest-working man in show business. I mean, there’s no question about it. No one works harder than Dwight Powell, and he proved it. He’s making his (three-point shooting) look really, really easy. He can put the ball on the floor, and he’s got a pump fake. The Chandler Parsons pump fake has been added to his repertoire, and he works so hard that he’s just going to keep getting better. I like Dwight.
Carlisle couldn't find consistent playing time for the 24-year-old last year, but he recognizes the fact that he'll have to rely on Powell a lot more during the upcoming season. A lot of the minutes at power forward might land in Powell's lap by default, but it's clearly not something Carlisle is bitter about.
"There’s going to be an opportunity for an increased role next year, and that’s not an overstatement," Carlisle said, per Sneed. "That’s how strongly we feel about his ability to contribute, so we really like him. You know, he’s been a real positive guy to have in the organization since he came over.”
The Question Marks
Perhaps the biggest question mark is Powell's defense. Lack of strength could be a big problem, as Kirk Henderson of MavsMoneyball.com summarized following some summer league action:
He's clearly not strong enough yet to guard NBA power forwards, as Noah Vonleh bullied him from pillar to post. His seven fouls were particularly frustrating because he was actually playing decent defense but when Vonleh would initiate contact Powell looked like he was fouling Vonleh. If Powell's going to get minutes under Carlisle he's going to have to find a way to defend stronger players.
That was very much the concern last season as well. In his breakout game against the Denver Nuggets on Jan. 14, during which he scored 11 points and grabbed five rebounds, Powell fouled out in just 29 minutes of action. He surrenders deep position in the post too easily, isn't difficult to push around and resorts to fouling more often than not. That's not a great recipe for someone looking to earn major playing time.
Bulking up takes time, and Powell obviously has to put a lot of work into reading offenses and adjusting on the fly, even when he isn't simply isolated in the post.
There is certainly room for cautious optimism. Powell embodies the physical qualities of a modern NBA power forward. He is mobile enough to hedge on the pick-and-roll and rush back to his man or even switch onto guards without giving up too much of a speed disadvantage.
The Golden State Warriors proved just how effective a switch-heavy defense is. Powell will never be as versatile of a defender as someone like Draymond Green, but he has some similarities to Cleveland Cavaliers' Tristan Thompson. Like Thompson, Powell won't necessarily be able to keep elite slashers in front of him, but having him switch onto smaller players shouldn't equate to imminent disaster if he can learn to put his tools to use.
Putting on some weight and drilling defensive schemes should be a top priority for Powell and Dallas' training staff leading up to the 2015-16 season. If he can be less of a liability defensively in just his second year in the league, it would bode well for the future of his career.
Summer league often gets people too excited about prospects, and it's important to keep expectations in check. Powell is a talented, hard-working player with a lot of tools that still need to be refined. Simply because he will be put in a better situation to succeed doesn't mean he'll be dominant in any way.
If Powell can avoid foul trouble, playing somewhere between 18 and 20 minutes per game would be a terrific step forward. With Parsons being able to play the 4 against certain matchups as well, that's about all the Mavericks should require from Powell, assuming he is ready to provide it.
You can follow me on Twitter: @VytisLasaitis