A throw-in to the Rajon Rondo trade, Dwight Powell was just a little-known rookie destined to spend the season as a resident of the bench or a traveler of various D-League cities. Dallas was lacking a proven big man behind anchor Tyson Chandler, but surely not for long. Jermaine O'Neal would be along shortly, or perhaps another of those a-little-over-the-hill veterans that Rick Carlisle collects as a hobby.
While that still may be in the works, the Mavericks' final roster spot is still open. The team may not be finalized, but Carlisle still has to win games. On Wednesday and again on Friday in two games against the Denver Nuggets, he found himself turning to Powell -- and being handsomely rewarded for it.
As it turns out, Dwight Powell has a rare combination of youth, size, athleticism and skill. Players like that go in the top 10 of an NBA draft year after year. They sure as hell don't slip to pick no. 45, but somehow Powell did. It's probably because he doesn't stand out in any of those areas. At 23, he's not incredibly young (he spent a full four years at Stanford). He's 6'10, which doesn't turn heads like a 7-footer. He's a mobile athlete, but he's not about to compete in any dunk contests. His shooting and passing don't qualify him for any 'specialist' positions, but he can do a little of both.
"I think it's just bringing energy, mixing things up and trying to make a play offensively or defensively. I think bringing effort is my best skill right now," Powell said after the 97-89 win on Friday. "I'm working on my shooting, trying to continue to develop that and be more and more consistent and aggressive."
In 14 minutes off the bench, Powell scored four points, nabbed two steals and clearly impacted the game. While he only played a few games in Boston, he still had enough time in practice to develop a connection with fellow trade partner Rajon Rondo for plays like this.
Greg Smith has played surprisingly well but Powell shares more common attributes with Brandan Wright, the man who needs replacing. Wright was so dangerous thanks to his ability to soar over the rim. Steve Kerr had a great line about it a few weeks ago when Golden State was in Dallas: "I think Erik Spoelstra calls it vertical spacing, which was a great term. There's horizontal spacing with 3-point shooting [and] there's vertical spacing with lobs at the rim."
This is what he was talking about. This is vertical spacing. Jameer Nelson understands how Dallas' offense works and knows that this is a lob pass waiting to happen, so he leaves his man in the corner to clog the lane. Rondo's great vision allows him to swing the ball all the way over and Barea gets one of the more wide open looks in the NBA this year.
Powell doesn't have Wright's absurd athleticism or top-tier finishing ability, but as we mentioned, he's a more skilled player. In the Denver back-to-back, he made 4-of-6 shots beyond 16 feet. In the second game, he also flashed this pass -- maybe one he shouldn't have made but still a level of skill we haven't seen from a Dallas big man in years.
His offensive game is a nice touch, especially when the Mavericks place him into the corner and run a true five out offense. However, he won't be getting any minutes without showing his worth defensively. This was his best moment of the night, closing smoothly on a 3-point shooter, cutting off his drive and then sprinting cross court to contest another shooter.
"For sure," Powell said, when asked by Mavs Moneyball if he was feeling comfortable on the defensive end. "It takes time, but every time I'm out there I feel a little more comfortable than the time before."
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Rookies notoriously struggle at defense. After four years in college, Powell has more of a basis for understanding team defense concepts and having that inherently knowledge or what to do and where to go. Still, the NBA has such an incredible leap in talent and athleticism that nearly every new player has growing pains. At some point, Powell will surely be no different.
But the NBA is a 'right now' league, and right now, Powell can give the Mavericks something they lack. For how long or how effectively, that's up to him -- and he realized as much after his game on Friday.