NBA player development is frustrating. It’s a somewhat inexact science as players sometimes don’t hit their groove until their third, fourth or even fifth season. This is especially true when you get out of the lottery.
The Mavs aren’t going anywhere right now for a lot of reasons — lack of talent from failed off-season pursuits, lack of young talent, bad luck and rotten injuries. The bright spot, supposedly, was going to be seeing growth from second-year forward Justin Anderson and fourth-year big Dwight Powell.
It was exciting to know the Mavs not only had two young guys with promise, but two young guys with promise who figured to be prominent parts of the rotation. I was especially excited for Anderson, who I felt got the short end of the stick last year and in the playoffs due to his rookie status and rookie mistakes when the team desperately needed his dynamic play on the floor.
Powell, I was a little cooler on. The Mavs pegged him as a stretch four even though he can’t shoot, and while I always believed his best position was at the five, he was just too slight to be a consistent presence there. Even then, he’s so springy, active and a great pick and roll man that I hoped for some growth in other areas.
With those expectations, it’s easy to label their performance so far as a disappointment. I wanted to take a step back and see evaluate them fairly, instead of sending out hot takes on Twitter. So I’m back from digging into the trenches and here’s what I’ve come up with on both of them.
Dwight Powell has skills, but still not enough of them.
Oh Dwight Powell. There are so many things I like and so many more things that I don’t.
To start, it’s probably fair to say that Powell is not a stretch four, will never be one and should probably stop. Here are his percentages from the mid-range area according to NBA.com since he joined the Mavs:
Yuck. Powell has been tasked over the summers to develop a jumper for a number of reasons. First, the Mavs are pretty comfortable having their four shoot from the outside, duh. Second, Powell shows good shooting fundamentals so it seemed like a natural extension of his game. Third and lastly, Powell profiles so much better defensively as a four than a five.
Every jumper Powell has taken this season has been dreadful — he’s somehow getting worse since he flashed a really nice stroke during that first half-season with the Mavs. Boy, there are some damaging and incriminating Google chat exchanges between myself and The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks after Powell flashed that jumper after the Rondo trade ... it’s not good. We said things.
Despite Powell’s jumper being bad, he’s improving the Mavs on offense. When he’s on the floor, the Mavs offensive rating is 103.1, a considerable uptick from their overall number (97.7). That’s because Powell is a good rim runner out of the pick and roll, despite some shaky finishing around the basket the last couple years.
Powell is so springy, so quick off the floor and fleet of foot that he just blows by bigger fives when he matches up with them. I like Powell’s offense at the five when he’s strictly limited to running pick and rolls and exploiting slow bigs guarding him. Andrew Bogut offers zero as a rim roller (Bogut’s attempted just 12 shots as the roll man whereas Powell has 47).
Whenever Powell is on the court as a rim runner, the Mavs’ offense just seems to flow a bit better, move a bit faster.
That’s why it’s so disappointing that he doesn’t have a jumper. Powell is really more comfortable than he should be taking slower bigs off the dribble and he’d have more room to operate if defenders had to stay close on him outside of 10 feet. He doesn’t panic too much and he’s very assertive in getting to the bucket.
Powell will drift in and out of possessions on offense, miss a couple bunnies, take an ill-advised jumper then all of a sudden bust out this off the bounce game that makes you think, “where has that been?”
Being able to do this at 6’11 is a big deal and starting to become a requirement for a present-day NBA big man. There aren’t a lot of dudes that can be that quick off the dribble and stay composed at 6’11. It’s a nice luxury.
The main problem with Powell isn’t offense, it’s the other end of the floor. I feel like a big reason the Mavs desperately want Powell to fit as a stretch four is because Powell gets pulverized in the paint.
He’s slight and can get pushed around easily, and he can’t compensate with his wingspan because his 7-foot wingspan is fairly average for a 6’11 player — Powell doesn’t have the length to bother shots at the rim or the strength to bully bigs out of their pet spots around the basket.
That’s reflected in his numbers guarding the rim. It’s bad. Players are currently shooting 63.8 percent at the rim against Powell. That’s significantly worse than Andrew Bogut (50.5), Salah Mejri (50.9) and hell, even Dirk in limited action (55.6) and Dorian Finney-Smith, who’s a rookie perimeter player (50).
Powell has the foot speed and quickness to corral pick and roll ball handlers, but the Mavs’ conservative pick and roll scheme pushes Powell back into the paint where ball-handlers are more than comfortable scoring over and through him.
It’s tough to watch Powell struggle here. I wish the Mavs were a little more aggressive when Powell is on the floor and would trap the pick and roll more. Powell is quick enough to show hard and recover or cause havoc getting right up on the dribbler. Use his strengths and don’t let teams exploit his weaknesses. Rick Carlisle had opted to play Bogut with Powell to hide his rim protection at times, but that puts Powell back at his worst offensive position.
You can see that speed in this next gif, where Powell recovers to an offensive rebound after going back on defense — only to get scored on anyway because he just isn’t long enough to be a true rim protector.
Getting back in the first place is something no big on the Mavs roster can do. Use that speed! It can come in handy, especially since the Mavs have lots of athletic and long-armed defenders in Harrison Barnes, Finney-Smith and Anderson playing behind him to clog the passing lanes if Powell decided to trap.
As it is, the Mavs defense is just godawful with Powell. When he’s on the court, they give up 113 points per 100 possessions, the fourth-worst mark on the team and the worst mark of the nine players that have logged 200 minutes this season. That’s not sustainable for a guy who just signed a new four-year, $37 million contract. Powell has time to get better and hopefully the Mavs accentuate that with different schemes when he’s on the floor.
Justin Anderson’s raw potential is still as strong as ever despite some lapses.
Of the two, Anderson’s struggles by far are more disappointing. It wasn’t that long ago that Anderson’s insertion into the starting lineup fueled the Mavs push for the playoffs under a new defensive identity. His on/off court numbers were fantastic during that late stretch in March where the Mavs rose from the dead after Chandler Parsons’ knee surgery.
Like Powell, the numbers aren’t pretty. With Anderson on the floor, the Mavs score 97.1 points per 100 possessions and give up 110. That minus-12.8 net rating is an eyesore for a player that always seemed to energize the team when he came into the game.
Defense has been a struggle. Anderson still has the highlight plays in him, but his possession-to-possession consistency wanes throughout a game. He’s so eager to get back to the paint during transition defense that he’ll lose his man if he sprints to the three-point line, part of the reason the Mavs sport one of the worst three-point defenses in the league.
Teams take advantage of the Mavs’ youth and inexperience playing together and toast Anderson on cuts, screens and pick and rolls. A lot of that isn’t necessarily worrying — defense is by far the hardest thing for a young player to lock down (pssst don’t look at Finney-Smith).
It’s just hard to feel Anderson’s presence on defense this year, as subjective as that sounds. Possession after possession roll by without Anderson making a peep and it’s been easy to forget he’s on the court at times. For such a loud and forceful player last year, that sucks.
That play-to-play consistency extends to offense as well. To be blunt — Anderson’s jumper seems broken. It was a worry before the draft, since Anderson went from a poor shooter to a great one seemingly overnight, but the Mavs assured us on draft night that he had worked through his mechanics.
"It was a large enough sample size and he went through and specifically changed his shooting mechanics," Mark Cuban said of Anderson’s jumper back on draft day. "If you go back and watch his first two years and watch them now, he would fade, the shot was kind of funky. Now he's got a straight elbow and goes straight up and down. He changed dramatically.”
Well, about that. Anderson’s jumper has been erratic all year and a lot of it seems to stem from abandoning his smooth form. There’s a lot of motion at times when Anderson shoots — he’ll lean back, bring the ball down to his knees before rising up, kick his legs out and bring the ball behind his head before firing all in the same jump shot.
He’s shooting 27.8 percent from three, 28.6 percent on spot-ups and 26.3 percent from above-the-break threes according to NBA.com. Yet, when Anderson has time and smooths out his shot, he looks really good! I’m always skeptical of bad college shooters becoming good ones in the NBA, but Anderson has that good season in college. I’m hopeful that Anderson’s jumpers can look more like this.
That doesn’t really excuse how tough it’s been to watch so far this season though. As far as those lapses happen on defense, they happen on offense too. Too many times Anderson just makes a flat-out bad play on offense that reeks of youthful growing pains.
Here’s the problem — Anderson was never meant to be a ball-handler on offense. The Mavs dreadful point guard situation this season has compromised every player on the roster. Anderson finds himself in too many bad situations because the Mavs’ guard play puts him there. Dallas’ hot potato offense isn’t conducive to making the game easier for a player like Anderson.
Yet, for every bad turnover or rotation on defense, Anderson just oozes so much raw potential and talent. There isn’t anyone else on the roster that can sniff doing what Anderson does at his peak, flying around in transition, stonewalling fastbreak layups like LeBron, throwing down authoritative dunks off nice cuts, swiping the ball on a cross court swing pass attempt. Just things that Anderson’s athletic gifts allow him to do.
Then he does something even better — he makes a great play not reliant on his freak athleticism but his smarts. As much as I’ve ragged on Anderson, he clearly has a feel for the game that no other wing player on the roster, even Barnes, has. Every now and then Anderson will make a play that makes me arch my eyebrow.
For someone averaging less than one assist per game, that’s a great read and find. I’d argue that Anderson is the best wing passer on the team, better than Barnes. He just doesn’t get the opportunity because either the Mavs don’t ask him to make those plays or Anderson himself flubs or doesn’t take the opportunity. But passes like that happen more than you’d think, and I wonder if there is perhaps more potential to Anderson than just a standard 3-and-D wing.
Who knows where Powell and Anderson will be in a couple years. NBA development is a fickle beast — and luckily the Mavs’ dire season can allow them to be patient and try to iron out the kinks in their games.