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Powell’s pick-and-roll skills give the Mavs’ offense a big boost

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Dwight Powell’s season has been shaky at times, but there’s no denying his positive impact in the pick and roll on the offense

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Los Angeles Lakers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

There aren’t a ton of Mavs youth development success stories around these parts. J.J. Barea and Brandan Wright stand out. Certainly not many draft picks.

It’s been a cause for concern since the Mavs started sliding toward the bottom of the standings and preparing for the post-Dirk era. It’s why Dorian Finney-Smith is garnering such praise for being a rookie and not looking lost. It’s also why we’re so disappointed in the sophomore slump of Justin Anderson — people who follow the Mavs are thirsty for young player development.

That’s why I’m excited that Dwight Powell has turned into an elite pick-and-roll finisher.

I’m not sure how that happened. It sounds crazy to say, think, type or write. But it’s true. Powell arrived in Dallas in the Rondo trade as a throw-in and offered a little hope. He was athletic and springy that first half-season, showing some small flashes of a dude who could perhaps, with work, turn into a bouncy stretch four.

In the two years since, that plan has gone to hell. Powell hasn’t remotely shown growth in his jumper, shooting 30.9 percent from the mid-range during his time in Dallas. That’s okay though, because Powell’s trajectory has gone from springy stretch four to springy-as-hell diving five.

Dwight Powell is one of the top roll men in the league

Powell’s development in the pick and roll is shocking in part because he hit 63.9 percent from the restricted area last season, not a great number. And while he can jump through the roof, his slight frame and average wingspan (a 7’0 wingspan ain’t great for a 6’11 height) leave him stymied at the rim if he isn’t throwing down a dunk.

But this offseason must have been a difference maker, because Powell has exploded since Andrew Bogut hurt his knee in December, a month in which the Mavs had a 106.8 offensive rating. That might not wow you when the Rockets are emptying trashcans over opponents’ heads every night, but it was sight for sore eyes after the sub-100 rating in November.

A lot of that was boosted by Powell — with Bogut sidelined, the Mavs’ offense returned to its pick-and-roll normalcy and scored 111.5 per 100 possessions with Powell on the court, an elite number. When he was off it? A steep drop at 102.2.

With no Bogut, Powell was free to be at the five, which I think is his optimal offensive position. No more worry about jumpers; just setting screens, using his quickness to blow by flat-footed bigs and skying to the rim. Powell has finished 104 possessions as the roll man in a pick and roll (a possession is defined as a play ending with a shot attempt, foul or turnover) which is good for 12th most in the league — and he only averages 21 minutes a night!

Even more impressively, Powell outscores the 11 players ahead of him at 1.16 points per possession on roll man plays. That’s a better number than Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Marc Gasol, Myles Turner, DeMarcus Cousins and Blake freaking Griffin.

Not only is Powell running a ton of pick and rolls (he finishes possessions as a roll man on 43.5 percent of his plays, easily tops in the league among those who qualify), he’s efficient, too, with an effective field goal percentage at 54.7 on said plays. That’s pretty comparable to the best roll men in the league, if you were wondering whether the numbers were skewed since Powell doesn’t fly out for pick and pop jumpers as much as dudes like Gasol, Davis and Towns.

Rick Carlisle has helped Powell find his niche, and he is murdering teams to death under a flurry of ball screens and hard rim runs.

Opening up the offense

Powell’s rim rolls are strong and purposeful and they open things up for the Mavs’ offense that Bogut’s presence simply doesn’t. Bogut has attempted just 12 shots all season as the roll man, which is a putrid number even considering the missed time. For years, the Mavs’ offense has relied on diving bigs not only for their scoring, but for their runs opening up the floor for Dirk and the Mavs’ guards. Tyson Chandler, Wright, hell the Mavs even got some use out of JaVale Mcgee as a rim roller. Carlisle’s system operates at its peak when there’s a five-man that can attract attention rumbling down the lane.

Powell doesn’t so much rumble as he does glide. He takes advantage of his quick feet and seems to teleport to the basket. Once he starts rolling, his speed advantage is killer. He seems much more comfortable with his limitations, and his huge vertical is finally starting to make up for his small wingspan.

The improvement is staggering. Powell has upped his restricted-area field goal percentage from 63.9 last season to 71.2 percent. That’s a Chandler, Wright elite number right there. Not great, but elite.

And it’s opening things up for everyone, not just Powell. Sure, despite the recent uptick, the Mavs are toiling near the bottom of the standings. But when Powell’s on the floor, the Mavs’ average guards look a bit better. Deron Williams assist percentage is 49.1 percent when Powell is on the floor, according to NBAwowy.com. It plummets to 30.6 when Powell’s on the bench.

Powell has court gravity. This is the same guy I lamented whenever he got the ball anywhere near the hoop a year ago. When Powell is out there this season, options open up for the Mavs’ guards.

Just having a competent roll man is doing wonders for the games of Williams, Devin Harris and Seth Curry. Curry shot 49 percent from three in the month of December, and he and Powell have been manning bench units that are running rampant across the league.

This isn’t to totally discredit Bogut, who has offensive skills that certainly help, but the Mavs offense just looks and feels totally different when Powell is out there. Bogut requires time and space to pick out passes from the top of the key. Powell just needs a second to set a screen and throw down a jam. It’s more aesthetically pleasing, not to mention more effective.

Perhaps the most impressive part is Powell’s awareness. The thing I always admired about Chandler and Wright was how cerebral they were with their screen-setting — they knew when to time the screens and move into open space accordingly. Powell isn’t on that level yet, but he’s shown some next-level awareness without the ball that’s been huge, like this screen for a Curry three in the fourth quarter against the Wizards on Tuesday night.

Without that screen, it’s a shot-clock expiring heave against tough defense. With it, it almost looks like a set play and Curry had all the daylight he needed to knock it down. It’s exactly the sort of subtle maneuver I’ve noticed more and more from Powell this season that’s really opened my eyes.

It’s almost made me reconsider my position on the four-year, $37 million deal he signed this summer. Almost. Powell is still a lousy rim defender, and he simply has to be better at that if he wants to play at the five.

For right now though, in a lost season so far, I’m enjoying the Powell experience for 20 minutes a night off the bench. Not a lot of teams can bring a big as athletic and speedy as Powell to match up with him, and even if his ceiling is roasting bench units for the next three years, I think I’m okay with that.