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Dwight Powell will look to build off a career year

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The throw-in piece of the Rajon Rondo trade has become a valuable contributor for the Mavericks.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Dallas Mavericks Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

After signing a four-year, $37 million deal in the 2016 offseason, Dwight Powell has been a polarizing topic of discussion the past two years. The third-highest paid player on the team traditionally carries a certain level of responsibility, and it’s fair to wonder if Powell has met those expectations.

However last season showed signs of promise as Powell posted career-best per game averages in points, rebounds, assists, free throw attempts, and field goal percentage. The Mavericks unlocked Powell by using his elite athleticism and playing him as a hybrid big man. Per Basketball Reference, the four-year pro spent 63 percent of his time at the power forward position and the other 36 percent at the center position. That’s a significant change from the 2016-17 season, when Powell spent 15 percent of his time at the four and 86 percent at the five.

In 79 games Powell played 21 minutes per night and tallied 8.5 points and 5.6 rebounds while shooting 59 percent from the field and 33 percent from deep on a career-high 84 three-point attempts.

Biggest question

Now 27, Powell is entering the prime of his career. The question is how much more can his game evolve? Even further, should the Mavericks try to develop more facets of Powell’s game or simply allow him to excel in one or two areas?

Powell provided the most value in the pick-and-roll which made up almost 27 percent of his possessions. Per nba.com, Powell scored 1.41 points per possession out of the pick-and-roll, putting him in the 96th percentile of pick-and-roll scorers. In other words, Powell was one of the best finishers out of the two-man action in the entire NBA. For reference, Clint Capela scored 1.34 points per possession and DeAndre Jordan scored 1.25 point per possession out of the pick-and-roll.

Powell’s limitations on the defensive end are easy to spot. He is a nonexistent rim protector and a poor rebounder. Last season he blocked a total of 32 shots and averaged only 5.6 rebounds per game. Both Harrison Barnes and 39-year-old Dirk Nowitzki out-rebounded Powell last year.

Though his weaknesses are painfully obvious, he excelled when he was able to blitz opposing guards navigating ball screens. His agility and athleticism allowed him to stay with ball handlers 30 feet away from the basket.

While some players are good - not great - in multiple areas, Powell is great in one or two areas but below average elsewhere. Will Powell develop at this stage of his career? Or will his few, but elite skills be enough to make a difference on a Mavericks team that is trying to get better in a hurry?

Best case scenario

In a perfect world, Powell would be able to marry his eye-opening athleticism with a jumper and threaten the defense in a variety of ways. He shot a career high from behind the arc last year but launched relatively few attempts. Currently one dimensional, Powell could keep defenses guessing if he developed a reliable jumper.

At the very least, as long as Powell can continue to maul opponents out of the pick-and-roll, he’ll be a valuable contributor in Rick Carlisle’s offense. It’s not a stretch to say he’s the best rim runner on the team even with the acquisition of Jordan. With Dirk moving to the bench, Powell should continue to play a majority of his minutes with Nowitzki, allowing him to thrive in that role.

Worst case scenario

Suddenly, the Mavericks’ big men rotation seems a little crowded. Nerlens Noel and his hot dog infatuation were replaced by DeAndre Jordan. Salah Mejri will provide high energy, impactful games from time to time. But the main threat to Powell’s playing time could be Maxi Kleber. The Wurzburg, Germany (yes, that Wurzburg) native plays a similar style as Powell but arguably offers more on the defensive end. If Powell becomes a liability on that end, Carlisle won’t hesitate to give Kleber run.

If Powell struggles defensively and fails to keep pace with his elite pick-and-roll production from a year ago, there is a chance he could get lost in the rotation. Jordan hasn’t played less than 30 minutes per game since 2013 and Kleber, in his rookie season, played only four fewer minutes than Powell. And if healthy, of course, Dirk will get his fair share of burn.

However, the worst case scenario is not likely to happen. Powell has shown tremendous chemistry with J.J. Barea and Devin Harris and was a key contributor in one of the Mavericks’ most productive lineups.

This season should reveal if peak Dwight Powell has already arrived or if the best is yet to come.