Highlights: Mavs vs. Thunder

Dwight led the team with 16 points and Dirk made his preseason debut as the Mavs defeat the Thunder 114-109 Tuesday night.

While more eyes were on Dirk Nowitzki in his preseason debut, the Mavs’ other big men ended up stealing the spotlight in Tuesday night’s 114-109 win against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Andrew Bogut, Dwight Powell, and A.J. Hammons combined for 28 points, 23 rebounds, and four blocks in the win, each playing in his own style and to his own strength during his time on the floor.

The Mavericks are still working every player into the mix — last night both Nowitzki and Devin Harris debuted, but Wesley Matthews and Seth Curry both sat out for precautionary reasons while Quincy Acy and Salah Mejri missed with injuries — but if the win against the Thunder showed anything, it was that the Mavericks could be a much different team at the center spot this season. And, perhaps, much-improved as well.

Cue the highlight reel.

Andrew Bogut

Bogut was phenomenal in his first home action as a Maverick. He scored only four points on 1-of-5 shooting, but he tallied 11 rebounds, three blocks, and three assists in just 16 minutes. His scoring won’t be as integral an ingredient to this team’s success as his court vision and passing will be, anyway. Bogut reads the floor like a point guard and is capable of delivering passes at a variety of angles to set his teammates up.

Here he finds Harrison Barnes on a cut from the elbow.

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The geometry of that play prevented Bogut from delivering a leading pass to Barnes, so instead the center opted for the basketball equivalent of a back shoulder fade. All Barnes had to do was collect the pass, spin, and go up. (Barnes has been very effective moving off the ball so far this preseason.)

Bogut also appears to have the green light to bring the ball up the floor on occasion, which led to this gem of a pass to a backdoor-cutting Devin Harris.

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And this no-look, between-the-legs pass to Deron Williams is equal parts style and substance.

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It’s fancy, sure, but the ball hits Williams in stride and sets him up for an open 3-pointer, at the same time allowing Bogut to remain in position to set an immediate screen on Williams’ man to give him even more space. That’s a useful pass, one Bogut said he added to the toolbox after playing with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson for so many years in Golden State.

But Bogut also played terrific defense, blocking three shots and controlling the paint against a tough assignment, OKC center Enes Kanter. The Thunder scored only 72.2 points per 100 possessions when Bogut was on the floor, per NBA Stats, and the team maintained only a 30.3 effective field goal percentage when the Australian played. That’s not a sustainable number, of course, but some of that struggle came as a direct result of Bogut’s interior presence. Mavs fans are about to understand just how good a player Bogut is.

Dwight Powell

The same could be said for Dwight Powell, as the young big man has continued his impressive preseason. He scored 16 points on 6-of-10 shooting against the Thunder and grabbed seven rebounds, his second consecutive game with 15+ points and 7+ rebounds.

Last season Powell played a ton of center minutes toward the beginning of the season, but as the campaign wore on he spent more of his time at power forward. So far in the exhibition season he’s played both positions again, but he’s appeared much more effective at the center spot than he did in 2015-16.

He’s performed in the vertical game, throwing down a standard alley-oop dunk against the Thunder along with this, um, unconventional one from J.J. Barea.

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There’s no question Powell can excel as a finisher in the lob game, but his biggest area of improvement heading into the offseason had to be developing his mid-range jump shot, and so far he’s reliably knocked it down.

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Why is that such an important element to his game? It makes the defense respect his jump shot, of course, but particularly when Powell is at the 5, it unlocks a totally new aspect to his game: putting the ball on the floor and attacking closeouts. Slow-footed centers simply cannot keep up in space with a player as athletic as Powell, so if he can continue to knock down the jumpers and then mix in some dribble moves once in a while, he can become one of the more dynamic centers in the league.

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Powell has the physical makeup and athletic ability to have a super-efficient season, a la Brandan Wright during his time with the Mavericks, and if he continues to hit the mid-range jumper, he could become one of the premier backup big men in the NBA very quickly.

A.J. Hammons

This was easily Hammons’ most impressive showing of the exhibition season to this point, as the rookie big man scored eight points, grabbed five rebounds, and blocked one shot. Each of his four buckets came on jump shots, one of which was almost a fallaway in the mid-post. Hammons had an advanced offensive skill set, particularly on the block.

Where he’s really shined so far, however — and where he can separate himself at this level — is in the mid-range game. He has an easy jump shot and has demonstrated he can stretch his range out to as far as 22 feet with relative consistency.

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Hammons is a true 7-footer and already possesses a soft touch on the inside and a pretty jumper from the outside. One wonders if he can expand his range to the 3-point line sooner than later — after all, in the last shot in the above highlight, his heels were on the line at the top of the arc. The Mavericks always want their centers to perform more in the pick-and-roll than in the pick-and-pop, but if the 24-year-old Hammons is eventually able to do both, that’s even better. That’s what makes him such a tantalizing offensive prospect.

The thing all three of these centers have in common is they can finish on the inside, but they can also all position themselves 20-25 feet from the basket and succeed. Bogut’s passing and Powell and Hammons’ shooting ability gives the Mavericks the luxury of playing 5-out basketball whenever they want, meaning all five players are on the perimeter. That leaves what feels like miles of space for the opposing defense to cover, all without a center to protect the rim because he’s pulled out to the 3-point line. Combined with the unprecedented effect Dirk Nowitzki has on opponents’ spacing, the Mavericks could potentially have more space to work with on offense than any team not named Golden State.

It’s still obviously very early, though, and those are steep claims no make. There’s no guarantee Powell will continue to make half his mid-range jumpers, even if they’re all basically wide-open. The rotation at center is set to change at least a bit, too, once Mejri returns to action — which should be soon, per Rick Carlisle — but Mejri is imposing at the rim on both ends of the floor, so the Mavs will happily sacrifice just a bit of spacing if it leads to dunks. But for a team whose biggest area of need this summer was center, the Mavericks appear to have turned a weakness into a significant strength.

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