Dwight Powell had heard the story before.
The shock you feel as you fall to the ground. How it feels like someone kicked you in the back of the leg, but you look back to see that nobody is there. Only this time it wasn’t a story being told to him. It was his own story being written out in front of his own eyes.
The Clippers were in town on a Tuesday night in January 2020. There were three minutes left in the first quarter when Powell caught the ball on the right wing and tried to take off toward the basket. His right leg popped and he crumbled to the floor. Laying on his back with teammates around him, he knew immediately that he had torn his Achilles.
In a matter of seconds, his season was over. Surgery was scheduled a short time after and the journey back had begun. A journey that consisted of five months of not being able to walk comfortably. A journey that consisted of daily rehab during a pandemic that shut down the season seven weeks after the injury. A journey that made Powell look deep within himself and the person that he is.
“If anything, it galvanized some of the things I knew was part of my character for a long time,” Powell said. “That is hard work and spending time to make the sacrifices necessary to get to where you want to be. I think a rehab like that is a perfect opportunity to exercise those feelings. It is not necessarily this injury taught me things I didn’t know; I think it reminded me of things that were important to me on my journey to get to this place in the first place.”
As if rehabbing a torn Achilles wasn’t grueling enough, a rehab of this magnitude during a global pandemic brought new challenges. The competitive Powell already missed being on the court with his teammates, but now even the socializing aspect of team chemistry was taken away from him. A rehab that was once going to be a rehab where he was surrounded by his teammates quickly turned into a day-to-day grind without many interactions.
“It’s a sacrifice of time and sometimes enjoyment of your days,” said Powell on the daily rehab. “There was not a lot to do and you couple that with Covid—it was isolating.”
But even in that isolation, Powell credited the Director of Player Health and Performance, Casey Smith, to being there every step of the way. “We became very close,” Powell said. “We spent a lot of time together in the process. Especially during Covid, there was not really much socializing outside of mandatory interactions. A lot of time with Casey and our lives became intertwined.”
Powell continued on about his rehab: “There are points of you wondering if you would ever play basketball again. If there would be a place for you anymore. There is plenty of doubt in a five-month period where you can’t walk comfortably. The memory of running, jumping and competing at the highest level with world-class athletes slowly slips into the imaginary. You start to lose confidence in some of those things.”
As the days and months went on, what made Powell the basketball player and teammate he is on the court, slowly started to define the person he was off the court in his rehab. There is no one who is going to outwork Dwight Powell.
I believe one of the more informative things you can do when writing a story about a player is to ask their teammates about them. “What is it like being a teammate of Dwight Powell’s?” “What is your favorite part about playing with Dwight?” And in my years of writing about the Mavs, I’ve never seen a collection of teammates, in different settings I might add, say almost the exact same thing about a teammate.
“He goes hard every time, no matter if he is going to play 30 seconds or 30 minutes,” Luka Dončić said after a recent game. “He just goes hard.”
In a post-game media session earlier in the season, I asked Tim Hardaway Jr. about being a teammate of Powell’s and he instantly started shaking his head with a smile on his face. “Man, he goes hard,” Hardaway Jr. said. “He is in the gym right now. Working hard in the gym downstairs and now going hard in the weight room. That is just what Dwight does. He works hard each and every day. When his number is called, he is going to give his best every minute and every second. He is one of these guys that is the prime example of not taking anything for granted.”
Even after a game in which Dorian Finney-Smith scored 21 points in a win over the Lakers, all Finney-Smith wanted to talk about after the game was how happy he was for Powell. “It felt good, but honestly I’m happier for DP after everything he has been through,” Finney-Smith said. “That man has worked so hard.”
So why does Dwight Powell go so hard? I know that seems like a simple question to ask a player, but for a player like Powell where his work ethic is so obvious and contagious, I wanted to hear the heart behind the effort we all watch on a daily basis.
“That is how I was raised in this game,” Powell said. “That is how I was raised to approach anything in life. I am very aware of a couple of things. In this league, or any high-level sport, you sign your name on every performance you put out there, so it is important to make sure you are representing yourself and playing how people want to see you and you are helping your team win.”
Powell continued on: “But also, there is always that awareness that there is someone right behind you waiting to take your spot. There is some kid in a gym in the middle of nowhere that is working his tail off trying to get your position. I need to make sure I am trying as hard as I can to ensure I still have a place here as well as maximizing the opportunities that I have. It is not really a decision to me; it is a non-negotiable.”
That last line brought chills to me as we chatted over the phone that day. And honestly, it made me ask myself the question after we got off the phone, “what are the non-negotiables in my life?” What are the non-negotiables in your life?
This week will mark 16 months since Powell’s injury and quite honestly, the level at which Powell is playing at right now is remarkable. Over the past month, the Mavericks are 7-1 in games that Powell plays 25 or more minutes including a 15-point win over the Lakers where Powell finished with 25 points and nine rebounds.
“This is strong testament to the amount of work he has put in over the last year-and-a-half plus to recover from an injury that is extremely difficult for high level-athletes,” Rick Carlisle said. “When I look out there now, I don’t see any difference now from the Dwight Powell before the injury and that just speaks to the amazing amount of work put in.”
When asked about how he feels now compared to where he was before, Powell said the goal was never to get back to where he was prior to the injury. “As far as functional, I can accomplish most of the things I had been able to accomplish,” Powell said. “But at the same time, I don’t look at a rehab or injury like you are on a path to get back to where you were. My goal was to never get back to where I was, the goal was always to get better. I have goals of bigger things in the future that is better than that past.”
It was training camp for this current season when the Mavericks decided to part ways with long-time veteran, J.J. Barea. As the only remaining player from the 2011 championship team and one of the only players over the age of 30 on the team, Dallas was losing one of their leaders. In one of Barea’s last media sessions prior to his departure, I asked Barea about who he would be passing that leadership baton to on this current Mavs team.
“It is a young team,” Barea said. “A really young team. Off the top of my head, I’m going with Dwight Powell. We have been together for a bunch of years now. He is the one guy that if guys learn just by watching and listening to him, they will be good professional players.”
And this is exactly what is happening. Not only for the young rookies on the team, but some of the seasoned players on the roster too. “Dwight is the energy guy and all of that, but he is super smart on and off the court,” Kristaps Porzingis said. “Also, the work that he puts in. It motivates me also because I see how hard they work before and after practice. We have some good high character guys on our team.”
On what Powell means off the court to the team, Jalen Brunson said, ““More than I can even explain…He does a lot for us from a mentality standpoint. He means more than is shown. That is a fact.”
Powell has taken that leadership baton and ran with it. He has been on the competition committee for a few years now helping maximizing the product and the players. Sitting at 424 total games played, Powell is tied with Erick Dampier for 15th on the all-time games played list in franchise history and is currently the longest tenured Maverick on the team. He takes pride in leading by example and being a sound board for the young guys to throw stuff at. He loves being there for his teammates in whatever way he can, both on and off the court. But at the root of everything is his work ethic.
From Mark Cuban to the last guy on the bench, it is almost impossible to find someone within the organization that wouldn’t go to war for Dwight Powell.
“Powell stands for who we want to be as a team and organization,” Carlisle said. “Selfless, unconditionally competitive, and all about winning.”