Every player is good at something. Only a few are the best at anything. In his fifth season in the NBA, Dwight Powell became the best — or at least the most efficient — at a relatively significant part of basketball: halfcourt offense. Not one of the 436 players in the NBA who used at least 100 halfcourt possessions scored more efficiently than Powell, at 1.241 points per possession. He was the class of the league.

Now, no one is arguing that he’s the best offensive player in basketball. KD, the Beard, Giannis, Steph, LeBron, and a whole lot of other superstars can argue over that title. But when it came to simply putting the ball through the hoop at a high rate, no one did it better than Powell. This isn’t much of a surprise, either, as he ranked in the 99th percentile in 2017-18.

Powell’s career arc has been fascinating to follow. The Hornets selected him 45th overall in 2014, but he was traded twice before training camp, from Charlotte to Cleveland and then from Cleveland to Boston. He played nine minutes for the Celtics before being shipped down to Dallas along with Rajon Rondo early in his rookie season. At the time, he was considered (by the general public, at least) the smallest piece of the deal, but my how the tables have turned. Of the seven players eventually involved in that swap — remember that the Mavericks also sent two picks to Boston, including what became a 2016 first-rounder — Powell has been worth more win shares than any other player. In terms of win shares, at least, the Mavericks actually received a positive return on investment in that deal, thanks entirely to Powell.

He’s grown from a tweener big man who played in post and isolation for four years in college to one of the most fearsome rim-runners in the league, a shining example of the wonders of player development. Powell used 15 possessions as a roll man his senior year at Stanford and ranked in the 34th percentile in roll man efficiency during the 2015-16 season with Dallas, his first in the rotation full-time. The next season he ranked in the 78th percentile, and he’s finished top-6 — not top-6 percent, top-six overall — each of the last two seasons. In five years he has grown from someone with barely any concrete experience at one certain thing to speak of to one of the very best at it in his profession. Hats off both to him and to the Mavericks.

Of course, there’s much more to basketball than running hard to the rim and dunking the ball, and thankfully for the Mavericks (and fortunately for Powell) there’s loads more to his game than running fast and jumping high. He’s become a proven NBA center, will likely command a handsome contract this summer, and could potentially start on opening night for a Mavericks team with its eye on the postseason and facing high expectations. But he has earned the right to be in that position, because he has become very good.

More than a dunker

Dunks are easy to make, and that’s a big reason why Powell ranked fourth in the NBA in true shooting percentage last season and second this season. The league is full of versatile, skilled players. It is impossible to lead the league in offensive rating two straight seasons without a few other tricks up your sleeve. Powell ranked second in the league in field goal percentage within the restricted area ( of the 232 players with 200+ attempts), per NBA Stats, shooting 77.6 percent from that range. Again, dunks are relatively easy, but he has demonstrated an extremely improved touch around the basket, particularly when finishing through contact, so much so that he finished second on the team in and-1 opportunities this season (38) behind only Luka Doncic (44). No other Maverick finished with more than 19.

His improved ability to receive the ball and then proceed to absorb and finish through contact was arguably his largest area of improvement this season; his and-1 opportunities increased from 23 to 38, and he drew 49 more shooting fouls this season than last despite playing 10 fewer minutes this season, per Basketball-Reference. It would take a lot of time to identify exactly how each and every one of those fouls were drawn, but for now these numbers will have to do: Last season, Powell drew a shooting foul on just under 23 percent of his cuts. This season, that number rose above 26 percent. The margins are very thin in this league; converting a few more and-1s and drawing a few extra free throws on top of that can make the difference between a player who is good and one who is spectacular.

When looking at Powell’s efficiency numbers last season compared to this one, it’s easy to see the impact 43 extra shooting fouls and 15 extra and-1s can make on his numbers in one specific area. Otherwise, they’re almost identical.

Play Type 2017-18 (Percentile) 2018-19 (Percentile)
Overall PPP 1.172 (98th) 1.235 (99th)
Halfcourt PPP 1.182 (99th) 1.241 (100th)
Roll Man PPP 1.414 (96th) 1.331 (90th)
Cut PPP 1.327 (66th) 1.541 (92nd)
Spot Up PPP 1.024 (61st) 1.007 (58th)

This is all good and well, but it’s a bit of a disservice to the player to focus so heavily on plays that are in part made for him. Powell also took a step forward in a couple other areas this season offensively. For one, he drove the lane nearly one extra time per 36 minutes, per NBA Stats, and he shot 54.8 percent on field goals that resulted from his own drives, miles better than his 45.9 percent mark from last season. (In another victory for player development, Powell turned into this after shooting just 4 for 21 on shots created by his own drives during the 2015-16 season.)

The sample sizes aren’t enormous here — he took just 42 shots on drives this season, up from 37 last year — but it does lead to the next component of his game which took a leap forward: the 3-point shot.

Powell shot just 16.7 percent from beyond the arc on 1.5 attempts per game in his first 32 games this season, through Dec. 31. That is not good. Thankfully, though, it was a new year, new him as soon as the calendar flipped to 2019. On Jan. 2, Powell burst out of a 1-for-20 slump by making two treys in Charlotte, and so began one of the more pleasant second-half stories in Dallas this season. From then on through the end of the season, he shot an impressive 39.2 percent on 1.8 attempts per game in 45 contests.

Driving the ball is great, and shooting the ball is great. If you can do one or the other, you’re pretty solid. If you can do both, you can be very good. If you can do both at 6-foot-10 or 6-11 when guarded by the other team’s biggest defender, you’re a starting-caliber big man in the modern NBA. Maybe Powell won’t shoot 39 percent for the rest of his career, but if you’re as good in the lob game as he is, and you can shoot at least league-average from deep, you become a very tricky matchup problems to think about — especially when the opponent also has a 7-foot-3 sniper to keep an eye on and a 6-foot-8 point guard dancing his way around the court.

More than 75 percent of Powell’s 3-point attempts were wide-open this season, according to NBA tracking data, but that’s at least partially because he rarely took “bad” 3s. In fact, after the All-Star break he didn’t even attempt a 3 unless his defender was at least four feet away from him, which is very impressive given he was shooting it well at that time. (No heat checks.) If defenders played him too close on the perimeter, especially later in the season, he would simply drive around them.


The nerdy stats would make you think Powell could be a starter. The traditional stats likewise follow suit; as Powell began playing more minutes, his per-game production increased significantly, and although the Mavs didn’t close the season by winning 15 in a row or anything, it’s not like Powell is the guy to pin the blame on. Far from it, in fact. He had the fourth-best on/off split past the All-Star break, after the Dallas roster underwent major changes.

He really shined through for the entire season, even considering all the time he played after the J.J. Barea injury and two trades shook up the roster. The Mavs scored 109.9 points per 100 possessions with Powell on the floor this season, highest of any player on the team who played at least 500 minutes, and they scored 104.5 points per 100 with him off, which ranked lowest (or highest, depending on how you look at it) on the team. That 5.4-point margin is equal to the gap between first-place Golden State and 17th-place Sacramento. He was part of eight of the top-nine trios by offensive rating on the team (200+ minutes).

Most notably, and perhaps most promisingly as it relates to the possibility that Powell is a major player here in the future: He was excellent with Maxi Kleber, a shot-blocking, rim-protecting defender who’s more of a power forward offensively. Dallas allowed just 102.8 points per 100 possessions in the 631 minutes those two shared the floor together this season, per NBA Stats, which is an astonishingly good number. (For reference, Milwaukee, the No. 1 defense in the league this season, allowed 104.9 points per 100.) Powell and Kleber did not just pair up against backups, either.

Labels, labels, labels

The “PF on offense and C on defense” distinction has been discussed quite a bit around here since the Kristaps Porzingis trade, and rightfully so, because Rick Carlisle has suggested that could be how things shake out. Things could change, obviously, and throughout the course of a game it might behoove Dallas to put him at center on both sides of the ball, or, who knows, maybe in some other type of deployment. If the big-big starting lineup is the way Dallas wants to go, though, Powell is at least one type of defender who could be an intriguing fit next to the Unicorn. He at least appears to rarely break the system’s rules, prioritizing positioning over reaching or shot-blocking. But he was, at least in my extremely humble opinion as just some guy on the internet, at his most game-changing when the Mavs would dial up the pressure just a bit when defending the pick-and-roll — that is to say when he was playing more in space and less around the basket.

Powell’s a smart guy with quick hands and solid agility for a big man, which makes him a viable candidate for stepping out in the pick-and-roll and getting in the face of ball-handlers, whether that’s in a trap, blitz, hedge, or even a switch. It’s certainly easier to do it when you have a safety net behind you in the form of a 7-foot-3 menace (or when it’s Maxi Kleber). Playing this aggressive all the time has proven to be an unsustainable way to play defense, but every now and again, especially when trailing in the fourth quarter and in need of some energy, Powell and the Mavs would create some havoc.

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He also has the awareness to know when to use the sideline or the corner as his friend in these situations.

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Pick-and-roll ball-handlers turned it over 16.9 percent of their possessions when Powell was the big man defender, according to Synergy Sports, which ranked 17th-best among the 57 big men who defended at least 250 of them. Big men are rarely the player solely responsible for forcing a turnover, but this is a useful trick to be able to pull out at any given moment. Powell has recorded a block percentage of at least 1.5 and a steal percentage of at least 1.0 each of the last four seasons, one of just nine bigs in the league who can make the claim. He might not have the lockdown defender badge on NBA 2K, but he does make things happen in a unique way for a guy at his size.

Kleber and Kristaps Porzingis aren’t exactly twins, but they’re capable of very similar things defensively. Offensively, meanwhile, Porzingis prefers playing on the outside and in the post every now and then. As was the case with Kleber and Powell, Porzingis won’t overlap in a bad way where Powell excels — in fact, they symbiotically enable one another to do what he does best. And if they do share the floor often at all and perform anything like the Mavs did when Powell and Kleber played, they’ll be in good shape. Dallas scored 111.0 points per 100 possessions when that duo shared the floor, a mark which would’ve ranked just outside the top-10 league-wide this season.

I want to say up-front that it’s impossible to speculate about the roster in general, let alone who’s going to start, when we haven’t even gotten to the draft lottery yet, let alone the draft, free agency, trade season, and so on. But if things work out in such a way that Powell and Porzingis are the starting frontcourt on opening night, things could be pretty spicy. Anything even close to resembling a 111.0/102.8 rating combination is playoff-caliber (at worst). Much else will happen between now and then, of course, but it never hurts to think big.

In fact, thinking big is probably what helped lead Powell to this moment in his career, on the brink of perhaps signing his second big contract. He was the 45th pick in the draft, and it’s hard to put into words exactly how rare it is for a second-round player to achieve this level of production. The 45th pick has an inauspicious history, to put it kindly, but never tell him the odds. Out of the entire 2014 draft class, he ranks third in win shares and tied for third in BPM. Out of more than 300 players all-time with 100+ games played taken 45th or later in the draft, Powell ranks third in win shares per 48 minutes. Third! Players beneath him had better careers, to be sure, like Dan Issel, Artis Gilmore, and Marc Gasol to name a few. Win shares is an imperfect stat, but it still gives you an idea of how rare it is for someone selected that late to go on and have a distinguished career. Yet Powell has been an incredible success story and continues to improve.

Will he ever be an All-Star? Or perhaps a starter on a contending team? Who knows? He’s about to be 28 years old, which is essentially the peak for big men, though it could be argued that Powell’s entrance into the league at 23 as opposed to 19 or 20 could push his development cycle back a couple years, and also that his newfound 3-point stroke, should his form hold relatively steady moving forward, actually helps his chances of peaking closer to 30 or beyond than to 25 or 26. That, I suppose, is for the future to reveal. What he’s already achieved, though, is extremely impressive.

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