Dwight Powell is proving himself as a starter

By almost every metric imaginable, Dwight Powell is playing the best basketball of his career right now.

Dwight Powell’s shot chart since Nov. 18 is really good. (Click for full-size image.)
Four of his seven highest-scoring games as a pro have come in his last five appearances. He’s coming off an 18-point, 12-rebound performance against Clint Capela and the Houston Rockets, has pulled down at least 10 rebounds three times in the last two weeks, and has become the most efficient roll man in the NBA. Of the 61 NBA players with at least 75 possessions as the latter half of the pick-and-roll, Powell leads the pack in scoring efficiency at an absurd 1.358 points per possession. The only other player in the league above even 1.300 is Capela, who has the luxury of catching passes from James Harden and Chris Paul, two of the most feared ball-handlers of this generation.

“I’m just trying to be in the right place at the right time, and guys are making plays for me,” Powell said. “They’re putting me in high-percentage situations, and I’m catching the ball and finishing.”

That might make you think this season has been smooth sailing, that Powell’s progression is another case of a young player developing in a natural, linear way. Then again, all of Powell’s five starts this season (and half his career starts) have come in the last two weeks. He’s adjusted his playing style — or the coaches have changed up his role — a couple different times this season, sliding from stretch-4 to rim-running 5. He’s averaging a career-high 19.6 minutes per game, but he only recently surpassed the 3,500-minute milestone for his career. (By comparison, Harrison Barnes has already played more than 4,700 since joining the Mavericks last season.) This might make you wonder why Powell, currently in his fourth season as a pro, either is nearing his ceiling or must be flawed in some way for it to have taken so long to find his niche. He’s only 26, but in this day and age when teenage phenoms burst on the scene every fall, is 26 even young anymore?

It’s possible that all of those worries are true, although it’s unlikely. Zooming out, Powell is on an outstanding five-game run, is having a strong season, and has progressed each season since coming to the NBA. He’s barely even played two seasons’ worth of minutes, despite his age — and I can assure you that 26 is still young. You’d be hard-pressed to find many non-All-Stars who can establish an elite skill so early in their career, even though Powell is older than many fourth-year guys due to sticking around at Stanford through his senior year. (There are many worse places to spend four years than at that institution.) He’s statistically a gifted rim-runner. You want to earn more minutes? Show you can do something better than anyone else. Below is a chart comparing Powell’s pick-and-roll efficiency with some of the biggest names in the top-10 in the league. The entire list is here.

Player Roll Man Possessions Roll Man Points/Poss
Dwight Powell 106 1.358
Clint Capela 214 1.332
Blake Griffin 104 1.250
DeAndre Jordan 94 1.234
Steven Adams 168 1.214

Powell’s recent workload has of course been tied heavily to the Mavericks’ performance in the standings. Rick Carlisle said over the weekend that he’s going to begin rolling back minutes for the more established veterans, particularly late in games, with Barnes and Dirk Nowitzki chief among them. That leaves a huge number of minutes available, and many thus far have gone to Powell. This is his chance to prove his value not only as a player but as a financial investment; he has two more years remaining on his deal following the 2017-18 season, and at 26 years old you can’t blame the Mavericks for wanting to see just what their young big man could be capable of when given more responsibility in terms of role and workload. In particular, to Carlisle, that means seeing him start games and play huge minutes as opposed to his typical 16-20 minutes at the office.

“There are times when you play guys off the bench, and there can be an assumption that at a certain point it’s gonna be diminishing returns,” Carlisle said. “But with guys like Dwight, you’ve got to find out what the starting role is gonna yield.”

For Powell, starting games means going up against better competition and also playing with some not-as-familiar faces. Since coming to Dallas in the 2014-15 season, Powell has not known a second unit without Devin Harris; he’s caught a heck of a lot of lobs from J.J. Barea, too. But in the last couple weeks, he’s been playing more with Dennis Smith Jr. and Yogi Ferrell, and although Ferrell is a restricted free agent this summer, it seems likely that both of those guys could be around here for a while. One common thread connecting the starting lineup and the bench throughout this period of change is Dirk Nowitzki, who splits his time almost evenly between the first and second units. Powell is a menacing lob threat when playing in a wide-open floor, and the Mavericks’ pristine floor spacing always places Powell in as much space as possible. Dallas added Doug McDermott into the fold at the trade deadline, and his 3-point shooting figures to unlock even more room inside the arc.

The final third of this season is going to be a bit experimental, to say the least. Powell’s presence in the starting lineup — and the Mavs fielding a young, nine-man rotation on Sunday night in Houston, for example — tells you as much. But the tinkering doesn’t just end with the starting lineup. Carlisle said he wants to see McDermott play some power forward down the stretch, which will involve soaking up some minutes from Nowitzki and his old Ames High teammate Barnes. But McBuckets won’t be the only Maverick playing more 4. Powell will, too.

“That’s something that’s gotta be looked at in some way, shape, or form at some point,” Carlisle said.

That might come as a bit of an eyebrow-raising revelation to some, given Powell’s inarguable success as a roll man this season. He’s shooting better than 77 percent in the restricted area since Nov. 18, which was the day that not so coincidentally involved a change in the starting lineup and Powell’s return to playing center exclusively. His development as a lob target has certainly been a triumph for Mike Procopio and the Mavs’ player development staff. But someone’s got to play power forward minutes, and with Nerlens Noel’s return looming and two-way rookie Johnathan Motley figuring to receive more looks at center, too, Powell will have a chance to show what he’s got.

“I’ve been preparing for that situation for a long time, and I’m going to continue to prepare for it,” he said. “When the time comes, I’m gonna try to execute it to the best of my ability and help us win.”

Powell has attempted only 16 above-the-break 3s in nearly three months, but at some point between now and the end of the season he’s going to assume the role of power forward once again, when he’ll presumably have more chances to shoot the long-ball. I would assert to those who would find this curious that he’s going to shoot more from deep, but he’s not going to magically lose his ability to catch lob passes. By now, the Mavericks have seen enough evidence to know that Powell is fully capable in that department. The rest of this season is about continuing to help him blossom in other areas. If he can develop a consistent 3-pointer, it would make him one of the few players in this league who can excel as both a floor-spacing and lob-catching big

His on-floor workload has resembled that of a rim-running 5, but he’s still been putting in work in the gym to develop that outside game all along. We’ve seen the fruits of his labor on a small scale — he’s 11 of 17 on mid-range jumpers and 4 of 8 on corner 3s since Nov. 18, hinting that he’s getting more comfortable from range, albeit on a small sample size — which has got to make him feel pretty good. The work hasn’t stopped because he always knew this day was going to come.

“Twenty to 30 percent of the things I work on every single day, I don’t necessarily do in the game that follows the workout,” Powell told us earlier this season on the Numbers on the Boards podcast. At the time, Skin and I didn’t know that our conversation with him was coming at a moment when his game was making a shift. At the time, he’d only recently returned to his rim-running ways. We thought it might be a phase; we didn’t know he was going to shoot almost 67 percent for the next 40 games.

Powell is not only a realist, but he buys in to coaching. His IQ and willingness to embrace learning have helped him understand that he’s got to remain flexible as the Mavericks go through this phase of rebuilding with youth. He’s shown he can fill one role at a very high level, but he’d be an exponentially more valuable player if he can prove he can fill others, too. He doesn’t view constantly moving back and forth between 5 and 4, then back to 5, as being jerked around or over-coached. He accepts it as a necessary step in his development. And he’s put in enough work behind the scenes to feel confident that he’ll be ready when the chance comes to show that ability.

“As time goes on and things change, or we’re playing against different matchup or different opponents, or rotations change, those things that may need to be done in a different way, or the skillset that I need to bring to the game, it’s been a part of the routine since Day One,” Powell told us way back then. “So it’s not as if I’m changing anything. It’s just those things are constantly being worked on, but they may just be on the shelf for now.”

In retrospect that entire quote seems like an eerie bit of foreshadowing. It’s almost like they knew this was going to happen the whole time. Maybe they did, or maybe Powell is just a flexible dude. After seeing the level he’s played at these last couple weeks, it’s going to be very interesting to see what he’s going to be able to do with more playing time down the stretch. The opportunity will certainly be there, and Powell is going to be ready to take advantage, no matter which role he’s asked to fill.