Rondo deal throw-in Dwight Powell has proven he's a player

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Dwight Powell was such a priority that nobody in either front office bothered to tell him he was being shipped from the Boston Celtics to the Dallas Mavericks.

“I found out from a friend of mine back home who saw it on Twitter,” Powell said. “He was the first one that texted me, so I didn’t think it was real at first.”

That December 2014 trade will forever be remembered as the Rajon Rondo deal, an epic disaster in Dallas.

Dallas gave up three rotation players (Jae Crowder, Brandan Wright and Jameer Nelson) and two picks (a first-rounder who is top-seven protected next summer and a second-rounder) in the hopes that the former All-Star point guard would help a pretty good Mavs team morph into a legitimate contender. The painful reality ended up being a messy mutual divorce two games into Dallas’ lone playoff series.

All the Mavs have to show for the blockbuster trade now is the throw-in, a no-name second-round pick who was being traded for the third time less than two months into his rookie season.

Regardless of how he arrived in Dallas, the Mavs are happy to have the 6-foot-10 Powell. He’s emerged as an intriguing, productive young talent on one of the NBA’s oldest rosters, ranking third on the Mavs in scoring (10.5), second in rebounding (8.1) and first in blocks (0.6) entering Wednesday night’s game against the Celtics.

“There’s no big shock to me,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. “He’s a hard-playing guy who’s getting experience and getting better.”

Perhaps big shock is too strong, but Powell has undoubtedly been a pleasant surprise for the 7-4 Mavs.

Just start with the fact that he’s earned a regular role in the rotation. He has played more minutes in the opening month of this season (243) than he did his entire rookie year (236, including a grand total of nine minutes during his Celtics stint).

The majority of Powell’s minutes this season have come as the backup big behind Zaza Pachulia despite the fact Powell spent the summer working on becoming a stretch-four. He has seized an opportunity created in large part by JaVale McGee not being medically cleared and Samuel Dalembert being cut after showing up out of shape, even by his standards.

“I definitely have to prove myself every time I step on the floor, prove that I can hold my own and help the team win,” said Powell, whose net rating of plus-7.8 points per 100 possessions is the second-best among Mavs rotation players. “That I can bring energy, that I can come in and be active.”

Carlisle publicly acknowledged last season that the knock on Powell, a four-year player at Stanford, was that he wasn’t tough enough for NBA paint battles. The coach surely meant that as a challenge.

Powell, who dominated the D-League during several assignments as a rookie, has responded by averaging an eye-popping 13.2 rebounds per 36 minutes so far this season. He can be overpowered by bulky post players such as Al Jefferson or Jahlil Okafor – and the fact that Powell leads the Mavs in blocks is proof that they lack a rim-protecting presence – but Dallas has a 92.5 defensive rating with Powell on the floor, the best of any rotation player.

Powell is developing into a dynamic offensive player. He’s not the lob threat that Wright was for the Mavs, but he’s worked to become a decent finisher on pick-and-rolls. He’s a good midrange jump shooter who is working on his dribble-drive game to take advantage of lumbering centers closing out on him. He’s also trying to expand his range to become a 3-point threat.

“The kid basically sleeps in the gym,” Mavs star Dirk Nowitzki told reporters after Wednesday’s shootaround. “He never goes home. It seems like every time I come in, he’s in there working, either lifting or running or shooting. He just wants to get better all the time. Now that he’s got some playing time, he’s still working harder than everybody else.”

The one thing that went right for the Mavs in the Rondo deal was that they insisted that a Boston benchwarmer be included. Dallas still owes a debt for Rondo, but the flyer on Powell is paying off.

“We had no idea what to expect,” Mavs owner Mark Cuban said. “We saw him as a project that we could develop into a player. And he has shown he is a player.”