The Canadian NBA story has, for good reason, focused on the steady streak of lottery picks and first-round talent that have flowed into the league since Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph broke the dam in 2011, just as Steve Nash’s career was winding down.
And there has been plenty to celebrate. Thompson and Joseph have won NBA championships and are proven, respected veterans with several good years ahead of them. Kelly Olynyk has shown himself to be a player who helps teams win. Jamal Murray and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander are just scratching the surface of their potential in years four and two of their careers, respectively, and will likely have some all-star games in their future. Rookie RJ Barrett is just getting started. Six-year veteran Andrew Wiggins can leave everyone wanting more, but he’s on pace to be the all-time leading scorer among Canadian NBA players.
But I’ve always felt the player who might be the best role model and the most inspiring story for the next generation of Canadian players is Dwight Powell, the Dallas Mavericks power forward who has turned himself from a second-round pick and G League regular traded three times in the first six months of his professional career into a critical piece on one of the league’s most respected franchises.
Powell will get another chance to prove his determination and display the mental toughness that has been a hallmark of his professional growth as he begins what will be a long road to recovery from a ruptured Achilles tendon suffered in the first quarter of the Mavericks loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday night.
The injury will be felt by Dallas – "He’s one of the soldiers of the franchise," said Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle – but perhaps more acutely with the Canadian men’s national team, where Powell was projected to be a cornerstone as Canada hosts one of four Olympic Qualifying Tournaments in Victoria from June 23-28 with an eye on qualifying for the Summer Games in Tokyo for the first time since 2000.
As news of the injury spread, Powell’s national team teammates flooded social media with best wishes for a full recovery, but there is no question that Powell – one of the national team’s most reliable participants – will be out of commission for the summer.
It’s a blow for a program that is expecting to field the most talented team in its history with 21 NBA-rostered players to choose from but could have some problems in the frontcourt. The expectation was already that Thompson, a pending free agent, was unlikely to be available in Victoria and there are doubts about Olynyk, another pending free agent – although that could change if he picks up the option he has on the last year of his contract with Miami. The six-foot-10 Powell was being counted on to hold the fort and projected to mesh seamlessly with what looks to be a deep and versatile collection of Canadian perimeter players.
National team general manager Rowan Barrett still has options for his frontcourt. Beyond Khem Birch of the Orlando Magic, who impressed this past summer at the World Cup, there is Raptors big man Chris Boucher, Trey Lyles of the San Antonio Spurs, impressive Memphis Grizzlies rookie Brandon Clarke, and Los Angeles Clippers rookie Mfiondu Kabengele, who was just named the G League player of the week. The catch is that only Boucher has ever played for the senior team before, and his caps can be counted on one hand.
There is no way to get around the fact that Powell was expected to be a foundational piece of Canada’s Olympic push and his size, smarts and athleticism will be hard to replace.
As for Powell, no one who knows the 28-year-old has any doubt that he’ll make a full recovery from one of the most devastating injuries a basketball player can deal with.
“Nobody better and mentally tougher to come back from this than him,” his long-time teammate J.J. Barea – himself playing this season after suffering a similar injury last year – told ESPN after Tuesday’s game. “Nobody has ever and will ever work as hard as he is going to do.”
The good news, too, is that Powell signed a four-year, $37-million contract in the off-season.
But it’s still an injury with significant short-term implications. Powell was having a career year with the upstart Mavs, his first as a starter, averaging 9.4 points and 5.7 rebounds on 63.8 per cent shooting in 26.5 minutes a game – the rebounds, shooting percentage and minutes all career highs.
But Powell’s advanced statistics shine even brighter as he’s proven himself to be one of the most efficient players in the game. His true shooting percentage of 67.7 is seventh in the NBA, and his offensive rating of 134.0 – a category in which he’s led the NBA the past two seasons – is third.
His off-court contributions may be even more valuable.
"He’s a constant," Carlisle told reporters Tuesday night. "He’s a constant team-first guy; he’s a constant worker; he’s a constant everything. Guys like him define the culture we want here.
"… but he will be back. There are some guys you just know have a level of resilience, a level of fight in them …. Powell is [one of them]."
Unfortunately for the Canadian national team, he won’t be back in time for the summer they would have liked to have had him the most.
(All stats via Basketball Reference)