Justin Powell’s gamble led Washington State guard to Miami Heat franchise with rich history of undrafted players

new balance

Jul. 19—LAS VEGAS — Like any other basketball junkie, Washington State’s Justin Powell monitored the 2023 NBA postseason and marveled at how the Miami Heat managed to dispatch one Eastern Conference contender after another.

With a roster comprised largely of unheralded, undrafted players, the eighth-seeded Heat backed their way into the playoffs through a play-in berth, then stunned the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks in five games, eliminated the fifth-seeded New York Knicks in six games and ultimately took down the second-seeded Boston Celtics in seven games to set up an NBA Finals matchup with the Denver Nuggets.

“I think it kind of speaks volumes to their organization and stuff like that because nobody really expected them to get that far,” Powell said. “They’re always kind of the underdogs and the dogs and they’re going to grind it out and grind every game out.”

Powell views himself in a similar manner, which is why the former Washington State, Tennessee and Auburn guard didn’t need to hear any other offers once Miami’s front office contacted his agent about an opportunity to play for the team during the 2023 NBA Summer League in Sacramento and Las Vegas.

“It’s a hard opportunity to pass up, especially with a great organization like this,” Powell said. “They’ve got a good reputation of putting undrafted guys and making them stick in the league, so I felt like why not.”

Ten days removed from Miami’s series-ending Game 5 loss to Denver, Powell was filling a suitcase and preparing to start his pro career with one of the NBA’s most successful organizations over the last two decades.

“I finally sat there probably the day before I left and I was packing and I remember telling my mom, I’m going to Vegas to play for an NBA team,” Powell said after a Summer League practice at Las Vegas’ COX Pavilion. “It’s crazy, it’s crazy to think about. It’s been great, I love the experience, but yeah it’s definitely mind-blowing that you’re here at this moment.”

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Powell isn’t guaranteed to land a two-way contract or G-League roster spot following Summer League and in many senses, took a gamble on his future by coming out of college a year early.

In his lone season at WSU, Powell produced decent numbers for a 17-win team, averaging 10.4 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game, but most Cougar fans — and even those around WSU’s program — anticipated the 6-foot-6 guard would return in 2023-24 to improve his NBA stock.

“I thought that he was probably planning on coming back, but he started getting more workouts and there was some momentum there,” WSU coach Kyle Smith said. “I was a little concerned that he wasn’t in a (position to be drafted). If you told him what the situation was going to be if he stayed in (the draft pool), I don’t think he would have stayed in.

“It’s always a risk you take. … I think it would have been better for him (to return to college), but you gotta support him. He’s gotta keep moving forward and not look back. That’s life in the big city — you gotta go make it happen. I know there’s a Plan B out there for him.”

For now, Powell has the utmost confidence in Plan A.

“Love Wazzu, love everybody there, great relationships with all those coaches and stuff,” he said. “Just felt like it was kind of time to move on and start my next journey and my step and bet on myself.”

As an undrafted free agent, Powell has inherently low odds of finding his way onto a 15-man NBA roster, but the percentages of doing that with the Heat are higher than they’d be with another franchise.

Miami’s recent Finals roster featured nine undrafted players. Two of those, Max Strus and Gabe Vincent, were in the starting lineup while Duncan Robinson, Caleb Martin and Haywood Highsmith each played key roles off the bench. Udonis Haslem and Ömer Yurtseven, along with two-way players Orlando Robinson and Jamal Cain, were also on the roster.

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“I’ve loved them for awhile, they’ve been one of my favorite teams to watch,” Powell said, “so like I said, I’ve watched guys like Max, Duncan, Tyler (Herro), a lot of those guys. Max and Duncan a lot.”

Powell is confident he can be the next in line.

“It’s just picking everybody’s brain right now,” he said, “and just figuring out what they did and the habits they did and making them stick.”

Under 16th-year coach Erik Spoelstra and longtime president Pat Riley, the Heat have made six Eastern Conference titles since 2011, winning championships in 2012 and ’13. Over the last two decades, many have credited Miami’s success to organization-wide qualities such as professionalism, work ethic and accountability — all of those things encompassing the commonly-used catchphrase, “Heat Culture.”

Powell got a small taste of Heat Culture during the lead-up to Summer League, then was immersed once again when the team traveled to Sacramento and Vegas for seven games over a span of two weeks.

“I think it’s just showing up to work and stuff like that,” Powell said. “Even when it’s getting ready and doing different things like that … tuck in jerseys, it’s go time. (Practices) with kneepads and stuff like that. You don’t see that in different organizations. It’s cool to see and that’s why they’ve been so good.”

Powell’s opportunities at Summer League were scarce. He played 5 minutes and did not record any stats on July 5 against Sacramento at the California Classic. Powell scored three points, shooting 1 of 3 from 3, and added two rebounds in 10 minutes in Vegas against Milwaukee, then shot 1 of 3 from 3 and contributed three rebounds and one assist in 10 minutes versus Denver.

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Although his time in Pullman was brief, Powell gained valuable experience at WSU after somewhat turbulent freshman and sophomore seasons at Auburn and Tennessee. An injury limited the guard to just 10 games at Auburn and he averaged just 14.1 minutes per game coming off the bench at Tennessee before starting in all 34 games while averaging 33.8 minutes at WSU. Powell logged 1,148 minutes with the Cougars after playing just 700 combined his first two seasons.

“I was grateful for that, for sure,” he said. “I came in day one and they kind of put the ball in my hands and let me kind of do my thing a little bit and help me carry them a little bit. Do different things in the offense and help Mo (Gueye) out and TJ (Bamba) and stuff like that.

“Fitting in there was perfect, it was an easy transition for me. They made it really easy. Coach Smith, great coach, great philosophy on offense and stuff like that and they’ve just got a great system there for a lot of people and I was able to plug in right away.”

Despite losing two players to the NBA route (Powell, Gueye) and a slew of outgoing transfers (TJ Bamba, Dishon Jackson, Adrame Diongue, DJ Rodman, Carlos Rosario), Powell is optimistic about WSU’s chances of fielding a competitive team in 2023-24.

“They’ve got a good thing going over there and I think a lot of people aren’t really understanding that they reloaded and they’ve got a great team,” he said. “They’ve got a lot of great pieces, a lot of complementary pieces to guys there and Jabe (Mullins), Andre (Jakimovski). Guys like that that have been in that system that stayed. They’re going to make another jump like they did last year and it’s going to be great for them.”

new balance

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