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October 22, 2010
Stanford and Harvard frequently compete for the nation's best young mathematicians, medical students and computer geniuses. Duking it out for one of the nation's top basketball prospects? That doesn't happen nearly as often.
That's what made the recruiting process of 6-foot-9 forward Dwight Powell so unusual. The No. 25 prospect in the 2010 class, Powell narrowed his choices to Stanford and Harvard before eventually deciding to head west.
"I'm here to play basketball," Powell said, "but I'm trying to get something out of my degree."
Ivy League schools usually have about as much chance of landing a top-100 prospect as a straight-D student has of getting into Harvard or Yale. But Powell insists this was no publicity stunt.
It's a testament to his academic pursuits that he seriously considered going to Harvard. Powell's decision turned into a recruiting battle between Stanford's Johnny Dawkins and Harvard's Tommy Amaker, who formed the starting backcourt on Duke's 1986 NCAA runner-up team.
"It's definitely a push from my mother," Powell said of his academic discipline. "Once I started playing basketball seriously, she especially noticed it could be a vehicle to get me not only into a college and a free education, but potentially to a high-level school I couldn't necessarily get into without sports.
"That became my focus and her focus as well. I was working on my skills on the court and taking care of the books in the classroom. Not to speak in a clich?but knowledge is power. That's what it takes to succeed. The more you know, the better off you are."
Powell didn't know much about the playing careers of Dawkins and Amaker before they started recruiting him. He grew up in Toronto and didn't get serious about basketball until his teenage years. But once he got to know them, they immediately won his respect.
He appreciated how Dawkins had played for a title at Duke and had won a national title as an assistant on the Blue Devils' staff. He knew about Dawkins' work as a player personnel director for the 2008 U.S. Olympic team that won the gold medal.
By the time Powell actually made his college choice, he would have been willing to follow Dawkins just about anywhere.
"It all kind of worked out perfectly at Stanford," Powell said. "Coach Dawkins, had he been at another institution, I would have definitely played for him. He's a big-time coach and a big-time person overall."
Powell has taken an unlikely path to Stanford.
He was a multi-sport athlete in Canada who didn't play much basketball beyond the occasional pickup game. He was more involved in volleyball and track. Powell was 14 and getting ready to compete in the high jump when a basketball coach spotted him and talked to him about the possibility of playing hoops.
Powell was such a quick study that he eventually had to leave his native country. He moved to the United States at the age of 15 to receive more in-depth basketball training at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.
"That's one of the reasons why he's progressed to the degree that he has," said Powell's mother, Jacqueline Weir. "IMG is in the business of training kids in their passion of sports, whatever that sport might be. Being in Canada, he wasn't going to get anywhere with basketball. It's just not there.
"I think you'll see there are a lot of Canadian kids who transitioned to the U.S. for that reason. The competition in Canada is just not there."
The move to IMG Academy represented a major change for Powell. On a typical day, after spending his mornings in the classroom, Powell had just over an hour of weight training. He then would be on the basketball court for about three hours before returning to his academics for up to two hours in a study-hall setting.
"The States kind of taught me to fall in love with training, [to realize] that practice is the most important thing," Powell said. "Back in Toronto, I really didn't see it the same way. The competition wasn't necessarily demanding me to get better every single day. In the States, it was definitely demanding you to get better every single time you practice. If you're not getting better, you're falling down in your rank. It's definitely more competitive here, in a good way."
Powell's teammates at IMG included future Division I frontcourt players such as Miami's Kenny Kadji, Louisville's Jared Swopshire and Arizona's Kyryl Natyazhko. In the early going, Powell often struggled in practice sessions against his more polished teammates.
That's when IMG coach Vince Walden posed a challenge to Powell.
"He asked me how he could separate himself," Walden said. "The nickname I threw at him was 'DP Incorporated.' I thought he had to look at himself as a brand like Nike, Under Armour or Gatorade. We talked about how he could grow his brand. The first thing he had to do was sell out academically. You could see the potential that was there with a kid who played as hard as he did and with his size. He's a special kid, but I saw that [potential] even moreso when he really committed himself to his academics."
Powell eventually adapted to the competitive differences in the States. He had a tougher time adjusting to the cultural differences.
"It was the lifestyle changes as far as living in a boarding school as well as the cultural changes," Powell said. "Moving from a city like Toronto to Bradenton [about 30 miles south of St. Petersburg, on Florida's Gulf Coast] was a little bit of a shock to me.
"That was something that took a little while to get over. ... I kind of wanted to leave at times just because of that, but there were far too many positives [about IMG] that overcame that."
IMG's smaller class sizes helped make Powell a better student. Walden said Powell earned a 4.17 grade-point average as a senior at IMG. And the higher level of competition undoubtedly made him a better athlete. Powell averaged 23.2 points, 11.6 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 2.3 blocks as a senior. UCLA forward Josh Smith (the nation's No. 23 prospect) was the only more highly rated recruit to sign with a Pac-10 school this season.
"He became more competitive in the classroom, and it carried over to the court," Walden said. "Even when he signed with Stanford, he never came off the gas pedal. He never let up on his intensity. He never let up all the way around -- academically, on the court and in his service work on campus."
Powell had arrived at IMG as a relatively stiff player who struggled to showcase his athleticism. Now he has much better lateral movement and also is a much more effective leaper. His biggest strength, though, may be his versatility.
"That stuck out to me," Dawkins said. "He has good ball skills. I think he's a very underrated passer of the basketball. He's a facilitator. His ball skills as far as putting the ball on the floor, for someone his size, it's fairly unique."
In measuring how each post player from the Class of 2010 stacked up in various categories, Rivals.com rated Powell as the No. 5 rebounder, offensive player and defensive player. Thompson was the only other post player who ranked in the top five in each of those three categories.
Not bad for someone who took up the sport much later than most blue-chip prospects.
"He really runs the floor and jumps well," said Jerry Meyer, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. "I think he has a lot of potential offensively. I don't know if it's going to be there as a freshman, but I think he's a guy who's going to be able to score facing the basket and with his back to the basket. You know he's going to hustle. He's going to rebound, play defense and make energy plays and hustle plays."
Powell also has plenty of upside because he's relatively new to the game. Unlike many top-50 prospects, Powell isn't the stereotypical prodigy who has been dribbling since he was big enough to grasp a basketball.
That means Powell may take more time to develop, but it also means he hasn't yet scratched the surface of his potential. Dawkins admits that his prize recruit is a "work in progress" who still has to improve in every aspect of his game.
"He has a really good upside," Dawkins said. "He's a good athlete with a good upside. He has a really good basketball IQ." Based on his college choices, he also has a really good overall IQ.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.