About 14 minutes remained in Arkansas’ home game against Mississippi State on Jan. 23 when Marshawn Powell decided to liven things up a bit.
After grabbing a pass from teammate Rashad Madden at half court, Powell took one hard dribble, launched his 6-foot-7, 240-pound frame into orbit just inside the free-throw line and soared over the Bulldogs’ Tyson Cunningham en route to a monstrous dunk that can best be described like this: The man’s elbow was over the rim.
The Bud Walton Arena crowd erupted, just as Powell knew it would, but the basket was waved off because of an offensive foul. Powell’s teammates offered mild protest, but Powell, stone faced, just ran back down the court, pointing at the stands as he did.
The play meant little in an eventual 96-70 Arkansas victory, but it was a clear demonstration that it’s going to take more than a broken foot and a torn ACL to ground Marshawn Powell.
“I caught everybody by surprise with that one,” Powell said, laughing at the recollection. “It really didn’t make a difference to me whether it counted or not. I just did it to prove a point.
“Just because I’m wearing this brace doesn’t mean I can’t do what I used to do.”
Roll back the calendar about 14 months to November 2011. In his first two games under new Arkansas coach Mike Anderson, Powell is averaging 19.5 points, six rebounds and shooting 71 percent from the field.
“He was playing great,” said Arkansas assistant Matt Zimmerman. “Everybody talked about how well he was playing, and how different he looked, happy and clapping. We were looking forward to the year he was going to have for us.”
But Powell’s season abruptly ended the next day. Practicing in the Verizon Arena in Little Rock for a game against Houston, Powell was in “the wrong place at the wrong time,” as he put it, when Madden, trying to take a charge from teammate Rickey Scott, fell onto Powell’s right leg.
“I didn’t realize it was serious at first,” Powell said. “It hurt, but I thought I’d just have to sit out for a couple of games and I’d be alright. When they told me I tore my ACL, and I couldn’t play the rest of the year, it crushed me.
“I had gotten my body in the right condition. My jump shot was falling and I had started to make better decisions. I was playing some of the best basketball of my life.”
Powell, whose sophomore year was hampered after he broke his foot the summer before, couldn’t have been blamed if, right after receiving the news about his knee, he decided he’d had enough of basketball. For a couple of weeks he existed in a fog, thinking about the misfortune that had plagued his college career and pondering his future.
“It was rough,” Powell said. “I was dealing with a lot of anger and frustration and anxiety that had built up. And I had wondered what was going to happen to my game. Was I going to be able to do the things I did before I got hurt?”
With the help of his coaches, teammates, friends and family, Powell eventually decided it wasn’t in his nature to wallow in self-pity. He would throw himself into rehab the same way he was prepared to play for Anderson.
“After sitting out and watching games, I wanted to do something,” Powell said. “I couldn’t help my team win, but rehab, it gave me something to actually go hard at, to compete just like it was a game. So every day, I went to work. After a while, I figured out I really can’t worry about the what ifs. You have to live day to day and take life as it comes.”
Well before that dunk against Mississippi State, Powell proved to himself and everyone else the knee injury wouldn’t slow him down this season. He scored in double-figures in Arkansas’ first three games, and after a couple of subpar outings against Arizona State (two points) and Wisconsin (eight), he came back with 19 against Syracuse and a career-high 33 against Oklahoma. In that game, Powell made 11 of 17 field goals, including 4 or 6 from 3-point range, grabbed six rebounds and handed out five assists in 32 minutes.
“He’s a versatile player and he was in a zone,” Anderson said after that performance.
“Such a good player in a lot of different ways,” Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said.
Ask Powell now about the time he spent on the sidelines rehabbing his knee and he’ll say it was a blessing. A career 22-percent 3-point shooter before this season, he’s shooting 44 percent from behind the arc after spending hours in the gym, launching countless shots.
“That’s the only thing I could do,” Powell said. “Some days, I’d just shoot all day. Sometimes I’d stand on one leg and shoot. It helped to see the ball go in. With the repetition, I got confidence. I’d always been able to shoot, but my game hadn’t really shown it. I didn’t work on it as hard as I did after I got hurt.”
Armed with a more consistent jump shot, Powell has become a load.
“He’s a very skilled forward,” Zimmerman said. “One of the terms now is ‘stretch forward.’ That’s what he can do now. He can step up and knock down a 3, he can put it on the floor a little bit, and he can post up.
“Nationally, he may not be as well known, but a lot of coaches [in the SEC] know him. We watch tape [of non-conference opponents] not doubling him in the post. When we play an SEC team, they double him in the post. That’s the kind of respect they have for him.”
This season, in league games only, Powell is averaging 15.3 points and 5.3 rebounds while shooting 51 percent from the field and 46 percent from 3. Those kinds of numbers will definitely earn respect from opposing coaches.
“He’s a very difficult matchup at the four position because he can play inside and out,” Auburn coach Tony Barbee said. “He’s a nightmare for any team.”
“He has a total package of what you’re looking for in a skilled forward,” said Mississippi State’s Rick Ray.
Powell’s career numbers justify that praise.
Only five players in Arkansas’ proud basketball history have racked up more than 1,000 points, 450 rebounds, 100 assists and 75 blocked shots in their careers. One of them is Powell. The others: Todd Day, Corliss Williamson, Scott Hastings and Ron Huery.
Powell has gotten better as the season has progressed and the Razorbacks (16-9, 7-5 SEC) have given themselves a chance at earning an NCAA Tournament bid. He’s scored in double figures in 10 of his last 11 games, including 20 against Auburn and 24 against Missouri in his last two. Those back-to-back efforts earned him SEC player-of-the-week honors.
“He’s put in a lot of hard work,” Andersons said. “He’s had a lot of things happen to him, not good, so it’s good to see a guy kind of being rewarded for staying at it.”