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A Series of Small Successes: An In-Depth Look at the Life and Journey of Kasib Powell

By Matt Dykstra | June 11, 2021

 

Kasib Powell is a former NBA G League MVP. He’s a former NBA Call-Up to the Miami HEAT. He’s one of only four members in the Sioux Falls Skyforce Hall of Fame. He began what is now one of the fastest-growing basketball academies in the state with South Dakota Network Basketball. He’s been serving as an assistant coach with the Sioux Falls Skyforce since 2016. Now, he’s ready for another step forward, but not before looking back and reflecting on where he’s been. The following four-part series takes an in-depth look at the life and basketball journey of arguably one of the most influential players, now turned coach, in Skyforce franchise history. It starts at the beginning.

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PART 2: FROM HUMBLE BEGINNINGS TO THE NATIONAL SPOTLIGHT

His options may have been limited, but he had them.

After graduating high school, and coming off of a state championship-winning season, Kasib Powell now found himself in the driver’s seat in deciding where he wanted to go next. Getting to decide what he wanted to do, where he wanted to go, was a position he was unfamiliar with. He was excited, but with the excitement came the realization that there was plenty of hard work yet to be done.

“The options I had at the time were Fairfield, Providence was an option but I was going to have to sit out because I didn’t qualify yet academically,” said Powell. “I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to sit out a year. So that left me with deciding between prep school or junior college.”

Both prep school and junior college each offered unique benefits, and for a while it was a toss-up between the two as Powell decided where the best place to continue his career and education would be. It was the experience of an older player from Teaneck that ultimately swayed Powell’s vote.

“I had someone who was a year older than me that went to prep school,” said Powell. “At prep school, you have to achieve certain bench marks, you needed to improve your SAT scores to a certain score over the course of the year or it would be a wasted year regardless. That kid a year ahead of me, he didn’t end up getting the scores he needed, and had to go to junior college anyway. That’s when I decided I’d jump straight to junior college myself.”

As was the case for Powell early in life, sometimes things just work out.

There were a number of high-profile junior colleges pining for Powell’s skills on the basketball court, but one of the first places he visited was Butler Community College in El Dorado, Kansas.

“I remember when I took a visit out to Kansas, my mom told me, ‘take the visit, but don’t sign…don’t sign,’” said Powell. “The day I was at my visit, I was there and I remember calling my mom and she told me, ‘you’re going to sign aren’t you?’ I was like, ‘yeah, the opportunity is there, and it’s one of the best junior colleges.’”

It was far from a fairy tale ending thus far. Powell hadn’t become the super star he’d hoped he’d be at this stage of his life. He wouldn’t be playing on ESPN for a Power Five basketball program. Instead, it was another humble beginning. It was hardly his first, and would be far from his last, but it was another small step in the right direction. A step he is grateful for to this day.

“I had never really gotten recruited like that,” said Powell. “I was coming from Teaneck. I probably would have signed anywhere, you know what I’m saying? But I end up choosing Butler CC, and to me it was like a DI school. We had guys that were McDonald’s All-Americans, guys that were DI-level athletes, former all-state basketball players, Mr. Basketball in the state of Louisiana. For whatever reason, those guys ended up in junior college.”

Despite heading out to a school in the middle-of-nowhere, Kansas, Powell found himself competing against some extremely talented ball players that, for a number of reasons, found themselves missing the cut for some of the better Division I schools around the country. Grades, off the court issues, effort level, whatever their reasons were, they found themselves in one giant melting pot at Butler CC.

With all the talent around him, Powell initially planned on redshirting his freshman season. That was the plan, until players around him started “dropping like flies” due to various reasons.

Again, sometimes things just work out.

“I was going to redshirt my freshman year, but all these guys just started getting in trouble,” said Powell. “Guys were getting kicked off the team, flunking out of classes. All this stuff started happening around me. I was going to redshirt, but the next thing I knew I was in the starting lineup as a freshman.”

Powell had grown accustomed to earning what he was given. His time at Butler CC was yet another prime example of that mentality. He came in with a singular mindset, to work hard on and off the court, and earn a chance to play at the next level. As things fell into place, he saw that goal come to fruition.

“I just worked so hard,” said Powell. “I went from being a redshirt to being a team captain in my first year. I had a great first year, and then the next season I came in as a preseason all-american and we were nationally ranked…all that stuff.”

On-court. Off-court. Powell was taking full advantage of his time in junior college. Given his first real chance at independence, to make a name for himself, he was seeing his grades climb and his game become recognized by outside eyes. Though it wasn’t the collegiate start he had dreamed of as a little kid, he had now earned a new opportunity for that dream to become a reality with multiple college offers. It was a two-year stint, however, that Powell wouldn’t trade for anything.

“My two years at junior college were really, really good for me basketball-wise,” said Powell. “It was just so good to be able to take that next step up from high school. I graduated with my associates degree from there. Just being able to take those next steps forward in your life was so important for me.”

Onward and upward.

Powell’s phone was soon ringing, with reputable Division I programs and coaches on the other end. He had options coming out of high school, but not like this. Schools like Creighton, Marquette, and Texas Tech were pitching their programs to Powell as if he were a prize to be won, and it was an entirely new feeling for him.

His first thought?

Anywhere but Texas Tech.

“I sat down with my junior college coach over lunch a few weeks before and he asked me, ‘who do you not want to play for?’ I told him Bob Knight. I had heard stories about how hard he worked his players. What it was like to play for him. I didn’t want any part of that at first.”

That script quickly flipped when Coach Knight began chasing Powell.

“He started to recruit me,” said Powell. “He showed me their schedule. He showed me the games that were nationally televised. He finally came for a visit. Like, Coach Bob Knight actually came to Butler Community College to visit with me. After that, I was sold.”

Despite efforts to get him to reconsider and the possibility of getting more immediate playing time at schools like Creighton or Marquette, Powell’s mind was made up. He was headed to Lubbock, Texas, to play for a legend.

He was thrilled.

He also had no idea what he was getting into.

“From the moment I stepped on campus, to be honest with you, it was like cameras and broadcasts and media exposure everywhere,” said Powell. “The media all wanted to know who I was, who this kid was that was coming in from junior college. It was big time. I remember thinking to myself, ‘man, this is the Division I life. This it it. This is big.”

It wasn’t all glitz and glamor, though.

Soon the realization set in that he had committed to playing basketball for one of the most intense coaches in college basketball history. Powell thought he was a hard worker. He thought he had a strong work ethic. Those thoughts were called into question when he stepped onto the court with Coach Knight for the first time.

“When I first got there, the first conditioning test we did, the first running test we did…Coach Knight was yelling at us,” said Powell. “I didn’t know if I was going to last. After the first day of practice and conditioning, I remember calling back home to my mom and saying, ‘mom, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do this.’”

If there’s one thing Powell’s mother, Willie Thornton, wouldn’t stand for, it was quitting.

“If she would have told me, ‘well, baby, let’s get you back home then’ I would have been on a flight home the next day,” said Powell. “To her credit, she was like, ‘if you don’t get off this phone right now and get out there and bust your butt…’ After that phone call I didn’t have any more excuses. I didn’t have anyone to cry or whine to. Nobody was going to baby me and tell me it was okay. Coach Knight certainly wasn’t going to.”

A commitment to the grind. Something that’s easier said than done. Powell’s mother had shown him at an early age what that looked like, working three jobs and providing for her children growing up in Teaneck, New Jersey. It was a trait that she passed down directly to all of her children, and Powell wasn’t about to be the first exception. It’s no surprise she wouldn’t let him off the hook when he came calling.

“From that point on, I know I had to pull my big boy pants up and just get to work,” said Powell. “I was out there. I had made it there. I was there to grind. I was there to work. That conversation forced me to do that, because I didn’t have anyone else to fall back on or complain to. Without that, no 18 or 19-year-old kid was going to put himself through some of the stuff we had to do. So, that support was extremely important to me.”

The grind paid off.

Powell’s first season as a Red Raider was a huge success. He started all 32 games he appeared in, averaging 15.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.8 assists in just under 36 minutes per game. Texas Tech made a run in the national tournament. The team was nationally ranked throughout the season. Powell had played big minutes in big-time games, and was putting himself on the national map.

He loved it. Maybe a little too much.

“I actually loved Texas Tech so much that it might have actually hindered me from making it to the NBA a little bit,” said Powell. “After my junior year, people were telling me I should leave. I was hearing I’d be a late first-rounder [in the NBA Draft] or an early second-rounder. Me, being from Teaneck, coming from a small town in Kansas at junior college, I was just enjoying it.”

Powell ultimately decided to come back to school for his senior season. A decision he didn’t think twice about, but that may have altered the course of his professional career. Though his stat line remained almost identical to his junior year production, the team struggled at times. The exposure he’d gotten the year prior as a “break-out player” had faded.

Powell would start all 35 contests as a senior, averaging 15.0 points, 6.1 rebounds and 4.3 assists while shooting 50.9 percent from the field in nearly 36 minutes per game. However, the team would finish with just a 22-13 overall record, good enough for seventh in the Big 12 Conference at the time.

The decision to return for his senior season is one that he thinks about, but not one that he regrets. According to Powell, the benefits of going back to Texas Tech that year extended far beyond the basketball court.

“If I could go back, knowing what I know now, I think I’d make the same decision,” said Powell. “I think there’s things about the process, within the process, of that final year that I would have done differently. I would have worked harder. I would have tried to capitalize on that opportunity more than I did, but I wouldn’t have skipped it. I wouldn’t take that year back. The relationships that I was able to build that last year are extremely important to me.”

One of those lasting relationships was with the late Andre Emmett, who Powell had formed a close relationship with in his two years at Texas Tech. During Powell’s last year, the 2002-03 season, Emmett started 33 of 34 games as a junior and averaged a team-high 21.8 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.9 assists per contest. Emmett would later go on to be drafted by the Seattle SuperSonics (and traded to the Memphis Grizzlies) in the 2004 NBA Draft following a stellar senior season.

“Every time people talked about Texas Tech, they talked about both of us,” said Powell. “We were the dynamic duo. On and off the court, we just had that connection. We were always together, and we played like that too.”

Hindsight is always 20-20. You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone. There are many sayings that describe the same truth. Often times you don’t appreciate what you have, or where you were, until after you’ve moved on. The same can be said about Powell and his time at Texas Tech.

“I really started to appreciate my time at Texas Tech as I started to get older,” said Powell. “Looking at other practices, talking to other guys and saying, ‘this is what you guys consider to be hard work?’ It definitely helped prepare for when I got into NBA training camps and Summer League games.”

Playing for Coach Knight didn’t allow a player to enjoy the same freedoms as one could in other programs. There were rules. There were pathways to success. It was about playing for and representing something larger than yourself. Powell could have averaged more than 15 points per game had he played somewhere else, found a system in which he could be “the guy” and take all the shots he wanted. It’s something that always nagged at him, but something he’s glad he avoided.

“I was always admired watching UCONN and the style of basketball they played. Seeing Ben Gordon shooting step-back three-pointers,” said Powell. “I’d watch Caron Butler pulling up for jump shots on fast breaks, taking quick shots. All these guys, names on the back of their jerseys, cool warmup uniforms, playing fast and launching shots and there we were like…using pump fakes, passing the ball five times per possession, making safe basketball decisions.”

It was a style that preached the importance of being a team player. It was a system that improved the all-around game of a player as well as amplifying what they did best. It wasn’t always about the stat sheet, and that’s something Powell grew to appreciate more and more over time.

“It helped me when I got to the professional level,” said Powell. “I learned to move without the ball. I learned how to be a team player, how to set screens, how to grab rebounds, how to involve my teammates. You get guys that are these great college players that are doing all these different things, but when they get to the NBA or the G League nowadays they can’t do those same things and they get frustrated. They shut down as a player because they lose their identity. Texas Tech taught me to have intangibles, and that’s what got me over the hump as a professional player.”

With the benefit of knowing what we know now, we as fans can look back and see how Powell’s game and his coaching style were heavily influenced by his time at Texas Tech. The team-first philosophy, in fact, is one of the most important aspects of what we now have come to know as “HEAT Culture” – The very culture that Powell and the rest of the Skyforce coaching staff is charged with instilling in Skyforce players season after season.

While those methods can be taught and learned, it helps when they’re part of your nature. Powell’s time at Texas Tech helped solidify those fundamentals, and has made it that much easier for him to pass them on to his players now.

Powell’s journey through college was haphazard. There were bumps in the road and snags along the way. From the humblest of beginnings to the highest of heights in his first year at Texas Tech, Powell is thankful for every step along the way. His time in El Dorado, KS, as well as Lubbock, TX, both helped mold him into the player he’d become professionally, and the coach he’d become after.

“Just having Coach Knight as a guy that coached you…whenever you talk about playing for Texas Tech you have to talk about playing for Coach Bob Knight,” said Powell. “That’s definitely one of those highlights. That’s one of the greatest benefits about having played there—to have his name attached to you. Just being able to talk to him. To have him as your connection. I wouldn’t have wanted to go anywhere else, you know?”

While we know where Powell ended up, he was about to experience some of the most up-and-down years of his life as he left Texas Tech for the 2003 NBA Draft.

His name was never called.

What happened next sent Powell on the journey of a lifetime. Mistakes were followed by successes. Victories were followed by defeats. The mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual roller coaster that would leave its mark on Powell’s professional career set the stage for who he has become today.

The next chapter of Powell’s life, for better or worse, would begin in Belgrade, Serbia.