BOSTON — As the plane flew from Dallas to Las Vegas, Myles Powell could not quell his emotions.
Powell’s agent had called on his layover with news that the 76ers had offered a two-way contract. So when Powell reached midair and could no longer speak to anybody by phone, the private tears of joy began to flow.
“I cried for maybe the first 45 minutes of the flight,” Powell said. “… I found out that information and it was just like, ‘Wow.’ I couldn’t believe it.”
That was part of a wild four days for the rookie guard that culminated in an abrupt NBA debut. The night after officially joining the Sixers’ organization, Powell briefly spelled starter Seth Curry during the shorthanded team’s 108-103 victory Monday in Boston.
It was an example of personal perseverance for Powell, a Trenton native who went undrafted out of Seton Hall in 2020 and recently completed a nine-month recovery process for a significant knee injury only discovered through an NBA physical. His experience is also reflective of the current state of the Sixers and the league at large. With a barrage of players in health and safety protocols as COVID-19 cases spike nationwide, fringe players who were previously out of the league have been offered opportunities.
“For my first NBA game to be with the Philadelphia 76ers is something I’ll remember for the rest of my life,” Powell said late Monday.
Powell grew up as a Sixers and Allen Iverson fan. So as he waited at the TD Garden scorer’s table to check in for the first time Monday, he knew plenty of family and friends back home would be watching. He described his emotions as eager but not nervous. One common NBA-player mantra, after all, is always staying ready.
Yet Powell never could have predicted how his past week unfolded.
After his knee healed, he played his first basketball game of the season on Friday with the G League’s Westchester Knicks, the team for which he averaged 17.8 points and shot 44.6% from three-point range in 13 games last season. Coincidentally, the Knicks’ opponent that night was the Delaware Blue Coats, the Sixers’ G League affiliate.
The next day, Powell began to travel with Westchester to the G League Showcase in Las Vegas — before that FaceTime call from his agent shifted his plans.
Instead, he met with the Blue Coats Sunday morning. When coach Coby Karl asked Powell if he wanted to play in that afternoon’s game against the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, Powell told him, “Yes, I’m family now.”
About an hour before tip-off, Powell and teammates Aaron Henry and Paul Reed received a group text message notifying them to promptly pack their bags. The Sixers were about to call up the three players after their Sunday night game against New Orleans was postponed because Shake Milton and Andre Drummond had joined Georges Niang in health and safety protocols, Furkan Korkmaz remained out with a non-COVID illness and Joel Embiid, Tyrese Maxey, and Danny Green were all questionable to play with injuries.
Sunday afternoon, Powell shot 2-of-12 from the floor but contributed five rebounds and four assists in the Blue Coats’ 126-101 win over Fort Wayne. Immediately after the game, he headed to the airport to board a plane to Boston.
“That [all] happened probably within, like, the last 72 hours,” Powell said. “It’s been a dream come true, though. If I could do it all over again, I would.”
Sixers coach Doc Rivers met Powell for the first time less than two hours before tip-off against the Celtics, and told Powell to expect to play. Powell’s only on-court and film work occurred with staff before the game. Powell praised Green and Tobias Harris, two fellow Northeast natives, for their pregame help and encouragement. He also leaned on his parents, siblings, best friends, and agent to keep him level-headed and remind him “that I deserved it.”
Powell first entered the game at the beginning of the second quarter and finished with eight minutes. He missed his only two shot attempts — a pull-up three-pointer and a driving floater that got blocked by Jayson Tatum and directly led to an Aaron Nesmith fast-break dunk. Rivers acknowledged that those were examples of Powell “[getting] himself in trouble a couple times, and we told him that’s OK.” Powell then attempted to get the ball into Embiid’s hands whenever possible, and impressed Rivers with his tenacious on-ball defense.
During timeouts, Powell hovered over Rivers scribbling on the white board, or had assistant Sam Cassell in his ear. Teammate Isaiah Joe helped direct Powell on where to stand during free throws. Powell jolted to his feet and threw three fingers in the air from the bench when Green hit a key second-half three-pointer, and was enamored by Embiid’s masterful fourth-quarter performance to propel the Sixers to victory.
“I was in that position a lot the first couple years of my career,” Curry said. “You get called up and you just step in and play five, 10 minutes. [You] don’t know the offense. Don’t know the system. Don’t have too much confidence. Don’t have any rhythm at this level. It’s a tough job to do.”
Added Rivers: “It’s hard, but [I] just told [Powell] to play basketball. You’ve played basketball all your life. You’ve made it to the NBA, and you’re about to get the most cherished thing in the NBA, and that’s minutes, right? I said, ‘So go use them. Go play. Don’t try to be something else. Be yourself.’ … I thought he handled that well.”
Though this week’s turnaround has been a frenzy, Powell’s last year has been a lesson in patience.
After blossoming into an All-American, the Big East player of the year and the winner of the Jerry West Award given to the nation’s best shooting guard at Seton Hall, Powell went undrafted in 2020. Last season, he said he was supposed to sign a two-way contract with the Milwaukee Bucks but failed his physical after it was revealed he had been playing on a torn meniscus in his knee. He filed a lawsuit against Seton Hall, coach Kevin Willard, and director of sports medicine Tony Testa claiming his injury had been misdiagnosed during his college career. (The school filed a motion to dismiss in August.)
And when Powell watched the Bucks win the 2021 NBA championship, that “was just more fuel to the fire,” he said.
“I could use that as motivation to get back on the court,” Powell said. “I knew I was going to get another opportunity because of how hard I worked, but I just didn’t know when it was going to come. I always told myself it was God’s timing, and I know patience is a virtue.
“I just kept my head down; I kept working, and God blessed me.”
Powell said he is looking forward to studying film and working out at the Sixers’ facility during the next couple of days. It’s unclear what his immediate role will be moving forward. Maxey appears close to returning from a quadriceps contusion that left him grimacing and lacking his typical explosion during Monday’s pregame work. The Sixers also plan to sign veteran combo guard Tyler Johnson to a 10-day replacement contract. And as a two-way player, Powell was already expected to spend significant time this season developing in the G League.
But Powell officially made it to the NBA, playing for the Sixers team that he grew up supporting.
That was worthy of shedding tears of joy.
“It’s something that I’ll be able to talk to my kids about,” Powell said. “I just watched Joel Embiid go and get 40 and 10. Me, being a rookie in this league, to be able to watch that for my first NBA game, it’s something that I will never forget.”