By Vivek Jacob
In the 2016 NBA playoffs, the Toronto Raptors were mired in a first round struggle against the Indiana Pacers.
Down two, with the series tied 2-2 in the always crucial Game 5, the Raptors needed a spark. Monta Ellis surveyed the floor, waiting for the first off-ball screen to free a teammate on the wing, triggering the first action in the offense.
In the moment, Ellis paid little mind to Norman Powell. Like a tiger locking down on his prey, Powell put himself in prime position to use his physical gifts to seize the moment. Using a 6’11” wingspan, robust fast twitch muscle fibers and overwhelming strength, the former UCLA guard gave a slight bump to knock his opponent off his intended path, intercepting the pass and storming down the other end.
In two seasons, this has become Powell’s signature play, showcasing the tenacity that’s taken him from southeast San Diego to Los Angeles, then from Mississauga to Toronto. It was on display in Las Vegas, where his 18.3 points and 4.3 rebounds revealed potential that went beyond his middle of the second-round draft selection.
Powell’s summer league production was intriguing, but with Terrence Ross, James Johnson and DeMarre Carroll on hand, he’d need time to round out the edges to his game. There was a singularity to his play, with points coming predominantly off drives to his right in the half court, or via easy buckets in transition.
As fate would have it, Carroll would fall victim to a knee injury in Powell’s rookie year, giving him 24 starts down the stretch of the regular season, setting the stage for his Game 5 moment.
Ross and Carroll, two wings the Raptors invested heavily in, are gone now. With a four-year, $42 million extension, Toronto is all in on Powell.
Quickly, Powell has developed his game to fit alongside Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, both on the court and at the playoff podium, where he was flanked by the two All-Stars after his heroics in Game 5 of the Raptors’ 2017 first round playoff duel with the Milwaukee Bucks.
Powell still has a preference to attack to his right, but has improved his ability to go the other way when attacking closeouts. In the play below, Powell needs to go left off the pump fake as Matthew Dellavedova is ready to help the other way, or at least provide enough of it to buy Milwaukee’s bigs enough time to react appropriately.
By attacking to his left where no one is in position to contest, he forces both interior defenders to react, and gifts Ibaka with the dunk.
Next, is a play that would be considered atypical of Powell’s past. As DeRozan swings the ball to him in the corner, Giannis Antetokounmpo closes out a little too hard but does the right thing in taking away Powell’s right. The Raptors forward counters by shielding the ball away from the Greek Freak on his way to the rim by using his off-arm, before employing his strong lower base to spring up and over Thon Maker for the slam.
While these plays show what Powell can do at his best, his overall numbers indicate that what he does at the rim this upcoming season will go a long way in determining how much he stands out.
On 266 attempts at the rim, Powell was below the league average at a pedestrian 54.9 percent. As mentioned earlier, he still has a bit of a one-track mind when attacking the rim, often missing out on opportunities to make plays for others. Defenders can easily pick up on this, and the lack of randomness makes it easier for defenses to collapse without any repercussions. He discussed spending time with Russell Westbrook over the summer and claims to have learned the value of decisiveness and utilizing his athleticism to his advantage.
As he searches for that unpredictability on offense, what has kicked Powell’s career into high gear has been his consistency on defense in high leverage situations. With the Raptors on the verge of losing a first round Game 5 in 2016 that would have left them facing elimination, it was Powell who sparked the Raptors to victory, taking on the most difficult assignment in Paul George. Casey didn’t let up after that, gifting him the matchup with Dwyane Wade in the next series. The unique combination of length in his upper body and strength in his lower body make him flexible to guard such a variety of players. Below, he surprises the lanky Khris Middleton after the Texas A&M alum thought he created enough separation for a jumper.
Above all else, what has brought Powell to this point is his consistency in effort and mindset. He is the perfect soldier, willing to sacrifice for the greater good and perform his duties to his utmost capabilities. It’s likely C.J. Miles starts ahead of the San Diego native to help spread the floor in a unit devoid of spacing, but a case can be made for Powell. Beyond taking on the toughest defensive assignment, he showed his comfort in spacing the floor himself when playing alongside Lowry and DeRozan.
Powell started nine games at small forward when Carroll sat in back-to-backs in the first half of last season, and another nine when DeRozan was forced out of the rotation with an ankle injury. The numbers off the bench this past season were harsh on him. Dwane Casey used him as a wildcard, never allowing him to grow comfortable in a role or know where to expect minutes from. His calm and patience through the inconsistent usage showed the levelheadedness one expects from a four-year college player, and as shown by his starts, he hardly missed out when given a fair shake.
Once again, it was his maturity and basketball IQ that came to the fore, giving the team exactly what was required in each role. When filling in for Carroll, he shot the three freely and fed off Lowry and DeRozan, before ramping up his moves off the bounce in the absence of Toronto’s all-star shooting guard. Whatever his role next season, he’ll need put both those aspects of his game together to maximize his biggest opportunity yet.
After middling results in the postseason that haven’t reflected the success of their regular season, it appears the Raptors have now prioritized the development of their younger players in the hopes of discovering more untapped potential. Powell may have been the inspiration behind the movement, but now is his time to validate it.