Norman Powell has shown flashes before, none more vivid than the steal off Paul George leading to an electrifying dunk in the first round of the 2016 playoffs during his rookie campaign.
There have also been the moments against the Milwaukee Bucks in the playoffs, and brief, teasing stretches from season to season. But entering his fifth NBA campaign, the second year of a four-year, $42 million deal, flashes of potential like the point-a-minute 22 he had against the Houston Rockets in the second of two preseason games in Tokyo will no longer suffice.
To be sure, encouragement was there to be had in the manner in which Powell stepped into his three-point shot — the Achilles heel of his value as an NBA rotation piece — and the overall assertiveness. In fact, intentions are always good with Powell. It’s what the intent is that has limited his growth. For all his efforts shooting the ball (now 7-of-10 from deep in preseason), it’s his distribution when attacking the rim that will be the biggest barometer of true growth.
During training camp, Nick Nurse seemed pretty impressed with what he was seeing.
“He’s got himself much better when he’s taking it into traffic,” Nurse said. “We’re trying to teach him that when he’s drawn two, his job is done. It’s not his job to try to rustle it up to the rim between two and three guys, and he’s getting there on that and that’s been a big big plus for us.”
This looks like a straightforward play in transition, but historically isn’t one that Powell has made once he’s gained a head of steam. The downside is that this wound up being his only assist of the game, and he finished the Tokyo trip with that lone dime in 40 minutes. To be entirely fair, there were occasions where Powell was able to get to the rim and create some swing action along the perimeter off the kick-out, but he’ll need more of that.
Now, with the scoring that has to be made up after the departures of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, Powell may feel that showing aggressiveness in putting the ball in the basket may be the best way to make an impression and seal a starting spot (one of his stated goals during training camp). After all, the Raptors will have Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol in the starting lineup as playmakers more often than not, and Pascal Siakam figures to take a step forward in that aspect of his game.
When Powell lost his starting spot two years ago, OG Anunoby supplanted him by just fitting in and providing the complementary 3-point shooting that was required and a critical defensive option. For this season’s Raptors, and for his own future, Powell faces the challenge of needing to be more than that without trying to do too much. That’s where he could take a page out of Siakam’s book. What was most impressive about Siakam’s Most Improved campaign was his ability to get his points without sucking the life out of the ball with heavy usage. While Powell stands to improve his decision making, he can add consistency to his scoring by simply looking to do more of the things that come naturally to him: attacking closeouts and getting out on the break.
There’s certainly a bit of chicken and the egg here as creating more quality opportunities to attack closeouts will only come if he’s providing enough of a threat from long range, but getting out on the break or even leading the break at times will allow for easy buckets for either himself or his teammates. There may be some trips to the free-throw line, too.
As far as getting out on the break is concerned, you can’t do that without completing a defensive possession with a rebound, and that’s another area of Powell’s game where he should try to find consistency and create value for the team. For all his athleticism and strength, Anunoby has been poor at rebounding on the defensive end through his first two seasons. His nine per cent rebound rate on field goal attempts through 141 games puts him in the 14th percentile among forwards, per Cleaning the Glass.
Powell may be 6-foot-4 but that height is accompanied by a 6-foot-11 wingspan and the athleticism has been on display often enough to show that this is an area where he can be a greater contributor. He’s performed at a slightly below average mark over his career but the Raptors can’t afford to have two starters with length and athleticism not contributing in that regard.
In fact, a stretch in March last season showed exactly the type of enigma Powell can be at times. After averaging 12.8 points over five games and looking like he was starting to feel it, he put up two straight zero-point games in a combined 34 minutes of action. In the latter, he grabbed 11 rebounds in a seven-point loss to the OKC Thunder while often matched up with Russell Westbrook, who he helped limit to 6-of-20 shooting from the field.
The Raptors are thin at the shooting guard position and the 26-year-old knows that this is as big of an opportunity as he’s ever had to make his mark in the league with no one to really look over his shoulder to. There figure to be enough touches to go around that Powell can be where he needs to be as a scorer, but what of the other facets of his game?
If Powell can add more colour to his repertoire with the rebounding and playmaking aspects, then the Raptors may just have a serviceable starting guard on their hands.
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