Norm Powell is as much a talisman for the Toronto Raptors future as he is an essential piece of a roster that even Masai Ujiri can only hope will be good enough to keep pushing the boulder up Mount LeBron in the Eastern Conference without getting crushed if-and-when it starts rolling back down on them.
How far up the hill the Raptors get will in large part depend on Powell, who has signed a four-year, $42-million contract extension that kicks in next summer. It’s a good deal for the club for plenty of reasons, but Powell will to need harness the signs of considerable potential he’s shown the past two years if the Raptors are going to make it back to the Eastern Conference Finals or beyond.
But that Powell – the 46th overall pick in the 2015 draft acquired on draft night by Toronto – is being depended on is already a victory for the franchise.
For decades Raptors fans could look across the league or up-and-down the rosters of better teams and wonder: ‘Why do they always find the diamonds in the rough?’
Even in their bleakest iterations the Raptors have had some serious talent. You don’t pile up as many losing seasons as the Raptors have without coming up lucky in the lottery. The team’s leading homegrown stars are a roll call of players the Raptors essentially stumbled into: Damon Stoudemire; Tracy McGrady; Vince Carter; Chris Bosh, Jonas Valanciunas and – of course – DeMar DeRozan.
There is never a guarantee that a lottery pick will be a good NBA player, or even play — Rafael Araujo, we’re looking at you – but for all the hype around combines, closed workouts, mock drafts and the rest of it, a few buddies watching the NCAA tournament while flipping through some online scouting resources could likely have done just as well picking at the same spots the Raptors have over the years.
But the further down you go in the draft order the harder it is to pick a winner, for all the obvious reasons.
And yet as much as being a great NBA team requires great NBA talent, what pushes them over-the-top so often are those players that were over-looked for a variety of reasons.
The Golden State Warriors are awash in superstars, but their linchpin might be Draymond Green (taken 35th in 2012). Remember those 2004 Pistons that are is so many ways a role model for the current Raptors? Mehmet Okur (37th in 2001) was an essential contributor. While the San Antonio Spurs dynasty is upheld at either end by hall-of-fame bigs David Robinson and Tim Duncan, no organization has gotten more mileage out of players overlooked by the rest of the league: from Patty Mills to Danny Green to Manu Ginobili – the greatest second-round pick of all time, it says here.
The best second-round pick in Raptors history? Ummm. Ahhh. Well.
Put it this way: the best second-round pick the Raptors ever developed was likely Matt Bonner who was taken 45th in 2003 by the Chicago Bulls and acquired by trade. He showed such promise as a floor-spreading big off the bench that he was acquired by San Antonio and went on to win four NBA titles.
The last second-round pick the Raptors made to appear in a regular-season game as rookie?
That would be P.J. Tucker who was taken 35th overall in 2006 and lasted 21 games before spending the next five years in Europe and eventually back to the NBA and the Raptors as an elder statesman they added at the trade deadline a year ago.
After that? Roko Ukic maybe?
So Powell is already a revelation.
Extending him was smart business. At 24 he’s a versatile defender, an improving shooter and ferocious attacking the rim. He became a starter in the playoffs against the Milwaukee Bucks, shot 9-of-11 from three and altered the series. His performance in Game 7 of the Raptors’ first-round series against the Indiana Pacers when he came off the bench to chip in 13 points on just six shots the year before might have saved that series, too; and he’s a respected locker-room presence for his competitiveness and work ethic.
He would have been a restricted free agent next summer, and given the role the Raptors have projected for him – a steady diet of 30 minutes a night in a range of roles – it’s easy to project that another team would have made a run at him with the full mid-level exception, which is projected to be $8.5-million for four years. And given that some ordinary wings have signed some pretty rich deals (Allen Crabbe for $75-million for four years; Tim Hardaway Jr. $71-million for four) it’s not inconceivable that the Raptors would have been put under pressure by another team’s offer sheet if he became a restricted free agent.
As for Powell, signing now gives him a lifetime of security on a solid offer with an opt-out before the 2021-22 season, allowing him to be a free agent coming off what should be three productive seasons on a competitive team.
And Powell’s success will be the Raptors success. Franchise president Ujiri has made player development a huge part of his mandate. He fast-forwarded the G-League Raptors 905 for the benefit of first-round flier Bruno Caboclo and it was playing for the 905 where Powell first began to shine. Before leaving Denver for Toronto, Ujiri insisted the Raptors build a state-of-the-art practice facility. And there is arguably no player who has taken better advantage of his 24-hour access to the BioSteel Centre than Powell.
The NBA salary cap is ever more restrictive, making building a team through free agency increasingly difficult. Similarly, the league has just announced tweaks to the draft lottery process, making tanking for high-end lottery picks an even more uncertain process.
Combined, the message is clear: never has it been more important for teams to draft good players, regardless of where they are picking, and then invest in their development to the point they exceed expectations.
Norm Powell is proof that the Raptors got the memo.