How Raptors rookie Powell went from next man up to key contributor

Raptors rookie Norman Powell has been assigned to guard Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Kyle Korver in recent games.

Jonas Valanciunas was going through his normal routine, trying out a series of moves with his back to the basket, when rookie Norman Powell inserted himself into the starting centre’s post-practice workout on Tuesday.

Powell, who has started 11 of the team’s 14 games in March after starting just four before the month, barged in like a veteran, demanded the ball from an assistant coach, and then decided to take Valanciunas into his torture chamber, such as it is.

“JV,” Powell said, “I’m a problem in the post.”

“You’re a problem in life,” countered Valanciunas, and not in the positive way that Powell intended, the easy camaraderie of two teammates who have gotten to know each other well on clear display.

Nobody expected Powell, as a second-round pick, to get as much of a chance with the Raptors as he has received this season. Due to DeMarre Carroll’s knee injury, James Johnson’s unreliability and Terrence Ross’s recent thumb ailment, Powell has now played more minutes with the Raptors (447) than with Raptors 905 (317). He has averaged 15.3 points and shooting 47 per cent on 19 three-point attempts over the last three games, a nice bonus for a player whose main utility is on the defensive end.

For fellow rookie Delon Wright, however, the same NBA opportunity hasn't arrived yet. The 20th pick in the NBA Draft, Wright has played 122 mostly low-leverage minutes with Raptors, and 536 with Raptors 905. The two point guards ahead of him on the roster, Cory Joseph and Kyle Lowry, have missed one and two games, respectively. So, Wright is left to watch two experienced players ahead of him, get most of his minutes in the D-League and live vicariously through Powell.

“I see him working hard. It’s paying off for him,” Wright said on Tuesday. “It motivates me to continue to work hard.”

“I do believe it’s better to be in a winning situation and learn than it is to be making a ton of mistakes and playing a ton of minutes and losing every game in a rebuild situation,” Raptors 905 coach Jesse Mermuys said late last week of Wright. “When his time comes—and it will come— he’s going to have some really valuable experience and knowledge.”

The Raptors’ two freshmen are having decidedly different seasons. Powell is getting some shine and his share of prime defensive assignments — Kyle Korver, James Harden and Russell Westbrook come to mind. Powell called Korver a special challenge, since he came into the NBA known for his on-ball defence. Chasing a gunner around screens is new, and he will do so again with Korver on Wednesday evening as the Atlanta Hawks visit the Air Canada Centre.

Not every night has been successful, as Powell was yet another victim of his mentor Westbrook’s league-wide triple-double rampage on Monday. It is definitely a trial-by-fire type of immersion. It is not to the degree that the top picks of the draft usually deal with, but it is more than the scraps that most rookies outside of the lottery typically get.

Powell’s decisiveness offensively has been particularly impressive. His percentages are still rising after a rough start to the year, but the biggest difference between him and Johnson, who had been Carroll’s primary replacement in the starting unit for most of 2016, is how quickly he operates when the ball comes to him. With Johnson, there is far more surveying of the court, something the Raptors do not necessarily need given how often Lowry and DeMar DeRozan already hold the ball.

Frankly, this was not part of his early-season D-League training. With Raptors 905, Powell was essentially a DeRozan clone, operating as a second point guard on the floor, counted on to make plays for himself and others. With the Raptors, it is catch and shoot, catch and drive or catch and pass.

“All he saw was the rim, no matter how many bodies were there,” Mermuys said of Powell’s early-season attacking mindset. “We really wanted to try to develop when he got to the paint and got to the rim and there was a crowd, (that he would be) able to make the right play and the simple play, which he dramatically improved in his time. The more time he played and worked at it, it was a pretty rapid improvement, which was a huge sign for him. His ability to improve at that rate is why he is in the position he’s in now.”

“I know what my role is (with the Raptors)," Powell added. "I’ve just got to be ready to hit open shots and see my opportunities to score in transition when I get rebounds and push the ball. It’s a totally different game. I think the 905 is helping me be a facilitator. It’s totally different. But I think it’s helping my development for the future.”

Wright’s first professional season has almost been the opposite. He has not played much with the Raptors— that will probably change down the stretch, especially with Lowry battling an elbow injury — but he has been prepared for his most likely NBA role down in the D-League.

Whenever Wright does get an extended chance with the Raptors, he will likely be backing up either Lowry or Joseph. In many cases, he will be expected to initiate the offence. He will not merely be reading and reacting like Powell is in Toronto now.

“I thought we really focused on his pace,” Mermuys said of Wright. “He plays at a lead guard pace, and it’s very methodical. He got much better at a hectic pace, a more uptempo pace, pushing the basketball right from the start of the game and playing more like a backup point guard and a change-of-pace guy right from the beginning. We wanted him to play like a backup even though he was starting in the D-League.”

Wright has averaged 17.7 points and 6.5 assists per game, with 2.7 turnovers, low considering the pace Mermuys has been emphasizing.

Quietly, the inaugural season of Raptors 905 will end on Friday night, at home against Canton. Powell certainly will not be in uniform, as he is needed with the Raptors. Given Lowry’s uncertain status, Wright probably won’t be there, either. Despite missing the playoffs, Mermuys called the season a success, given how Powell and Lucas Nogueira were able to step in with the Raptors to provide meaningful minutes.

At some point, either in the next few weeks or next season, we will get to see what it meant to Wright, too.