It’s safe to say that not many people expected a whole lot from Norm Powell during his rookie season in the NBA. Except, of course, for Norm Powell. In the span of eight months, the 23 year-old UCLA alumnus went from a second-round pick and D-Leaguer to a reliable NBA starter and playoff hero, whose signature moment vs. the Indiana Pacers in the first round is already one of the most iconic in Raptors franchise history.
Ahead of a busy summer that’ll see him train with Toronto’s coaching staff two weeks out of every month and once again suit up for the Raptors at the NBA’s Summer League, I caught up with Powell to look back on a wild rookie year and get a glimpse of what the future has in store:
Sportsnet: Now that the season has drawn to a close and have you had some time to look back on what you guys accomplished this season, particularly in the playoffs?
Norm Powell: That whole run was something I’ve never been a part of. Being a rookie in the NBA for the first time and making such a deep push and getting to be a part of it, getting minutes in the playoffs in the first round was special. I look back on it now and I almost can’t believe it. But now I want more. Once you get a little bit of it you’re addicted.
Realistically, what were your expectations heading into your rookie year? Did you make a goal to start X amount of games? What was your approach?
Going into my rookie year my expectations were to do what I ultimately did. I’ve always had high expectations for myself, even though a lot of people didn’t. I hold myself to a high standard. I was coming [into the NBA] to work and prove myself, and get minutes somehow someway. I wanted to show that not just that I could play at this level, but that I could play here at a high level.
I carry a chip on my shoulder. I see myself being a dominant player here, so my goal was to try to find a way to show people that I have that kind of potential.
There were a lot of veterans on the Raptors this past season, but was there a particular player who helped you out the most, took you under his wing? I know James Johnson’s name has come up a lot when I’ve spoken with some of the other guys like Bebe and Bruno.
Yeah, that’s exactly it: James Johnson. He was the first vet I interacted with in Summer League, before we had our team meeting he was there. We were playing a closed scrimmage against the NBA D-League team and I made a play, a fastbreak layup, and got fouled. He pulled me aside and told me “Hey, you’ve got to dunk that.” After the game we talked for awhile. He was the first person on the team to talk to me and he was always around as someone I could get advice from.
I remember when you were playing a game with the 905 at the Air Canada Centre. The Raptors were scrimmaging on the practice court, and as soon as they were done James went straight to the 905 bench and stayed there during the game— I think he was the only guy on the Raps to do that.
Totally. He’s just one of those guys who really helps the young guys. He’s been through a lot. He knows, he’s learned. He wants to see us thrive and not go through the some of the things he’s had to. Just really positive and a great teammate.
Were there any changes you had to make mentally, or to your day-to-day routine, once you went from not playing to seeing regular minutes?
Not really. I had been through it already during my first two years at college. You know, waiting your turn and not knowing when you’ll play, always proving yourself trying to get minutes. It was tough to deal with. I felt I was ready but wasn’t getting the opportunity.
So this season my mentality was just to stay ready, knowing my time was going to come. I talked a lot with Jerry Stackhouse, he was another guy who was a huge mentor for me, and he’d say, “It’s a long season, everyone will get a chance to prove themselves. Somebody will get hurt, so stay locked-in and mentally in-tune as if you’re going to go out and play 40 minutes a night.” And that was me. I was in the gym early every day, I was there late at night, after practices getting shots up. Whatever it took to get ready for when I was thrown in there.
Clearly that paid off by the time the playoffs rolled around, and the steal and fast-break dunk vs. the Pacers provided your signature NBA moment so far. What was going through your head in that moment?
“Come up with something big.” We had a lot of energy on our side: Bismack came down and got a dunk, then Cory hit a three and T-Ross hit a corner three. But we were all focused on defense. I remember how during timeouts nobody said a word about the offensive end. Through that entire fourth quarter all we talked about was getting stops, bringing that energy and sparking the comeback that way. When I was on the court all I was thinking was “make an impact defensively.”
I was picking Paul George up before he even crossed halfcourt, bumping into him trying to irritate him, get him frustrated. I remember holding his jersey coming down for a pin-down and I saw to my left that Monta Ellis was making a routine lazy pass. I knew it was my chance to go for it, stuck my hand out into the passing lane, and got the ball.
After that I’m thinking, “What am I going to do with it? Should I do something flashy? Windmill?” I wanted to throw it down and bring the crowd up. I kind of overthought it a little bit and the ball slipped out. All that went through my head then was “C’mon, you can’t miss this.”
Did you go home with the game ball? Get a call from the Prime Minister?
Social media really blew up. My mom and sister do a great job of keeping up my social media— I tend to stay away from that stuff— but I kept seeing so many different memes, it was crazy, the amount of edits and pictures my friends and family were sending me right after that game. I didn’t get the game ball or anything like that, a little congratulation from my vets and coach Casey. Nobody really dwelled on it. We had to get that win, so it was on to the next one.
Check back tomorrow for part two, in which Powell talks about his relationship with Dwane Casey, why he was benched during the Miami series, his already-long list of NBA rivals, and how he’s re-tooling his game to make an even bigger impact for the Raptors next season.