1-on-1 with Raptors’ Powell: On Kobe, Wade, NBA rivals, Summer League & more

Toronto Raptors' Norman Powell. (Frank Gunn/CP)

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. In part one of our interview, Powell breaks down some of the biggest moments of his rookie year and talked about which Raptor veterans helped him the most.

Here in part two, he talks about his influences, guarding Dwyane Wade in the playoffs, his already-long list of NBA rivals (or “victims”, as he calls them), and much more.

Sportsnet: What was your relationship like with Coach Casey last season? He’s a guy who commands respect, but, until last year at least, had earned a reputation as not wanting to play rookies and whatnot.

Norm Powell:Our relationship was really good. I remember in Vancouver, when we went up there to work out and stuff after the draft and before Summer League, he came up and was talking to me a lot about my game— how much he liked my grit, my focus on defense, my tenacity and aggressiveness.

He also really talked to me about my shot and how to fix it. He was the first one that told me I probably shouldn’t jump as high on my three-ball, that I have nice form but I tend to jump too high and shoot it on the way down, which was causing my shot to be flat. He told me to really work on that, and that’s one of the biggest keys for me last summer, to really work on changing that aspect of my shot.

In the playoffs, that Indiana series where you played a major role wrapped up and there were big expectations for you from not only the fan base and people like myself, but I’m sure internally on the team as well. Then the Miami series gets underway and your role changes completely, back to that of a typical rookie. What happened there, and how much of it had to do with matching up against a savvy veteran like Dwyane Wade?

Personally, I think it ultimately came down to match-ups. We needed to get a bigger body on Joe Johnson. It helped getting a more experienced player covering D-Wade because your right he is very crafty. In the first game of the series I was a starter and he got me into two quick fouls.

Did he say anything to you?

Not then, no. After the series he just told me, “Way to get after it, keep working.” Typical stuff. I didn’t get a chance to tell him he was my favourite player and how much I modeled my game after him.

But, yeah, in that Miami series it was really about matchups— trying to get bigger bodies on guys, to slow down what they were doing. That’s what happens. In the moment it can be frustrating, I was thinking to myself “You should be out there playing. You can help,” yet your thrown onto the end of the bench. But it didn’t change my demeanor or anything like that, I was really happy for my teammates who got their opportunity to play. But in the playoffs it’s all about matchups and trying to find that edge. That’s what happened in that Miami series. Now being on the outside looking in you understand it’s all part of learning.

Looking back on it, some of those lineups Miami was putting out there, especially once Hassan Whiteside went down… it can be hard to anticipate that and game plan for it.

Yeah, exactly.

Did you come out of your rookie season with any real rivals? Guys from other teams, maybe people from your draft class?

Honestly, everybody that puts on a different jersey than me is my rival. I don’t know if I can pick out just one player. I’m out to prove to everybody who said that I wouldn’t make it, everybody that passed on me at the draft, every team that didn’t give me that opportunity, I’m going to show them that they made a mistake. So anybody I’m playing against, you’re my rival. I don’t care if it’s Kevin Durant, LeBron James, guys in my draft class, anyone. I have a huge chip on my shoulder so everyone’s a victim for me when I step on the court, that’s my approach. I’m attacking everybody.

Where do you think you got that mindset?

It was something that was just embodied in me, I guess. It comes from my family, I think. My uncle is the reason I started playing basketball and his mentality has always rubbed off on me, you know, being the underdog and whatnot. He has his own business and when he started that up people didn’t believe in him to be successful with it. I watched him work through everything, and my mom is the same way. That’s really where it all started.

And then I picked things up from watching my favourite players. Seeing the way Kobe was playing—he’d put on that Mamba face and you just know everybody’s in trouble [laughs]. Dwyane Wade, Russell [Westbrook], are the same way, attacking everybody. I love that. I wanted that for myself. Their mentalities really rubbed off on me and I embodied that killer instinct. That’s me when I step onto the court.

Well, it’s served you well and will continue. You know better than I do that there are so many talented guys who lack that mindset and are, for lack of a better word, soft, and it hurts them in the long run.

Looking ahead to the summer, what are the things you and the coaching staff have pinpointed as the biggest areas of your game to focus on this off-season?

Shooting, obviously. I’m really working on becoming an elite shooter— and not just in catch-and-shoot situations. I’m doing a lot of drills on pull-ups from three, coming off of pin-downs, mid-pick-and-roll ball-handling. And I’m really studying the game, becoming engrossed in basketball, watching videos, learning, picking up tricks and getting tips from the vets, increasing my IQ and decision-making and reads.

The other thing is my leadership. That’s one thing Masai told me he really wanted me to work on, to be a leader at Summer League. They’re not looking for me to put up 30 points a game, because they know I’m capable of that. It’s more about doing the other things—making plays for other and making my teammates better, because that’s one thing that’s going to be happening for me next season. Being able to attack the rim going downhill I’m going to need to be able to make reads and drop off passes to JV rolling, or T-Ross in the corner for three, the type of plays that get other people involved. That’s the biggest thing everyone wants to see working to develop this summer.

And then there are little things I want to work on for myself—my post-game and basic, simple stuff like that. I don’t need to overhaul things, or change my shot again. Now it’s about enhancing and improving everything. I gotta work on everything. If I notice I have a weakness in something I have to make it a strength. I guess that makes me a perfectionist.

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