TORONTO — Three years ago, Norman Powell introduced himself to the greater basketball world as a rookie with an all-time Toronto Raptors dunk against the Indiana Pacers that saw him intercept a pass meant for Paul George, go the length of the court by himself and launch himself just inside the free-throw line for a slam that tied a pivotal Game 5 in the first round of the playoffs.
An unknown second-round pick Powell was no more.
Nearly an exact year after that memorable play, Playoff Powell struck again, this time against the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 5 of Toronto’s opening-round playoff series in 2017 that saw him finish with a 25-point burst that once again showed flashes that he could be so much more than his 46th-overall draft selection might indicate.
At the very least, Raptors president Masai Ujiri was a believer as he inked Powell to a four-year, $42-million contract extension just before the start of the 2017-18 season based mostly on the idea of the potential Powell seemed to possess in key moments.
The extension wasn’t due to kick in until the 2018-19 campaign, making 2017-18 a potentially big year for Powell to build some momentum. But when offered the keys to the car, Powell had difficulty getting out of neutral as he struggled starting the first 12 games of that season, shooting just 40.9 per cent from the field before being sidelined with a hip pointer for four games where he lost his starting job and went into a tailspin he never recovered from.
It was a missed opportunity for Powell to really firmly establish himself as something beyond just an energy guy off the bench that he failed to capitalize on again this past season as a shoulder injury kept him out of 22 games, a frustration that was exacerbated because now Powell was getting paid about $10.5 million a year.
The “bust” and “bad contract” buzz hounding Powell has never hummed louder.
As such, this forthcoming season is setting up to be Powell’s most important yet.
It’s been said you never get a second chance to make a first impression, but that’s exactly what it feels like for Powell heading into the 2019-20 campaign.
Kawhi Leonard is no longer around with a veteran trio of Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka all on expiring contracts, making each of them possible trade bait. Additionally, this Raptors club has added a ton of new faces who appear to be either looking for a fresh start somewhere new or might just be reclamation projects that Toronto has shown a penchant for taking on in the past — i.e. Lowry.
These factors combined could leave the Raptors devoid of leadership next season, a hole Powell could fill.
“I’ve always been a leader as part of this team,” Powell said Friday after featuring as a guest at a Raptors Basketball Academy camp. “I think earlier in my career I was the leader of the young group and everybody got that opportunity to show what they can do.”
Though still only 26, Powell is the second-longest-tenured Raptor on the team, having spent the last four seasons in Toronto, experience that could give his words extra weight.
As well, without Leonard and Danny Green blocking him on the depth chart, Powell’s also in line to play a lot more this season than he has in the past.
“I see this opportunity in front of me and I’m doing everything I can to prepare myself both mentally and physically for this upcoming season so that I can prove to the coaches and prove to the organization that I belong in a bigger role,” Powell said. “There’s a lot of opportunity out there for everybody. Not just myself, but everybody who wants to take that next step in their career. Everybody’s really excited, everybody’s really pumped up, everybody’s working towards that.”
This is what we mean when saying Powell has another shot at making a first impression. Just like the anticipation for Powell heading into the 2017-18 campaign after he signed his extension, there’s much the same mood around Powell heading into 2019-20 now because he will once again be thrust into a key role, but unlike before where there was still star power to make up for his lack of production at the wing with players like Leonard and DeMar DeRozan, the Raptors may not have any choice but to ride with Powell, regardless.
And it isn’t just Powell, either, it’ll be the entire team. Without Leonard, the Raptors, in general, are lacking in star power with Lowry getting up in age and the relative newness of Pascal Siakam’s emergence as a possible star player. Therefore, like Raptors days of old, next season’s group is going to have to be a scrappy one to prove the doubters wrong.
“I feel like every year we’re disrespected. Every year they say we’re not going to do that well and then we overachieve in their eyes,” said Powell. “But we’ve got dogs on this team. Guys who have a lot to prove, guys who want to go out there and further their careers, guys who really want to get after it. And I think that shows that when the opportunity presents itself, guys are able to step up in bigger roles during different parts of the season depending on whatever the situation — injuries, load management, rest — guys are able to go out there and show what they can do.”
Last season, Toronto was an excellent 17-5 with Leonard out of the lineup, mostly for his load management program. As Powell alluded to, this gives him optimism and should do the same for the Raptors as a whole as well.
It’s a big reason why he isn’t stressing too much over Leonard’s decision to leave Toronto after just winning a championship with the organization.
“It’s a business and I’ve been around this league long enough to know that guys are gonna make decisions that are best for them and their families,” said Powell of his reaction to Leonard’s free-agency decision. “Sometimes people forget that and in this league guys are gonna do that. It’s a business and we’re very grateful and thankful for the season that we had with Kawhi and Danny and we wish them the best in their careers, but it happens. Nobody takes it personally.”
Powell, especially, shouldn’t be hung up over Leonard and Green’s departures because it’s re-opened a lane for him that was trending towards being permanently closed off.
Next season looks like it’s now or never for Powell to finally prove himself worth the investment the Raptors made in him. The opportunity is ripe for the picking and this is likely his last chance to make good on it because with the way his contract is structured, with a player option for the 2021-22 season, chances are the Raptors might be looking to move on from him before he can get a chance to exercise it.
Not that Powell needs much more motivation. He knows the task that’s in front of him.
“I look at myself as a leader who leads by example with my work ethic and what I do in the gym — being in there early, staying in there late — but I’m definitely looking forward to being more vocal on the court, off the court.”