Who is Norman Powell?
He’s a California kid who loves the beach. He’s a university graduate. He’s a soft-spoken introvert. He’s a fashionista. He’s a fierce competitor who loves hard work. He was the most interesting man I came across at the Las Vegas NBA summer league last month.
On the court, his energy and enthusiasm might make him the most important draft pick in Masai Ujiri’s tenure with the Toronto Raptors. It’s that very versatility that will give him an immediate chance to not only fit in with an already tight locker room but contribute on the floor right away.
The Raptors drafted Powell with the second-round pick acquired from the Milwaukee Bucks in exchange for point guard Greivis Vasquez. When the draft night trade was made it was seen as a win for the Raptors because of $6.6 million in cap relief moving Vasquez would provide, as well as the 2017 first-round pick that was included in the package. However, the throw-in, Norman Powell, the hyper-active guard out of UCLA, has already turned heads.
In the stands at the Thomas and Mack Center I heard Raptors fans trying to assimilate who is who. “Isn’t No. 4 our new first-round pick?” a man asked his teenage son. “No, dad. That’s Delon Wright.” Are you sure?” Dad reiterated. “Yes,” the teen barked back, “Google it if you don’t believe me.” It is no disrespect to Wright that Powell looked as if he was the first-round pick in black and red. Suffice it to say, those two weren’t the only ones typing “Norman Powell” into a search bar.
He’s quickly won new fans — those in the stands, execs around the league, and his teammates — as he’s won points internally for giving up his collegiate jersey No. 4 to incoming free agent Luis Scola, and will now don No. 24 like previous fan favourite Morris Peterson.
DeMar DeRozan has been an early mentor, even though they went to rival schools. Of the crosstown rivalry being a cross-locker room issue, Powell laughs off his known upcoming misfortune. “I think he might get me with rookie duties and things of the nature,” Powell acknowledges before adding “I’ll be sure to tell him that I didn’t lose to USC during my time at UCLA”.
The thing both players have in common is their tough-guy attitude and no-nonsense approach to honing their craft.
With raised eyebrows that suggested astonishment Powell said of his time with DeRozan that, “working out with him and going against him in Compton showed me his grind and will to get better, which is something I respect. That’s something that’s just going to make me better — being able to guard players like him, players like Kyle Lowry, every day and see how they get their points.”
The respect is mutual. “I love his intensity,” says DeRozan. “He’s willing to work. He’s willing to listen and he won’t back down. Reminds me of me when I came in. He’s got that mentality you need in this league to be successful.” You can tell DeRozan is invested in Powell’s success. There is a California brotherhood that is shown in DeRozan’s close relationship with James Harden, Damian Lillard, and his former teammate Amir Johnson. Powell is on his way to becoming the newest member of the clique.
Yet although Powell watched DeRozan’s highlight tapes as a youngster, he’s had another California guard looking out for him for a while, Russell Westbrook. The former UCLA star has taken Powell under his wing and counselled him on everything from navigating college as a student athlete to his impending transition to the NBA. In turn, Powell has modelled his game after Westbrook, massive chip on the shoulder and all.
It’s only fitting that 45 players surpassed him on draft night, making that chip even bigger. You can see that frustration play out when he’s on the court as his level of hustle and will is palpable. It is a trait evaluators often overlook because you can’t place a numerical value to it but it is a skill nonetheless. Fact is, not every player plays with that level of passion.
Westbrook has made it his calling card, and although Powell copies everything from Westbrook’s gun-in-holster three-point celebration to his exuberant screams after dunks, his game actually resembles Dwyane Wade’s. Westbrook only knows one speed as he Sonic the Hedgehogs his way up and down the floor. Although Powell is equally a Tasmanian devil on defence, offensively his game is more about using his athleticism to change speeds and catch defenders off guard with quick bursts. Like Wade, he’s more of a rhythm pull-up shooter than a catch and shoot threat and utilizes his floater in the lane when opposing guards are giving him space because of his blow-by potential.
His offence was perceived to be a weakness throughout the draft process as he never shot over 35 per cent from three-point range as a Bruin. Yet that’s the side of the floor that has turned the most heads so far. In Vegas he managed to average 18 points on 51 per cent shooting in 25 minutes of work per game.
Standing at 6-foot-4, Powell is slightly undersized to play the off guard spot in the NBA which is partially why he fell in the draft. Yet more important are his 6-foot-11 wingspan and 40 ½ vertical.
His reach and vertical help him to get to the rim quickly, which is why Powell had more points in transition last year than any other draft-eligible NCAA player. On the Raptors he’ll be primarily asked to D up, create turnovers, and translate those into instant offence. It is the role he thrived in as junior in college, as he shot 53.3 per cent from the floor playing along big scorers like Zach LaVine and Kyle Anderson.
At Summer League Powell was drawing lofty comparisons to Kawhi Leonard, Draymond Green, and Jimmy Butler — guys who are now max-level players yet, like Powell, were slept on in their respective draft years. You have to wonder if Powell might not have been drafted higher in a re-draft already. He was the only rookie on the All-Summer League First Team in a tournament where six of the top seven rookies drafted in June suited up.
The pain from draft night is in his rearview but when he talks about it it’s clear the experience cut deep.
But his coach, Dwane Casey, likes how that pain is manifested. “Listen we need guys who get pissed off,” says Casey. “I like him because he’s smart. I can use him as a teaching example on the defensive end but I really like him because he has that edge that makes a team’s energy rise.”
If Powell has his way his pain and defence will manifest into him rising up for blocks and lob dunks proving that he’s better than the 46th best player in the draft. A lot better.