TORONTO – Going through a drill to get some shots up at one of the many hoops to be found at OVO Athletic Centre after practice Thursday, Norman Powell looked focus.
Launching threes from the left wing, Powell drilled three straight while catching the ball in rhythm. But when he switched to shooting off the dribble he finally missed and with it came an anguished "ahhh," a familiar sound to anyone who’s been so convinced their shot was going to land only to see it rim out.
Regardless of the miss and show of frustration, it still had to feel good for Powell just to let the jumper fly.
Thursday marked the first time Powell was able to get into a full practice since fracturing the fourth metacarpal of his left hand, which has kept him out of action for all of February.
And now, nearly a full month since getting hurt, Powell could be back in the lineup as early as Friday’s matchup with the Charlotte Hornets at Scotabank Arena.
"Norm was practicing today, cleared to practice," said Raptors coach Nick Nurse. "Still be on the questionable list for tomorrow, but you can say there’s a chance."
Judging by Nurse’s tone, though he’s not closing the door on Powell returning Friday, it seems more feasible he returns during the upcoming west coast trip.
Nevertheless, for Powell to be back practicing now and close to a return, is rather fortuitous for the Raptors.
In the nine games Powell’s been out for, Toronto has gone 7-2, facing mostly weak competition in the span – and three matchups with the Indiana Pacers, of course. But the schedule will take a steeper turn here in the final quarter before the playoffs, with two more encounters with the Milwaukee Bucks, the two annual matchups with the Denver Nuggets and games with the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers highlighting the pack.
Getting Powell back will be a major boon in time for those contests.
Powell’s been enjoying the best, most consistent season of his NBA career thus far, averaging 15.3 points per game on spectacular 49.8 per cent shooting from the field and 40.1 per cent from three-point range.
In particular, Powell’s return will provide an immediate offensive boost to Toronto’s bench. Powell leads the Raptors with a 13.7 scoring average off the bench and will figure to give a reserve unit a major lift with rookie Terence Davis the only guy from that group who’s proven to be a somewhat reliable scoring threat.
This is the second extended bit of time Powell’s missed this season. He first missed 11 games in mid-December running into January with a shoulder injury, and it’s looking like this finger injury is keeping him out of a similar number of games. This bad injury luck has marred what has been a stellar season for Powell, but instead of moping about it, he’s tried to find positives in it all.
"Honestly, I haven’t really looked at the injuries and these setbacks as something negative," said Powell. "I see it as just an opportunity to get better in other ways. I think that just comes with the growth of my mental approach to the season and my play – through good games and bad games, whatever it is – just staying even-keeled and focused on what I’m trying to achieve and what the team is trying to achieve and not getting outside of that."
This was a similar approach Powell’s teammate Matt Thomas took when he was sidelined for about six weeks with a finger injury of his own earlier this season and it’s come with it positive results.
"I couldn’t do a ton on the court with the ball, sort of like what Norm has been doing too – just stuff with your right hand," said Thomas. "So I took it as an opportunity to try to improve on [the defensive] end of the floor."
Thomas now has strung together a couple of pretty good outings starting with a 17-point performance against the Pacers as part of that 46-point blowout and then a nine-point showing against the Bucks with all of his damage coming in what was a memorable second quarter.
These are baby steps for the 25-year-old undrafted rookie, but important nonetheless for a player who’s still trying to carve out a role for himself.
"I said it when I first got here – I’m open to anything. I’m just here to help this team win," Thomas said. "Whether I’m on the bench supporting and waving a towel and cheering guys on, or I’m on the court competing, and trying to knock down shots and defend. Whatever my role is that day, I’ll make sure I’m ready to contribute."
Nurse was a little more effusive of Thomas’ role than Thomas himself, praising him for his preparedness, a sign that even when Powell returns there should still be minutes in there for Thomas more consistently than he was getting before.
"Shot prep’s pretty good. Other side of the ball, don’t really notice him being a big problem," said Nurse of Thomas. "He plays great team defence, he plays hard, he’s not afraid to go up and challenge and pressure the ball and that’s what we’ve wanted him to do so he’s been good. They try to go at him a bit and I haven’t really noticed it being a big problem."
Before figuring out the Thomas situation, however, it’s still more important for Nurse and the Raptors to get the Powell situation sorted out first – and Marc Gasol, whom Nurse said was doing "some light stuff at the beginning of practice" Thursday but still remains out.
Powell, when he’s on, is arguably the Raptors’ most potent offensive weapon. A microwave-like asset that can heat up at a moment’s notice and bury teams in the blink of an eye when he does.
That’s a pretty big piece of the Raptors puzzle that’s been missing for too long.