SAN FRANCISCO — In the days after the tragic helicopter crash that claimed the lives of Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others, Norman Powell thought long and hard about giving up his No. 24 to pay tribute to his basketball idol.
It was an emotional time. Growing up in San Diego, Powell had chosen 24 out of respect for the Los Angeles Lakers great. Just this past summer, Powell had spent time with Bryant and a select group of NBA players at Bryant’s Mamba Academy, where the Lakers legend lent his expertise and insight.
Powell took notes and soaked it all in. It was a relationship that was just beginning to develop and then in an instant Bryant was gone.
Powell wanted to make a gesture.
“Honestly, I think when it first happened your emotions are running high and it’s like ‘yeah, yeah, I wanna do something,’” he said Thursday night during a quiet moment after putting up a career-high 37 points in a Toronto Raptors win over the Golden State Warriors.
“But taking the time to actually think and talk to a couple of people who were close to him, [about] what Kobe means to me. I think it’s more of an honour to continue wearing that now, continue to go out there and play with that mentality that he played with, laying it on the line and trying to be a winner. I pride myself on that.”
Powell’s not lacking for confidence, but the implication isn’t that he’s magically playing at the level of one of the NBA’s all-time greats. Bryant’s recognized for his brilliance, but it was his unfailing commitment to doing the work that was his secret sauce.
And Powell is no stranger to working hard, either. But it is only now — in his fifth season — that he has projected the mental steadfastness of Bryant’s every day, every game approach. The outcome is him playing his best basketball on a more consistent basis than ever before in his career.
“I just think the biggest thing is not being bothered by anything,” Powell said. “Being really locked in and focused on the task at hand and the end-goal, and doing what it takes to get there and not being too worried about anything outside of that.
“It’s always the next play, what has to happen next, what do you have to do next. Whatever happened before, you can’t change it, you just continue to have that mindset: What do I have to do going forward?”
It’s working. Powell’s career-high scoring performance — which came on 13-of-20 shooting, with four threes on eight attempts and a perfect 7-of-7 from the line — was simply an exclamation point on a season that has been a marvel of consistency, broken up only by injury.
It makes you wonder if Powell should be getting consideration for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award a season after Pascal Siakam won it. The Raptors’ last twenty games could tip the balance.
Powell has nearly doubled his scoring average year-over-year — jumping from 8.6 points a game a year ago to 16.4 so far in 2019-20. All his other box score stats are heading for career-bests also, other than his three-point percentage which, at 39.5 per cent, is just off the 40-mark he shot last season but is being achieved with 5.3 attempts, compared with 2.8 last season.
Some of these gains are because Powell is playing a career-high 29 minutes a game, but his efficiency numbers have bloomed also.
Among players with at least 200 three-point attempts, Powell is fifth in True Shooting percentage at 62.9. He’s 15th in WinShares/48 minutes at .154, per Basketball-Reference, where the top-10 could be facsimile of the end-of-season MVP voting — with Giannis Antetokounmpo leading the way and Chris Paul rounding out the list.
Against the Warriors, Powell flashed his entire arsenal in a scorching second quarter when he scored 19 of the Raptors’ 30 points. He pulled up from three in transition, knocked them down coming off screens and put the ball on the floor and scored at the rim with both precision and power.
Later, he pushed the ball to his left-hand and pulled up for a one-legged running fadeaway on the left side of the basket — not the first time he pulled a ‘runner’ out of his ever-expanding bag of tricks recently.
“Honestly, it’s just playing,” he said of his hot streak. “… you’re not thinking, it’s not what’s going to happen next, you’re just in that moment. Just the flow. Just playing the game and taking what comes to you and that’s how I explain it.”
Powell has always been capable of big games, but they’re coming more often and the gaps between them are shrinking.
In a 20-game stretch before missing 11 with a shoulder injury, Powell scored in double figures in 16 of them, all while shooting 51.5 per cent from the floor and 42.3 per cent from three.
In the 11 games after returning to the lineup, he scored in double figures in nine of them, while shooting 50.7 per cent from the field and 42.6 per cent from three.
In the four games since missing nine with a fractured finger, he’s scored 22, 24, 26 and 37 points while shooting 53.5 per cent from the floor and 35.5 per cent from three.
Powell scored 20 points or more 16 times this season, or more than he had (12) in the previous four years combined.
“He’s becoming a scorer,” says Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “Most scorers can do, you know, if you got the three ball, you can drive it, you can pull up …geez, he hit one tonight that, holy smokes, along the left baseline [the runner referenced above], that was one of those classic ‘Norm! Nice shot.’ One of those deals.
“And that’s what scorers do, though, scorers will make tough shots because they’re feeling it… He’s got a lot of pop, a lot of bounce, when he gets off the ground he can hang in the air a little bit, move it around, both hands, drive it right and left. He’s been good, man.”
And perhaps more important, he’s almost never been ‘bad.’
“His maturity level, though,” says Nurse. “I just don’t see the mistakes or the turnovers or the lapses on D or whatever. He just is playing like so much more of a complete basketball player.”
When his idol died suddenly and tragically Powell wanted to do something to honour him. Instead of changing jersey numbers, Powell is proving game in, game out, day in day out that his mentor’s lessons have taken hold and will live on.
“I think that’s one thing that gravitated me to him when I was young, his mentality and how he just wants to win,” says Powell. “I think continuing to wear that number is to honour him by going out there and laying it on the line. It doesn’t matter the outcome, whatever it is, as long as you’re giving your all to something, you’re going out there to play your best, that’s all that matters.”
Number ‘24’ has never looked better on him.