QUEBEC CITY – By reasonable standards, Norman Powell’s NBA career to date has been an unqualified success.
He’s rewarded the Toronto Raptors for investing in him as the 46th pick of the 2015 draft with four seasons of serviceable play (spiced with some timely and spectacular performances in the playoffs) and the Raptors rewarded him with a four-year, $42-million contract prior to the 2017-18 season.
It’s been a good relationship.
But there’s nothing wrong with each side wanting a little more from the other. Powell has seen the other young Raptors he broke in with reach new and unexpected heights. Fred VanVleet is a stalwart; Pascal Siakam a budding all-star.
Powell wants to make the transition from someone who everyone hopes has more to give, to a player that – in his fifth NBA season – delivers more often than not.
He came into the Raptors training camp with high goals.
“Starting at the two spot, trying to put in the coach’s head that I should be a starter, separate myself from everybody else who sees the opportunity in front of them,” he said on Tuesday.
“Come out here and compete, help the young guys. I’ve been here for five years, I know what the coaches want, I know where we’re trying to get to … [but] definitely separate myself and become the starting two guard.”
Powell has been an NBA starter before. He was pressed into service there as a rookie by former Raptors head coach Dwane Casey when James Johnson was injured. In 2017-18, Powell was the starter out of training camp until he was injured and the Raptors decided to stick with rookie OG Anunoby. When Toronto acquired Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard prior to the 2018-19 season, any hope or expectation that Powell would start was shelved. But now Green and Leonard are gone and Toronto needs someone to step up.
With that in mind, Powell undertook some professional development this past summer as he was among 20 younger NBA players who attended a two-day camp hosted by former Lakers legend Kobe Bryant (Anunoby and newly acquired Stanley Thomas were also included). An invited Powell was able to wrangle thanks to former Raptors assistant and off-season workout guru, Phil Handy.
Beyond a three-point shot stroke that can run cold a little too often, Powell’s main obstacle to reaching the potential his drive and athleticism indicates is a tendency to force ‘plan A’ when ‘plan B’ might be an easier; he makes his mind up and attacks, even as circumstances dictate otherwise.
So who better to study with than Bryant, whose ability to dissect a defence and react accordingly is part of his Hall of Fame legend?
“I learned a lot just talking to him personally. His mentality, his approach,” said Powell, who grew up a Bryant fan and has often cited him as a role model for his relentless work ethic and preparation.
“Just the level of detail and how he approaches things and what he sees. Him sitting there and watching us go through drills and then stopping us and saying, ‘That ain’t going to work.’ Then really breaking it down to the smallest detail. I would be like ‘I thought that was good’ and he would say ‘Nah, that ain’t going to work. I’m reading this, that and the other.’ I’m like ‘All right. I see where people think he is insane in the way he thinks but he’s really like that. It was amazing to see that high level of thinking.”
Powell has the tools. He’s six-foot-four with tremendous reach, massive hands and the ability to explode given the slightest sliver of space. He can be a plus defender and has shown for reasonably significant stretches the ability to score from beyond the three-point line – in both his rookie season and last season he shot better than 40 per cent from deep. The seasons in between he was just 30.4 per cent – illustrating how with Powell it’s a case of which player is going to show up.
As the Raptors shifted to a more read-and-react offensive scheme under head coach Nick Nurse, Powell has struggled at times, but then again, do the Raptors beat the Milwaukee Bucks if Powell doesn’t come off the bench in Games 3 and 4 and deliver 37 points almost out of nowhere?
Powell’s also got some seniority now and says he’s comfortable taking more of a leadership role in a camp with 10 new faces.
“I’ve been very vocal in every drill, I talk to my team. If I see something letting the young guys know different things, defensively of what they pick up, the little details of we’re trying to do, what our foundation is on defence and having the next action mentality in the flow of the offence, getting off ball, cutting, moving, finding space on the floor so the offence flows more,” said Powell. “[I’ve] definitely been more vocal. In the previous years it’s been my work ethic, setting an example that way but now definitely using my voice more to get the team together.
Powell is growing as a player and has always shown enough to make you believe there is more.
Certainly Nurse would love it if Powell would give him some of the defence Green provided last season. And while Powell is unlikely to replace Green’s 45.5 per cent shooting from deep, his ability to attack the rim and create off the dribble combined with his passable catch-and-shoot skills could give Toronto an added dimension to help make up for the bucket-getting they lost with Leonard’s departure.
It’s only been three days of training camp, but so far, so good.
“[Powell’s been] really unbelievable,” said Nurse. “He’s got a lot of pop, is knocking down everything in sight.
“But in saying that the biggest thing I’ve seen from him is he’s got himself much better on one of the things we’re focusing on – he’s doing well when he’s taking it into traffic.
“You know, we’re trying to teach him that when he’s drawn two [defenders] his job is done. It’s not his job to try to rustle it up to the rim between two and three guys and he’s getting there on that and that’s been a big, big plus for us.”
One might think that studying with Bryant – known to attack the odd double and triple team in his day – might not be the key for Powell to unlock his playmaking abilities (“I’m not sure there was a lot of passing at that camp,” joked Nurse) but the head coach applauded Powell’s willingness to keep looking to grow his game.
“It’s not any different than me going to talk to [former Lakers and Bulls head coach] Phil Jackson and [MLB manager] Joe Maddon,” said Nurse. “You go talk to somebody that’s done it at a super, super high level you get out on the floor with them. For me, you’re pretty much in awe of them, you’re going to pretty much listen to everything they tell you and I think it’s only good.
“You’re going to come out of there with something. You’re going to come out there with several things, maybe a few nuggets you can use and so it can only be a plus.”