Raptors’ Powell finds meaningful progress in meaningless win

Toronto Raptors head coach comments after a lopsided pre-season win over Melbourne United.

TORONTO — During Thursday’s practice, new Toronto Raptors star Kawhi Leonard fielded questions from the Toronto media actually in Toronto for just the second time since the stunning July deal that saw him head north.

Of the handful of topics that were volleyed Leonard’s way was if he was feeling any anticipation or extra stress about playing in Scotiabank Arena, in front of his new hometown fans, for the first time the next day.

“I don’t feel pressure from the fans,” Leonard said in response.

Fair enough, but if building officials are to be believed and close to 15,781 people really did opt to spend money on a Friday-night 120-82 exhibition beatdown of Melbourne United, of Australia’s National Basketball League, just to catch a glimpse of Leonard and this Raptors team so full of hope and expectation, then it seems the pressure’s on, regardless what the new star may think.

Pre-season games across any sport are usually drab affairs, but this is doubly the case in basketball where there usually aren’t many vacant positions for guys to fight for other than, perhaps, the last two guys coming off the bench.

However, for the Raptors, this pre-season actually does kind of matter because of the nature of their off-season. Changing coaches and adding pieces like Leonard and Danny Green to an existing core like Toronto’s aren’t small things. They will take time and, presumably, as many reps playing actual basketball — whether the game counts or not — as possible.

Thus, it came as a fair bit of a surprise on Friday to learn that six players would be out for that evening’s game.

Of the six, three had extenuating circumstances — OG Anunoby remains away from the team for personal reasons, while Fred VanVleet (left hamstring tightness) and Chris Boucher (back spasms) were unable to play as they’re banged up a little bit.

The other three, however — Leonard, Kyle Lowry and C.J. Miles — were inactive because of the always fun “DNP — Rest.”

So, about that need for all of the team’s best players to get a little more burn than usual in the pre-season, it would seem Nick Nurse believes veterans like that trio — Leonard and Lowry, in particular — need to find ways to stay fresh for the 82-game grind ahead.

“Listen, there’s two ways to look at it. Would we like to give them a bunch of minutes? Yeah, probably,” said Nurse before Friday’s contest. “There’s a lot of games to be played, too, and we’ve got to always keep that in mind with some veteran-type players. We’re still easing Kawhi into things a little bit, too, so it’s not too bad, really.”

The crowd in the arena would likely beg to differ as, despite the reported attendance figure, there seemed to be more empty seats than the figure would suggest — perhaps because word got out earlier in the day that Leonard wasn’t actually going to be making his home debut.

For the folks who did show up, though, the many brand-new Leonard jerseys seen around the arena suggests there may have been some disappointment in finding the hot new attraction glued to the bench for the evening, but they should take some solace in knowing they were able to bear witness to an important development for the future of their club.

After a promising first two seasons in the league, Norman Powell’s career arc took a downward turn last season as he shot a dismal 28.5 per cent from three-point range and struggled to find consistent playing time. Worse yet, this was all compounded by the fact he had signed a four-year, $42-million extension, magnifying each painful and demoralizing miss he put up each game.

That extension kicks in this season and with Powell making, on average, $10.5 million per year — ranking him as the sixth-highest-paid player on the team — anything similar to last season will be absolutely unacceptable.

As such, while this is a big pre-season for the Raptors, in general, for Powell it might be absolutely vital for him to get his rhythm and find his footing so he can hit the ground running when the games start to matter for real.

In his first two exhibition contests, Powell logged 20 and 15 minutes of playing time, respectively, in so-so performances. However, on Friday, with the likes of Leonard and Miles resting, Nurse gave Powell the opportunity and the fourth-year UCLA product took it and ran.

A game-high 21 points on 8-for-11 shooting, 3-for-5 from deep and, most importantly, a boatload of confidence.

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Though known for his defensive skills, Powell is a player who always seems to gain confidence from the offensive end, and Friday night he illustrated this point well.

Beginning the contest with a swooping drive to a smooth finger-roll layup finish off the glass, there was a sense that something was clicking with Powell. A three-point make a few minutes later confirmed this and he was off to the races.

Pull-up jumpers from all over the court, decisive drives and even a nasty double-clutch jam — the Powell Raptors fans grew to love was back and grooving.

“He was really solid tonight and that’s kind of the main thing,” Nurse said of Powell’s performance after the game. “He’s been impressive, I think, as far as playing a little bit more of the way we want him to play.”

A scary incident at around the four-and-a-half mark of the third quarter nearly derailed everything for Powell, though, as he limped to the locker room and appeared to be a in a ton of pain. But, luckily, it was only a right thigh contusion and nothing more serious.

The ailment did end Powell’s night, but the work had already been put in. Level of the competition he did it against or not, it was still one hell of a night for Powell, and his best one in a long time.

Powell isn’t Leonard or Lowry, and can’t be weighed the same as them. But after slumping for so long, seeing him break out like this in one of these supposedly meaningless games could have some real meaningful impact moving forward.

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