Few could have expected to see DeMar DeRozan share the court with four reserves down the stretch in game five of the first round of the playoffs. Even fewer would have guessed that Norman Powell, a second-round draft pick who’d split his rookie season between the NBA and its development league, would be among them. Yet here we were. And even more improbably, the young Toronto Raptors guard had been tasked with guarding Indiana’s Paul George, a three-time all-star and one of the NBA’s most lethal scorers.
Down double digits entering the final frame, the improbable lineup, which had never seen a minute of game time together before, mounted a comeback. During timeouts, as they ignored offensive strategy and talked only about the other end of the floor, one thought echoed in Powell’s mind: “Come up with something big.”
A corner three from Terrence Ross with eight minutes to play capped a 13-2 run that brought the Raps within two points. Powell will always remember what happened next.
He picks up George at halfcourt, grabbing and bumping him like a restless kid trying to annoy his big brother. George curls around a pin-down screen while Powell, a good four inches shorter, grabs his jersey and glances to the top of the key. There he sees Indiana guard Monta Ellis throwing what Powell will later call “a routine, lazy pass” to the Pacers star—the opportunity he’s been waiting for.
Powell jumps into the passing lane and pokes the ball into 40 feet of open court. Alone on the fast break with a chance to tie the game, he takes off and soars towards the hoop, momentarily losing the ball in the air. “C’mon,” he thinks, “you can’t miss this.”
He didn’t. Powell’s monster jam tied the score, and the Raptors went on to win the game and the series, their first in 15 long years. The clutch play was Powell’s first signature moment in the NBA, the kind of big-stage performance that can signal a star turn for a young player. Factor in the stellar Summer League showing that followed it and the noticeable improvements he’s displayed in the pre-season, and you can understand why Powell has already been anointed by many as the Raptors next breakout star. And he just may be. But Norman Powell isn’t buying it. Not yet, at least.
“People think ‘Oh, you did it in the playoffs, you got minutes, you’ve made it,’” Powell says on the eve of a Raptors’ pre-season game in Detroit. “I made a couple of shots. I made a couple of plays. That’s great, sure, but I worked for that. I’m not where I want to be… I’m nowhere close.”
Growing up in San Diego with his mom, Sharon, and uncle, Raymond Edwards, playing in the NBA was his dream. By high school, he was a four-star recruit, his explosive athleticism and surprising strength drawing the eye of college coaches, including New Mexico’s Steve Alford and UCLA’s Ben Howland. Knowing the Bruins had a reputation for graduating players to the next level, Powell chose to stay in California. He assumed he’d be given a starring role and play for a season—two, at most—before moving to the NBA, but he struggled to carve out a meaningful role under the defensive-minded Howland, averaging a little more than five points in 20 minutes per game. “I had higher expectations for myself going into my first year, but the team needed something different from me, so that’s what I did. That’s a quality I’ve always had,” Powell says. “I knew if I continued to work, to believe in myself and put the time in that what I see in myself, other people would see, too.”
After Powell’s sophomore season, the Bruins fired Howland and replaced him with Alford, the former Hoosiers star who played four NBA seasons. Powell’s offensive game flourished, and he became one of the NCAA’s top two-way players. On campus his fellow students called him “SportsCenter” for his highlight-reel dunks. By his senior season Powell had become UCLA’s go-to star, a vocal leader who took his team to the Sweet 16.
When Raptors scouts called Alford during that season to ask about Powell, he told them the same thing he’d told every other team. “The message was simple,” Alford recalls. “You’re getting a great person, an elite athlete, someone at the guard position who is powerful and explosive, very strong, above average ball-handling ability, who can hit shots and is a lockdown defender. You weren’t going to have any problems with Norman.”
Powell worked out for 17 teams before the draft. He remembers his performance for the Raptors as the best of them all. He was matched up one-on-one against Rashad Vaughn, who would later go 17th overall. “I was just manhandling him,” Powell recalls, “getting buckets every time and not giving easy looks—just crazy-aggressive on defense.” After the workout, Dwane Casey complimented Powell on his intensity and demeanor. “I just walked away feeling like I killed it,” Powell says.
It had taken three years longer than he thought, but Powell was finally NBA-bound and expected to be chosen in the mid-to-late first round. His mother rented out a San Diego sports bar for family and friends to watch the draft. When his name wasn’t called in the first round, Powell was shocked. When the first few picks of the second round passed, he had to leave the room. “At one point, I really thought I just wasn’t going to get drafted,” he says. He was eventually selected 46th.
Powell entered his first Summer League stint with more motivation than ever, and without the guaranteed contract a first-rounder enjoys. His coaches told him to relax and play his game, and encouragement from Raptors veterans DeRozan and James Johnson helped him realize he belonged. On the court he was dominant, earning first-team honours and opening eyes around the league.
Yet as his first pro training camp began, Powell felt echoes of his freshman season at UCLA. “I didn’t have the trust of the coaches yet,” he says. “I had to prove I could play and that they could trust me out on the court with the older guys.”
One coach who showed faith early was Jerry Stackhouse, a former all-star and a player Powell had grown up admiring. Both in their first year with the Raps, the two bonded quickly. After practices, they’d play one-on-one, first to five points. Stackhouse would elbow and push Powell, who would take it like a soldier. The games got so intense that it was common for as many as 15 possessions to go by before either scored.
Bouncing down to the D-League was a source of frustration for Powell, but Stackhouse remained in constant contact. “He kept telling me, ‘Go out there and show that you don’t belong [in the D-League].’ And that helped me, wanting to go out and just dominate the competition.”
The second half of the season saw Powell earn more playing time with the big club. He started 17 games and averaged nearly 13 points in 29 minutes per. By the time the playoffs came around, he had earned the trust of Casey and his teammates. And their faith in him proved to be well-founded.
Heading into his sophomore campaign after strong Summer League and pre-season performances, Powell is poised to become a more important piece off Casey’s bench as the Raptors look to make the conference finals for the second straight year. That larger team goal is Powell’s focus, though it’s hard to ignore the fact his rookie contract will be up at season’s end. “I try not to think about the contract,” Powell says, “My job is to focus on helping the team win. That’s my mentality.”
Quotes like that tend to read as AthleteSpeak, but there’s a genuineness in Powell’s voice. Watching his steady improvement and contributions also make it easier to believe.
Powell often cites DeRozan’s path as one he’d like to follow. He admires the way the two-time all-star steadily improved year after year, gradually becoming the franchise player he is today. He knows he’s on his way to establishing himself as a great player, but he means it when he says he hasn’t accomplished anything yet—rare humility for someone excelling at his rate.
An example of how Powell is different from most promising young players: he declined an elaborate photo shoot for this story, conscious it could make him come off as somebody who thinks he’s already “made it.”
“Because I haven’t,” he says. “All the talk and hype about being a breakout player—yeah, I know I can be. But right now I’m just focused on doing whatever the team needs and continuing to develop into the player I see myself being. It’ll take a process to get there, and it’s important for me not to miss a step along the way—not to get ahead of myself. You’ll know when I’ve made it.”