BURNABY, B.C.— Rookie athletes tend to be a little more forthright—a little less wary, maybe—than hardened veterans, and Norman Powell is no exception. The 22-year-old Toronto Raptors newcomer recently attended his first Blue Jays game—the tickets were a gift courtesy of Toronto starter Marcus Stroman—and when asked about his baseball fandom during this week’s training camp, Powell made a confession of sorts. “I had fun,” he said before admitting, somewhat sheepishly, “Growing up, I was a Yankees fan.”
If Powell has a rookie’s openness—freely admitting to having cheered for Toronto’s division rival, their baseball nemesis—he is otherwise not your average rookie. That’s according to head coach Dwane Casey, who this week praised Powell’s poise and his drive, calling him “a tough kid.”
That mental toughness is partly a result of the adversity Powell has faced. The southern California native started out as a track athlete, switching to basketball after suffering an injury. He attended UCLA for four years, initially struggling to earn the minutes he thought he deserved.
And then came the draft: This summer, Powell had to wait until the second round to hear his name read out, going no. 46 overall. He was the Milwaukee Bucks’ pick, but was traded to the Raptors as part of a draft-night deal that sent Greivis Vasquez south of the border. Toronto was freeing up cap space and earning a first-round 2017 pick; Powell was seen by many as a sort of bonus. “It definitely adds more fuel to the fire,” says Powell, “being drafted in the second round when you feel like you’re a first-round draft pick.”
Powell used that chip on his shoulder—something he says he’s always had—to motivate himself during the NBA Summer League. And it worked: the energetic guard averaged 18.3 points, 4.3 rebounds and 25.5 minutes in four games, and he was the lone rookie named to the All-NBA Summer League First Team.
According to Jerry Stackhouse, the 18-year NBA veteran who joined the Raptors as an assistant coach this summer, Powell is above all else a competitor. “That bodes well for anybody coming into the NBA,” he says. “You can be highly skilled, but I’ll take a competitor over a highly skilled guy anytime.” And Powell’s relentlessness and focus are paying off. “Norm has shown all summer that he’s primed to be the steal of the draft,” says Stackhouse.
If there’s a knock on Powell—a big reason teams might have steered clear of him in the first round—it’s his size. He’s just six-four, which is considered small for his position. But as Powell’s fellow athlete Marcus Stroman would say, “Height doesn’t measure heart.” Or, in Powell’s case, grit. And in Summer League, at least, Powell showed that his size wasn’t a limitation.
Powell’s teammates have taken notice of his determination and his effort. “He’s a hard player, hard worker, he goes hard,” says James Johnson. “He gets to the bucket and he’s finishing a lot.” DeMar DeRozan, whom Powell grew up idolizing, has been a kind of mentor—even if DeRozan attended the University of Southern California, a rival to UCLA. “He’s really been helping me with my game,” says Powell. “Growing up, I used to watch his tapes. It’s kind of surreal to play with one of your idols.”
And DeRozan isn’t Powell’s only mentor in the NBA. OKC’s Russell Westbrook, a fellow UCLA alumnus with an equally bulldog-like mentality on the court, has been a source of support for the Raptors rookie. “I’ve been able to talk with him, work with him, play against him, and he’s really helped me,” says Powell. “We have similar styles, being aggressive, attacking on both ends of the floor, so I really try to model my game after him.”
Powell is a self-professed “student of the game.” He’s always watching tape, looking for guys in the league who are a similar size—guys he can emulate. He prides himself on his defensive skills—something the Raptors could no doubt use—and though his role with the team isn’t yet clear, his goal is: “to prove to people that they made a mistake in not picking me up earlier.” Powell’s Summer League performance gave critics and fans a taste of what he’s capable of; the key now will be to show that he can continue that level of play on a bigger stage.
“I know that I can be that type of player at all times,” says Powell. “It’s all about opportunity.” Whatever opportunity he does end up getting, Powell will relish it, continuing to use that massive chip on his shoulder as motivation. In the meantime, he’s settling in to new surroundings and getting a taste of what the NBA is all about. “It’s really crazy,” says Powell of what’s it’s been like to come to a foreign country to play. “I’m still getting used to everybody saying ‘eh’ in Canada. But it’s been a lot of fun.”
The one-time Yankees fan has even switched allegiances. “I’ve definitely got my Blue Jays jersey,” he says. Powell may be a rookie, but he’s no fool.