The Raptors went into this season with two rookie guards in Delon Wright and Norman Powell and things could have gotten dicey for Toronto if something had happened to either of All-Star Kyle Lowry or his backup Cory Joseph as neither rookie was even close to being proven at an NBA level.
It didn’t take long to figure out which guard head coach Dwane Casey saw the most immediate potential in as he started giving minutes to Powell early on and he’s been the more heavily favored prospect all season with 28 appearances and five NBA starts to his credit. Wright has only played more than 6.7 minutes once in his 17 appearances and his 30.8 minutes backing up Joseph when Lowry was given the day off in Detroit recently only made one wonder why Casey didn’t stick with the rookie guard he had favored all season.
Both Powell and Wright have been honing their skills with the Raptors NBA D-League affiliate in Mississauga and while both players look good at this level, it’s been Powell who has been standing out here as well.
In his last D-League appearance Powell set the franchise record for points scored in a game with 36 on 15-27 shooting in 39 minutes and added 12 boards, 6 assists, 2 steals and a blocked shot. With the Raptors 905, Powell is averaging 24.9 points per game, 6 more than Wright.
“I was just comfortable getting to my spots in my midrange area,” Powell told Pro Bball Report after his record setting night. “That’s one of the strengths of my game. My pull-ups, creating space off the pick-and-roll (when) guys go under and waiting for the re-screen, they go under again and from 17′ I’m knocking them down or getting to the rim and just being effective. I feel comfortable out there, especially when I just get to play my game.
“My game is to score, get to the rim, create off the dribble, put pressure on defenses and I’ve been doing that really well in my opportunity down there.”
As much as Powell has been showing off his scoring ability with the 905, the Raptors are looking for him to develop his point guard skills and it’s happening. Powell is averaging 4.6 assists per game in the D-League.
“That’s what they want me to go down there and do,” Powell explained. “Work on my playmaking ability. I am running heavy minutes at the point guard down at the D-League, setting up guys off my penetration, drive-and-kicks, pick-and-roll for the bigs rolling or popping on their reads and that’s something that translates well when I get the opportunity to get thrown up at that position up here (with the Raptors).
“I feel that I am a combo player and I can play multiple positions. I feel that it really important. I feel that it gives this team another look, another lineup that can go small and make it tough for bigs in pick-and-roll situations when you have two quick point guards that can put pressure on defenses and create for others.
“For me to be able to develop that will add another layer to my game.”
Powell got his fifth start of the season against Portland recently precisely because Casey believed he was ready to defend against another quick guard.
“(Powell) was someone to guard C.J. McCollum,” Casey explained postgame. “We put DeMar (DeRozan) on Aminu so DeMar didn’t get caught up in pick-and-roll and get in foul trouble.
“I am very confident in Norm, he gave us the hustle, the fight, the grit that we needed to chase those guys and try to wear them down and he did. He also gave us 10 points and 6 rebounds and I thought that was very solid.
“Just his energy, just his energy gave us a bump that we need to go against a guy like McCollum, a guy like when you play two point guards out there. (Powell) let me buy us some time at that position until I could get Cory out there.”
Powell has been the more confident rookie from day one. He goes into a game at 100 miles per hour without any hesitation. It took a while before the ball started to go in hole at the NBA level, he was just 9-46 thru his first 23 games, but even that’s come around since he shot 4-6 at Minnesota in the last game before the All-Star break. In his last 5 games, he’s shooting 52.6 percent from the field and even nailed a pair of corner three-balls against Portland. The “fresh meat” smell that comes with rookies has left the building.
What has undoubtedly allowed Casey to keep throwing Powell out there this season has been that he isn’t afraid to stick his nose in against a veteran on defense. Powell has picked up 12 steals and 37 boards in his 28 games and he’s averaging 2.3 steals and 7 rebounds per 36 minutes played. He’s earned those possessions. As Casey says, Powell brings the energy.
“It means I’m doing something well,” Powell said about getting the start. “It’s exciting. I’ve been putting in a lot of work, getting shots up, studying film and doing all the small things, the little things that install trust in the coaching staff and front office. I’m just glad it’s paying off and it’s being noticed. It’s a real confidence boost for me.”
Watching Powell since his arrival in Toronto, confidence isn’t something the 22-year-old second round draft pick has been lacking. He exudes confidence. He doesn’t look like the typical 19 or 20-year-old rookie either. Powell looks physically ready to play in an NBA game and when he gets on the court, he acts like he believes he belongs there.
While Powell still has a lot to learn and like all rookies, needs to find another gear to play in occasionally, he gives his team something useful when Casey gives him minutes. The Raptors coach knows Powell is going to bring the energy and effort and if the rookie can hang onto his recently found shooting stroke, it’s going to be hard to not give him more minutes.