The Toronto Raptors found themselves a gem in the second round of the NBA Draft last summer. A throw in from the Greivis Vasquez draft day trade with the Bucks for salary cap space and the Clippers lottery protected 2017 first round draft pick, 6’4 guard Norman Powell is striving to combine the strengths of Dwyane Wade, Russell Westbrook, Jimmy Butler and Tony Allen and based on the second half of his rookie season, he is on his way.
“On film, I’m watching Dwyane Wade, Russell Westbrook and Jimmy Butler on offense, and Tony Allen on defense. I watch those guys because they play like me with an aggressive mindset,” Powell told Jared Zwerling in an NBPA interview. “Dwyane was one of my biggest idols — somebody I looked up to and really tried to model my game after with how he uses his body, his Eurostep move, his step throughs, his finishes.”
“Playing against Dwyane was really competitive in the Eastern Conference finals, and I was still in the, “Damn, I’m playing against Dwyane Wade phase.””
Powell was supposed to be a mainstay of Toronto’s new NBA D-League affiliate the Raptors 905 located 20 minutes away in Mississauga last season. However, unexpectedly, head coach Dwane Casey kept giving the rookie a regular look, starting with eight appearances in November and 24 in total before the All-Star break. He was only averaging 6.5 minutes a game, but that was a lot more than the Raptors 2015 first round draft choice Delon Wright who only got into 14 games totaling 41 minutes by that time.
It was becoming obvious why Casey kept throwing the young man out there. He liked the toughness, the physical defense. It isn’t that common for a rookie guard to figure out how to make opponents “feel” him on defense and that Tony Allen comparison was exactly what his coaches were looking for.
“When (Powell) came down (to the D-League) and even in the summer when he was guarding DeMar (DeRozan) a lot during our workouts, he was playing college defense,” Raptors 905 head coach Jesse Mermuys told Pro Bball Report. “He was a good defender, but you can’t use your hands up here, especially as a rookie that’s automatic, (the refs) are going to hit you (with a foul). It’s an easy call for them.
“I was teaching him. You got to play NBA defense. You have to figure out a way to be Tony Allen. Be aggressive, be up in them, harass them, be physical without fouling and that’s not easy to do in the NBA.
“He got better at it as the season went on and now you see him doing it up there (in the NBA). (The Raptors) are putting him on the best player and that’s big time man. That’s really hard to do.”
“Just his toughness,” Casey said. “I like his toughness, his confidence as a young guy. He’s a four-year (college player). In coaching we still look at him as a young guy because it’s his first year in the NBA. He’s a confident young man. The moment doesn’t bother him, but his overall physical toughness, his presence gives us a person at his position to guard, to put in front of a person like Westbrook, chase Kyle Korver. He’s really been a plus for us from that standpoint.”
That ability to be tough defender continued right into the playoffs where Powell played in 18 of the Raptors 20 games and was a significant contributor in their 4-3 first round series win over Indiana averaging 18 minutes per game.
The predraft scouting report on Powell indicated he had the potential to become a lockdown multi-positional defender in the NBA, although no one reasonably expected him to progress as fast as he did. However, offense was a different story. No one believed he could shoot coming out of college. His offense was suspect and he didn’t do much to dispel that impression before the All-Star break except maybe to a few believers.
“I saw (Powell could shoot) in the summertime,” Raptors 905 head coach Jesse Mermuys told Pro Bball Report. “One, he made a ton of shots in Summer League. He was knocking it down. Into our workouts after Summer League in L.A. and in the Clippers facility workouts, he was making a ton of shots and that was my message coming back out of the summer. I said look, for a guy that can’t shoot, this guy is making a lot of shots. It’s getting to the point where this isn’t, it can’t be just he’s hot. He’s shooting the ball really well. So, I felt really confident about his shooting ability coming out of the summer.”
“Specially with Norman, I thought he learned to be aggressive (in the D-League), but not be – selfish isn’t the word – not be tunnel vision of one a one trick pony guy and that I think has really carried over to the big club.”
“Right before All-Star I went 4-6 in Minnesota and that’s when it started to click, started to be able to recreate that feeling, recreate that feel on my jumper in games,” Powell said. “Calm myself down and focus on the little things that just make it more natural and after that things started to flow and I really started to find my grove in the offense.”
Injuries created opportunities and Powell played in 25 games averaging 22.8 minutes and started 20 games after the All-Star break. Once he was in, there really was no way for Casey to get him out of the rotation.
Playing at the two and the three, Powell averaged 9.6 points, 3.4 rebounds and 1.6 assists after the All-Star break. He was shooting 46.6 percent from the field and 45.5 percent from three-point range on 3.1 three-point attempts a game. Eventually even Casey had to stop calling Powell’s offensive production “gravy.”
Powell was tenth in rookie scoring after the break and had the fifth best rookie plus/minus at +2.9. He had earned his right to be on the court with his defense, but his offense was just getting too hard to overlook.
In April, he earned the Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month award averaging 15.3 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 31.6 minutes in eight games.
At 23-years-old, Powell isn’t a finished product and he doesn’t have to look like Wade or Allen to be a very important and effective player for the Raptors next season. Just maintaining that aggressive mindset and taking another step forward in his skills development will be big for Toronto.
Lots of young players come into the NBA every season with much higher assessments of their skills and potential, but few arrive willing, able or confident enough to work as hard or as effectively on the defensive end of the court. By focusing on the games of Wade, Westbrook, Butler and Allen, Powell has set a very high bar for himself and after the strong finish to his rookie season, his coaches and teammates will expecting a lot from him as well.