There is nothing Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey likes more in a player than toughness, so maybe it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that it was their 2015 second round draft pick Norman Powell who kept getting chances to show what he could do during the season. The Raptors saw a potential Tony Allen level lockdown defender in Powell if they could teach him how to defend in the NBA.
“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 said. “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.
“He was doing that and even down here he was struggling with foul trouble. He had to guard some really big-time players. I’m pretty sure he had to guard (Nets Sean) Kilpatrick, (Cavaliers Jordan) McRae, guys that are now in the NBA. He was guarding NBA guys down here and he was fouling.
“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.”
The college scouting report on Powell was mixed, but pointed out his potential as a defender at the next level. Just prior to the draft, Matt Kamalsky described Powell on Draft Express as,
Powell’s grit can’t be questioned.
He’s one of the more hard-nose competitors you’ll find in the college game.
Plays with good energy, doesn’t get out of position too often, and isn’t prone to giving up anything easy one-on-one. His athleticism and length allows him to make impressive plays as a rebounder and scrapping for turnovers.
There’s no question he has all the tools you look for in a multi-positional shut-down defender.
With those kinds of accolades, it’s no wonder the Raptors grabbed Powell with their second pick.
It isn’t easy transitioning to the next level, however. Often times rookies are described as only having one gear, playing at 100 miles per hour on every play and it isn’t until they slow down that the game slows down for them and they start to realize their full potential. That’s usually talked about on offense, but the same principles apply on defense as Powell was finding out.
“(Mermuys) was trying to have me focus on not just defending – like – everywhere, trying to be everywhere at once, just stay in your position,” Powell told Pro Bball Report. “Learn how to fight over different screens, work different schemes and skills and tactics to guard against different guys up here.
“(He) let me focus on that and being a lockdown defender. Focusing on getting over screens, working off the ball, being pulled in and things like that.
“I think early on (I used my hands). I am just used to defending one way, especially you’re in college and you get that rep of being a defender and the refs allow you to guard and be physical and you don’t get those calls, but you come back up here (at) the next level and you’re starting at the bottom, they’re going to call those ticky-tack touch fouls for the older veteran players. So, it’s just adjusting, try to focus on moving your feet and beating guys to spots.”
Developing a defensive presence isn’t easy for a rookie and it isn’t going to get a player on SportsCenter either. Even though Powell has started 15 games for the second place Raptors since the beginning of March and been an effective addition to Casey’s rotation, he barely gets noticed outside of Toronto, but his head coach surely appreciates what Powell has brought to the table. Every team wants and needs physical defenders even if they don’t see any national media coverage.
“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.
“It is impressive for a young player to come into the league.
“(His scoring,) that’s gravy, it’s good gravy, but it’s gravy. We wanted him for his toughness. He is in there because of his defense, his toughness, athleticism.”
“That’s my game,” Powell said. “Be physical, be aggressive, that physical style of basketball was a part of me from an early age. Watching Jerry Stackhouse, Kobe Bryant, all those guys I looked up to, that’s how they played. They aren’t backing down from nobody and I put that in my game. I have something to prove and I play with a chip on my shoulder.”
Somewhat surprisingly, Powell is already starting to get some respect from NBA officials. Sometimes he’ll get called for his aggressive play, but other times officials are looking at those whining veterans and telling them to just play through it.
“Some games they call it, some games they don’t,” Powell said. “The game in San Antonio I picked up two early fouls trying to be overly aggressive, but sometimes they don’t call it and it surprised me a little bit because the vets are complaining and the refs are just looking at them like play through it.
“It is just trying to adjust to the way the refs are calling the game and just trying to be smart.”
Those are interesting thoughts from a player in his first NBA season. Maybe 905 head coach Mermuys is having an impact on these young guys?
Stephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.