After last season’s impressive performance post NBA All-Star break and then in the first round of the playoffs, the Toronto Raptors rookie Norman Powell might/should have been expecting a significant bump up in head coach Dwane Casey’s rotation this time around and he is getting more minutes than in the first half of last year, but based on what he can do, Powell should be starting.
Most rookies, even NBA Lottery Picks, find it hard to average double-digit scoring and it’s even rarer for a rookie to play a physical brand of defense without fouling, but Powell managed to do both as a starter in 24 regular season games with the Raptors last season. It cost Toronto nothing to put Powell in the starting lineup either as the team went 18-6 in those games to claim second place in the Eastern Conference.
Powell only got his chance because of injuries to DeMarre Carroll and James Johnson, but that’s typically how it goes for second round draft picks. What was unexpected is the 6’4 wing/guard took the veteran 6’9 forward Johnson’s spot in the rotation and kept it, only losing out to Carroll when the Raptors highly-paid free agent acquisition finally got back to some semblance of his pre-injury form.
Carroll was still easing his way back into the rotation at the start of this year because of continuing knee soreness, but the veteran has been handed the starting role since his return without question and somewhat surprisingly, Powell was even bumped back of Terrence Ross coming off the bench.
“(My role is) the same as last year,” Powell told Pro Bball Report. “It is a little difficult with DC (Carroll) being healthy, but just being that energizer coming off the bench trying to make a spark being a defensive stopper. Trying to get the confidence in the coaching staff that when they put me out there I’m getting stops on defense and picking the team up, changing the pace.
“Pretty much the same role as last year. Just trying to find areas in the game where I can be effective.”
That role is as an injury replacement for Carroll and DeMar DeRozan plus whatever time Casey can squeeze out of the rotation by stealing minutes from Ross and Cory Joseph. It hasn’t been easy not having a regular defined role, but when Powell gets to start, he shines brightly once again.
In 11 starts this season, Powell is averaging 15.1 points, 3.8 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.1 steals in 31.2 minutes. That would put him third in points per game on a team that has struggled to find anyone who can consistently provide a third scoring option behind Kyle Lowry and DeRozan.
But its more than just offense. As a starter, Powell seems to find a way to energize his teammates with at least one opponent demoralizing steal that he takes in for a spectacular dunk every game. Unafraid, Powell will take on the challenge of guarding guards, wings or forwards, whomever is giving the Raptors fits that night and even when it seems he’s overmatched, Casey doesn’t often have a better option when his team is in trouble defensively. It’s just a lot to ask of a sophomore who has often been nailed to the bench until his coach gets desperate.
It isn’t going to be easy to find a way to put Powell into the starting lineup. It would be a lot simpler to just carve him out a role as the first wing off the bench (sorry Ross) and steal some minutes away from Joseph, but there is a strong case to be made for starting Powell in Carroll’s place.
Carroll is still showing signs of a player coming back from a knee injury. He almost certainly wants to start and play big minutes, but if the Raptors want to have him available for the playoffs, it would be wise to bring him off the bench and manage those minutes until they face the matchups in the postseason he was signed to help with. Besides, Powell is putting up better numbers as a starter than Carroll is.
Carroll is averaging 9.6 points, 3.7 rebounds, 0.9 assists and 1.2 steals in 44 starts this year. However, in starts, Powell is the more aggressive player on offense and based on his defensive rating, the more effective player at that end as well. Powell has a team best defensive rating of 100.2 compared to Carroll at 106.7. It’s not close, offensively or defensively.
But perhaps the best reason to start Powell is to give him confidence. It isn’t often a second round pick shines this brightly this quickly and as president Masai Ujiri’s mantra is developing his own young talent, it’s been a long time since the Raptors drafted a player that has shown this much promise this early.
Carroll won’t fall apart coming off the bench either. He’s a veteran with a solid team oriented attitude and just maybe he can give that second unit a badly needed boost.
Powell won’t be shaken by being given a starting role. It’s far more likely he’ll blossom and improve by leaps and bounds with greater responsibility and trust. The risk seems low and this team needs the ‘kick-in-the-pants’ a young, high-energy, unafraid player like Powell can bring.