Seniors. Limited upside relative to underclassmen. Too thin, or weak, or short. An inability to shoot off the dribble.
Norman Powell and Josh Richardson heard all of the same things as they left their respective schools last spring, each coming off of final seasons – Powell at UCLA, Richardson at Tennessee – in which they took enormous strides as players and NBA prospects. Only the highest-impact seniors go in the first round. It’s too hard to carve out an NBA role without a reliable shot, no matter how good the defense. What position does he play?
Neither seemed resigned to the fate of going undrafted, and in the lead-up to the 2015 NBA Draft, both began rising slightly on boards, at least to the point of second-round consideration. Perceived flaws are one thing from a distance, but up close, the strengths can take the forefront. Athleticism, length, lock-down defense, and toughness can shine in workouts against other prospects. Those upperclassmen knocks get put into more perspective when they also lend themselves to a greater maturity. Positional ambiguity becomes more of a positive when looked at through the lens of where a player can fit as a roster is built and tweaked and molded, the more malleable the piece the better.
From Raptors 905 sideline reporter Ashley Docking (@smrtash): “Norman Powell and Josh Richardson are cut from the same cloth. Four year college vets (Powell at UCLA, Richardson Tennessee), defensively tough, at times facing questions surrounding their shooting capabilities, and second-round draft picks working to prove that their talent has been undervalued. With that being said, Josh Richardson is going to be more impactful in the upcoming series.
Before all the #WeTheNorm troops attack, listen. He’s been a spark plug for Toronto, seemingly made for big moments. Shooting with confidence, even when he’s going 0-8 on threes in Games 5 and 6, and we’ve also seen him be efficient in performances like Games 4 and 7. The thing here is that he spells two All-Stars and one NBA Champion. The Miami Heat do not have a Paul George to give DeMar DeRozan a headache. In fact, in his last three games against Miami, DeRozan has dropped 30-plus. More DeMar means less Powell.
As for Richardson (who led the league by shooting 63.5 percent from behind the arc in March), he averaged 10 minutes more per-game in round one. He’s also proving to have a more multifaceted role within the Heat rotation, facilitating more than Powell and adding shot-blocking ability to his defensive arsenal. Although Powell has been very timely, trendy, and had bigger playoff moments thus far, Richardson is primed to effect the team game more.”
The positives of drafting a defense-first senior from a major role at a prominent school are more obvious to a team focused on winning in the immediate term, especially one with a tight cap situation. There’s no assurance the player will prove worthy of a roster spot, but they represent a relatively low-cost flier, particularly in the second round, when the rookie scale no longer takes hold. Bringing in a cheap piece through use of an exception – or a sliver of cap space, should Birds rights be desired and a three-year deal offered – doesn’t have much financial or roster-building downside. If that player, groomed for four years and “NBA-ready” insomuch as any rookie can be, can contribute, the surplus value can be enormous, considering the marginal cost and product of those contributions. In other words, good teams with tight cap sheets have more of an incentive to draft older, more mature players, even if the ceiling’s a little lower.
On draft night, the Toronto Raptors dealt Greivis Vasquez to the Milwaukee Bucks for the No. 46 overall pick and a future first-rounder, using the 46th selection on Powell. With Masai Ujiri rebuilding around the core with a focus on defense first and toughness second, Powell’s unbelievable draft workouts and interviews made him a reasonable gamble. Six picks earlier, the Miami Heat selected Richardson, thinking largely along the same lines, looking to add defense and athleticism at the back end of an aging roster, doubling down on that idea with the spoil from a lost 2014-15, No. 10 overall pick Justise Winslow.
Powell quickly became the breakout star of summer league, earning a three-year deal with a first-year salary beyond the league minimum in the process. Richardson was solid, too, ultimately landing a three-year minimum deal. Both the Raptors and the Heat liked what they saw and locked in potential role players on team-friendly deals with non-guaranteed back-end years, exactly the kind of finds that contending teams need to make – and hit on – in order to keep top-heavy salary sheets together without sacrificing depth.
The returns were better than either side could have possibly hoped for.
Both Powell and Richardson spent the bulk of the season’s early months waiting, occasionally getting a short-term opportunity but then quickly being relegated back to the bench. Each used that time not only to learn from mentor-heavy rosters around them, but to chip away at the perceived weaknesses in their games, particularly with respect to shooting. And each embraced short-term D-League assignments to not only improve their craft, but to try to send the message that they were ready for more.
Powell would be sent up and down over the course of six weeks in the middle of the season (plus one late assignment), averaging 24.9 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 4.6 assists over eight games with Raptors 905. The numbers stand out, to be sure, but it was Powell’s improved vision, decision-making, and passing off the bounce that really got noticed. Thought to be somewhat of a tunnel-visioned north-south attacker, Powell began attacking at angles, varying his pace, and looking for teammates while on the move. He turned the ball over plenty, sure, but he also began racking up assists, and the fluidity of his close-out attacks improved by the game. Nobody was shocked, necessarily, the organization well aware of just how hard Powell works, but the speed of the progress was impressive.
From Raptors 905 play-by-play commentator Meghan McPeak (@meghanmcpeak): “The impulsive and biased answer: If you’re a Miami Heat fan, you would lean towards Josh Richardson, if you’re a Toronto Raptors fan, obviously you go with Norman Powell.
Both were drafted in the second round of this years past draft [only six picks apart]. They have both had time to grow and flourish in the NBA D-League, and during their time, each have had standout games.
Richardson, a long athletic guard, has the ability to attack the paint with a very quick first step, and he can extend the defense with his ability to knock down shots from long range. Defensively, he utilizes his length on the perimeter, and he provides intangibles. He has the ability to play the role of facilitator, not only on the break but in screen & roll action, especially with Hassan Whiteside.
Powell, an athletic lock down defender coming into the league, has improved his shooting stroke throughout the season to the point he has spotted up in big moments to knock down threes. He drew the assignment of Monta Eliis and Paul George [when DeMarre Carroll was on the bench] he accepted the challenge without fear, and rose to the occasion. His defense is the most important factor, and it allows both Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan to reserve energy on the defensive end.
So, who will have the biggest impact in this series? My pick goes to Norman Powell. For me the main advantage comes on the defensive end, with what he brings to the Raptors, his ability to start or come off the bench, and his ability to take on the assignment of any the top three players on the Heat…and accept the challenge with absolutely NO FEAR.”
In Sioux Falls, Richardson spent a quick four games as a member of the Skyforce, curiously enough playing three of them against the 905 (and you can bet 905 head coach Jesse Mermuys sent a scouting report up the Gardiner on the rookie Monday morning). In those games, he averaged 23.2 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 3.8 assists, and like Powell, took a machete to his scouting report, shooting 11-of-28 from long-range. (Despite being on assignments during the same stretch and their teams playing three times, Powell and Richardson only squared off once, on New Year’s Eve, with the eventual-champion Skyforce emerging victorious and Richardson taking Round One of the individual battle.)
Shortly after those assignments, both players were called upon to contribute for the parent club, their stamina maintained, their games refined, their confidence high. And again, both completely blew expectations away.
The loss of Chris Bosh forced the Heat to begin playing smaller, and Richardson emerged as a natural solution to a thin guard rotation. He effectively entered the regular rotation out of the All-Star break (when the Heat lost Bosh), appearing in all 29 games thereafter, playing 29.1 minutes per-night. His defense came as advertised, with Richardson bottling up guards of any size and style with his 6-foot-10 wingspan, lateral quickness, and ESP-like anticipation. But the Heat are starved for spacing even when small, and it was Richardson’s shooting that rendered him not just playable, but an impact – he hit 53.3 percent of his threes down the stretch, shooting 50 percent overall and averaging 10.2 points, mostly as a spot-up threat (first as an ignored one, then as a not-so-ignored one).
An injury to DeMarre Carroll and the combination of ailments and ineffectiveness for James Johnson opened up an opportunity for Powell to start just a little later, late enough that despite similar per-game production, Richardson was able to beat out Powell for the March Rookie of the Month award in the Eastern Conference (Powell would win it in April). Powell entered the starting lineup and the overall rotation for good on March 15, averaging 12.7 points on 48.1 percent shooting in the season’s final 17 games. His ability to attack the late close stood out in the D-League, but like Richardson, Powell dropped napalm from long-range to make ashes of his scouting report, torching the twine at a 47.8 percent clip on threes in that stretch.
If Richardson and Powell had only filled in and helped their teams reach the postseason healthy and rested, they would have provided an enormous value. Instead, Powell started Game 1 for the Raptors, played significant minutes in all but one of the team’s seven games against the Indiana Pacers, and owned perhaps the series-defining moment, a game-tying fourth-quarter jam to cap the biggest playoff comeback in franchise history in Game 5. Richardson averaged 10 more minutes than Powell, solidifying himself as a key piece of Erik Spoelstra’s seven-plus-whoever rotation against the Charlotte Hornets, proving pivotal opposite two-guard lineups.
Now, the two seniors, the two second-round picks, the two former D-Leaguers, and two of the biggest surprises of the 2015-16 season get to meet again, with much bigger stakes than their Dec. 31 encounter. Richardson will be one of the first two men off the bench tasked with slowing DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, and Cory Joseph, while Powell has likely jumped Terrence Ross in the pecking order for the right to chase Dwyane Wade around and endless array of screens and through a parade of back cuts. These aren’t the assignments rookies, especially second-round picks, are supposed to have on such a stage, but here they are.
They’re unlikely to stand head-to-head, as such a matchup would be a waste of the defensive talent of each, which got them to this point in the first place. But with Powell and Richardson on opposite sides in meaningful roles in the second round of the playoffs, they’ve never been more in the spotlight, and with them, the value of scouting, the D-League, player development, and unrelenting hard work.Follow @raptorsrepublic