Norman Powell was destined to be a fan favourite in Toronto. He’s aggressive, he’s athletic, he’s quick he’s humble, he’s an underdog — and, oh yeah, he’s really good.
He started his Raptors life as a folk hero, a guy that the die hard’s could call their own after his eye-popping performance in the 2015 Las Vegas Summer League, that refuge of every basketball addict each July. He had the kind of performance that gets fans nervous/excited. The kind of performance that has tricked many into believing that what happened in Vegas could translate into actual NBA games. Many have failed to make that jump work (Dajuan Wagner, Marco Belinelli, and Josh Shelby come to mind), and so the previously-unheralded Powell’s performance made as many wary about buying into him too early as it made others giddy about what he could bring to the Raptors.
Fortunately for Powell, his 2015-16 season lived up to the early hype.
A lot of this had to do with good timing. He got to start the season well out of the spotlight with the Raptors 905, but made the most of his time there. He played in eight games between mid-December and the end of January (with one extra game on March 3rd) and averaged 24.9 ppg on 50% shooting, while also averaging 5.1 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game. Much like he had in Summer League, Powell looked a notch above nearly all of his competition, and clearly deserved a shot with the main team.
That opportunity came when DeMarre Carroll went down. Powell wound up playing 49 regular season games with 24 starts, a remarkable achievement for a second-round pick on a top-tier NBA club. His stats weren’t eye-popping (save for his 40% three-point shooting, which was an unexpected boon), but Powell is the kind of player that makes his impact in subtler ways. He plays hard, with an infectious determination, and he plays that way without making the kinds of over-aggressive fouls that often plague rookies in that style (he averaged just 2.9 fouls per 36 minutes).
More importantly, Powell was basically a series-saver against the Indiana Pacers in the first round of the Playoffs, with his ability to stick to Paul George and, of course, the steal. His impact was so great that Dwane Casey even started him on Dwayne Wade in the next round. Granted, he got toyed with, but Wade is a top-five all-time shooting guard, so the fact that Casey had that kind of trust in him at all shows far he came in one short season.
Heading into this season, though, Powell’s impact is hard to predict. Given all that he did last season, you’d expect a large bump in minutes and responsibility, but things aren’t that easy with this team. Carroll is healthy, and making $14-million, and Terrence Ross is presumably slotted in behind him, and is making $10-million. Sure, there will be minutes behind DeMar DeRozan, but there aren’t very many of those, and some of them will go to Corey Joseph when he plays alongside Kyle Lowry.
On the one hand, it’s hard to see how you keep a guy like Powell off of the court. On the other hand, there are only so many minutes to go around, and the club’s investments in Carroll, Ross, and Joseph are substantial. It’s also been telling that, so far, Powell has mostly been suiting up with the third unit in Toronto’s three preseason contests (where he has again played impressively).
It’s difficult to peg how this one will play out. Obviously Powell will get minutes, he’d seem to be too good to not, but will they be meaningful enough minutes for him to truly impact the direction of the team this year? Injuries will happen, and you have to figure he’d be in line to be the primary beneficiary of an injury to anyone except Jonas Valanciunas. Still, that’s hardly the situation you would have pegged after such a strong rookie season. He just seemed primed for more, but when faced with the reality of the situation, there may just not be any more to offer him.
The nice thing for the Raptors is that he’s not going anywhere. They have him locked up on a cheap deal for two seasons after this one, and he gives Masai Ujiri options should trade opportunities come his way. For fans, though, that have fallen in love with Powell’s game, they may not be so happy.
Still, guys like Powell tend to find their way on the court. Guys that can impact the game in multiple ways, especially on the defensive end, without demanding shots or attention, those are the guys that coaches love to reward. After all, that’s what made him a folk hero in the first place.Follow @raptorsrepublic