There’s a reason why the 2016 NBA Finals were so thrilling. Golden State had been in line for the belt all season long. A second-straight championship for the Warriors wouldn’t have exactly been a ho hum accomplishment, but it would have been a hell of a lot less enthralling than dramatically blowing a 3-1 lead in the Finals. LeBron’s coronation was captivating in part because it was so unexpected.
That’s why Norman Powell’s rookie year was such a treat. High picks like Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis are supposed to show off their limitless ceilings from the jump — that, or risk flirtation with the “bust” label prematurely.
Second-rounders aren’t burdened with the same level of expectation as their well-paid counterparts. If a guy slips to round two, there’s normally a reason. So when a late pick like Powell pops as a rookie, the excitement within the fan base is palpable.
Powell wasn’t just a pleasant surprise in the back half of the 2015-16 season. He quickly moved up the ranks from hopeful prospect to full-time starter in the final 17 games of the season (a span during which he averaged 12 points, four rebounds and two assists). His unlikely contributions were the kind of buoy that any team needs to stumble upon in order to reach 56 regular season wins.
In the playoffs, when most 40-something overall picks are relegated to towel-waving duty, Powell was essential. During the most high leverage moments of the Raptors’ season — the fourth quarter of Game 5 against Indiana — Powell found himself not only on the floor, but capping a potentially season-saving run with one of the team’s dunks of the season:
The Raptors tie the game on a thunderous Norm Powell dunk. 17-2 run. pic.twitter.com/QmHZPEtdlZ— Kenny Ducey (@KennyDucey) April 27, 2016
In the following two series, Powell’s minutes were swallowed up as Casey relied more heavily on a tightened rotation. But Powell had made his mark. Without those late-season starts, or his play in the first round, who knows where the Raptors franchise-best season would have ended up.
That brings us to Powell’s sophomore campaign. He has buzz this time around. He’s no longer gravy for the Raptors — he’s expected to be green beans now, and possibly even more than that. The question is whether or not Powell’s opportunities will be as abundant as they were a year ago.
Thanks to Powell’s rapid growth, Toronto is deep at the wing (this is an anomaly in Raptors history). And unlike last season, where Powell became a starter almost by default, he’ll be entrenched in a pseudo-competition for backup minutes at the two and three spots with Terrence Ross.
Carroll, DeMar DeRozan and Cory Joseph’s minutes at those spots are spoken for. DeRozan’s a lock for 35, Joseph’s 10-minute bits next to Lowry were too effective last year to stray away from, and even if five of Carroll’s 30-or-so minutes a night come at the four, that still leaves just 26 wing minutes left over for Ross and Powell to duke it out for.
With Ross, you know what you’re going to get in that you never really know what you’re going to get from him on a night to night basis. When clicking, he’s a handsy defender who can stroke it from the perimeter and mid-range alongside the best in the NBA. But if it’s one of those space-headed and apprehensive outings, Ross descends into borderline uselessness.
Powell’s opportunities will be carved by consistency. Casey trusted him to play important minutes as a rookie; if he thinks Powell’s blend of wingspan, quickness and aggressiveness on offense bring more punch than Ross, he probably won’t have any issue trotting the springy second-year guard out regularly. Uncertain, still, is whether or not it’ll be possible for him to exhibit nightly steadiness when opponents are no longer just scanning past his name on the scouting report.
Powell isn’t a secret anymore. He sunk too many open triples and blew past too many hapless defenders in Summer League for teams to not account for him. How he adjusts to operating in tighter spaces will dictate how often Casey calls his number. In his first season, Powell shot a wildly impressive 40.4 percent from long range on 89 regular season attempts. This, after his three-point shooting was among the reasons teams were dissuaded from drafting him high. Toronto’s Lowry and DeRozan-centred offense does a good job of freeing up open looks for secondary options like Powell. Toronto’s developmental coaches have a growing reputation for turning bricklayers into painters, but the stress-free shooting environment certainly didn’t hurt Powell. Last season, 55.9 percent of his shots came when either open or wide open per NBA.com — Toronto as a whole was free from the defense on just 40.1 percent of its shots.
As teams adjust their help schemes to better prevent Powell from spotting up unmanned, the validity of his improvements will be tested. His three-point stroke slipped to just 26.9 percent in 18 playoff games, but that 26-attempt sample just isn’t enough to determine whether or not the intensified postseason setting was the cause of his troubles.
Look, betting against Powell hasn’t been an advisable strategy over the last year or so. I wrote on this site after he owned Vegas in summer 2015 that there was a non-zero chance he’d never turn into a noteworthy NBA player ... Wrong. He was supposed to be a D-League project for the bulk of his first pro season ... Nope. Powell’s in the business of leapfrogging expectations, so it’s not at all crazy to think he’ll sustain the shooting promise and general effectiveness he flashed in 2015-16.
This is how good teams weather the attrition and talent losses that go hand in hand with success. They capitalize on precious draft picks and create cost-effective, in-house depth pieces like Powell — a guy who has the potential to one day be even more than that. But it’s important to remember that setting expectations at an unrealistic level can only lead to disappointment when that bar isn’t cleared.
So go ahead, daydream about what Powell could one day be. Take that lightning-quick first-step and twitchy athleticism and envision him as a major piece of many a Raptors team to come. At the same time, try not build him up to the point where you’re expecting him to accomplish all of those things as a second-year guy with less than 1,000 minutes played in the NBA.
On the off-chance he does the Norman Powell thing and reaches those heights this season anyway, you’ll be as elated with him as you were when he threw down the Moon Dunk against the Pacers in April.