The Raptors are 5-0 and look scary good when their best parts are working at peak efficiency together. Kawhi Leonard is a terror, Kyle Lowry a super genius, even Serge Ibaka appears to have found himself as a full-time centre. So it makes little sense to dwell on Norman Powell, a wing player who projects to be Toronto’s 11th man at best.
Because Norm looms so large in the Raptors’ recent playoff history, and because we really do want him to jump up in the rotation and succeed, he’s proven to be a fascinating bellwether for Toronto. In one sense, Powell’s play will not make or break the Raptors’ season — not even when Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet are both dealing with injuries. The team is just too deep and well-balanced for that. In another sense though, having Powell at peak capacity, doing all-caps Norm things on the court, gives the Raptors one more weapon at their disposal.
Through the season’s first five games, Powell is averaging 6.6 points, 2.4 rebounds, 0.8 assists, with shooting splits of 46/33/100 percent, in 15.0 minutes per game. He’s nabbed one start, getting in 23 minutes during the second night of a back-to-back contest vs. the Washington Wizards last weekend. After what most would deem a disappointing season, Powell looks if not spectacular on the floor, then at least steady for the Raptors.
“I was pretty happy with the preseason, the way [Powell] looked,” said coach Nick Nurse before the team’s Wednesday night game against the Minnesota Timberwolves, a relatively easy 112-105 win. “For the most part I thought he was taking more what was coming than trying to force the issue. And that’s where we’re trying to get him, to get in the rhythm of the offense instead of kind of four guys playing and then it gets to him and something else is happening.”
So what does an in control, in rhythm, Norman Powell look like in the NBA regular season? If last night’s Minnesota performance is anything to go by, the Raptors are looking at a player who fits in with what’s going on. Powell played just over 12 minutes in the contest, but managed 10 points on 4-of-8 shooting (including a below average 1-of-4 from deep), two assists, one rebound, and a steal, to finish at +7 for the game. He had one turnover and took perhaps one hopeless shot, a long two off-the-dribble characteristic of the “bad” Norm.
“That’s where we’re continuing to go with him,” said Nurse. “He’s gotta take what’s there and not force his own play sometimes, and then again, we just want him to be really good defensively, ‘cause he’s got some speed and strength and athleticism to be a really good locked-in defender.”
Before the game, Nurse was asked about Powell going forward when it became clear he’d get minutes in place of the injured VanVleet and a still-sore Wright. As it happens Toronto is, for better or worse, still very much tied to Powell — his four-year, $40 million contract has just begun after all — and both player and team are set on proving that deal wasn’t a mistake. For Nurse’s part, he took some responsibility as a (former) Raptors assistant coach, admitting he and the staff perhaps gave Powell too much leeway early on. “What happens is [Powell] kind of does it and has some success with it, and you think he’s gonna be able to kinda take people and do things 1-on-1 and play a little bit out of rhythm, but we found out maybe last year that it wasn’t quite the right thing to do. So we’re trying to get him back, and we’ve worked really hard this summer and fall at it.”
That’s what makes these short shift minutes, these fill-in duties, these chances for even modest redemption so important for Powell and the Raptors. Yes, Norm is not going to save Toronto’s season on his own — unlike in those pair of Game 5s already — but having him at the ready is a boon for the team anyway. Powell’s hustle plays, the confidently taken open threes (even if he misses them), and of course those explosive forays to the rim do indeed matter.
On Wednesday night against Minnesota, the story of the game was Kawhi Leonard’s 35 points and all-around defensive mastery; it was also OG Anunoby guarding everyone (including Jimmy Butler) with abandon, Kyle Lowry with 10 assists, and Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas taking turns owning the paint on Toronto’s behalf. Powell’s efforts didn’t factor in that much. Still, Norm’s effect on the game was positive — he successfully played his part.
“[Norm] had a real short stint which usually doesn’t bode too well for a player, mentally or whatever,” said Nurse after a demoralizing second quarter run by the Timberwolves. “But I’ve kind of told him he’s got to be ready. I may stick him in at the end of a quarter for a play and he hasn’t played for 11:45 and he’s got to be ready for that stuff.
“I’m pretty proud of him for the way he responded in the second half. He was part of a nice run there.”