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Still too early for Toronto to give up on Norman Powell

After a disappointing year, can Norman Powell bounce back and reassert himself as a reliable option for the Raptors? 

Milwaukee Bucks v Toronto Raptors - Game Five Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

There were a lot of reasons why the Toronto Raptors enjoyed their franchise-best regular season, but probably the most important was a bench that was arguably the best in the league. Led by breakout seasons from Fred Van Vleet, Delon Wright and Pascal Siakam, the second unit went from unproven to undeniable over the first half of the campaign, opening up eyes and garnering praise across the circuit.

The forgotten man in this emergence was Norman Powell, who began the season with plenty of promise but stumbled out of the blocks. When he eventually lost his starting spot, it was assumed that this demotion would see him play a key role coming off the bench. That didn’t happen. Instead, Powell found himself in and out of the back end of the rotation. In the second half of the season and throughout the playoffs, he was a largely a forgotten man, relegated to the odd shift, most of it in garbage time.

With the core of the second unit returning, the question is what role Powell will have this season. Jakob Poeltl was traded away as part of the Kawhi Leonard deal, but the more accomplished Danny Green is coming in as part of the package. Lucas Nogueira, who like Powell was also a peripheral contributor last season, has also moved on but his spot has been upgraded with the signing of Greg Monroe. While Nick Nurse has not yet shown his hand in terms of a starting five, the second unit promises to be even deeper than last year’s. As a result, it is difficult to predict how important Powell’s role might be this season.

It wasn’t long ago that Powell’s stock was sky high. In the summer of 2015, the 46th overall pick of the 2015 NBA Draft made the All-NBA Summer League First Team. During his short stint in Vegas, Powell showed everyone who was paying attention how athletic and talented he was. It didn’t take long for him to earn the handle of one of the steals of the draft.

Powell followed up his summer success with a solid rookie season, contributing off the bench. He averaged 5.6 points a game, shooting 42.4 percent from the field and an impressive 40.4 percent from the arc. As significantly, he regularly showed flashes of brilliance that underscored his tremendous potential. This included an array impressive dunks.

Yet Powell’s real breakout came in the first round of the 2017 Playoffs, which saw the Raps locked in a gruelling seven game series against the Greek Freak and his Milwaukee Bucks. Powell provided a much-needed infusion of energy to the Raps’ starting lineup, especially in the pivotal fifth game with the teams even at two wins apiece.

Powell took on centre stage, erupting for 25 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals and a block. He was explosive, jumping into lanes to intercept passes and pushing the ball in transition. And he was perfect beyond the arc, hitting all four attempts. This display confirmed the flashes that Powell had been showing throughout the season — that he had every possibility of becoming an athletic 3-and-D wing slasher.

Powell’s increased playing time during that playoff run of 25.1 minutes per game translated into interesting numbers: 11.7 points, 3.1 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.1 steals per game. And his shooting percentage from three was a rock solid 44.1 percent.

Not only did this showcase performance earn him a 4-year, $42 million contract extension following the Raptors playoff exit, it heralded Powell as a budding star. The promising young wing looked certain to take the next step.

The 2017-18 season proved just the opposite. Powell faltered out of the gate. Despite starting, he only scored 6.0 points per game in October, shooting a dismal 27.8% from deep. November brought some improvement, when he averaged 11.7 points, 2.0 rebounds, 1.2 steals per game and shooting 39.7% from deep.

Yet just when it seemed like he was emerging from his early season funk, Powell suffered a hip injury on November 12th, forcing then-coach Dwane Casey to shuffle his starting five. He inserted OG Anunoby, playing a hunch that the rookie would supply the energy that had been missing from Powell’s game, and it worked. The starting unit gelled with Anunoby mucking it up on the boards and playing relentless defense.

The Raps went on a four game winning streak in Powell’s absence — their best run of the season to that point. Upon his return from injury, Casey kept the new starting five intact, shifting Powell as his first or second option off the bench. It seemed like a strong fit, and Powell responded nicely, averaging 13.5 points, 3.3 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game. However, the Raptors went 2-2 in that stretch and didn’t play well as a unit.

As December rolled around, Casey made the decision to spread the second unit minutes more evenly. Powell’s playing time dipped from 25 to under 15 minutes a game that month. Unsurprisingly, his shooting percentage, and with it his production, plummeted to 36.9% from the field and 20.5% from downtown.

As with his injury, Powell’s timing once again could not have been worse. The Raps’ second unit clicked, with the combination of Wright, VanVleet, Siakam, Poeltl and C.J. Miles finding almost instant chemistry. All of a sudden, the bench was keeping Toronto in games they had no business being in. And increasingly, Casey was calling on second unit players to combine with starters to close out tight games. The Raps’ bench had arrived, with Powell mainly a spectator.

From December onward, Powell’s playing time plunged. His numbers reflected that, averaging only 12.9 minutes and 4.2 points a game. On most nights, he was the 10th or 11th option for Casey. When the head coach went with a tighter rotation for the playoffs, Powell was the odd man out.

Last season was a year to forget for Powell. His progression hit a massive speed bump both in terms of role and production. However, his situation is not necessarily as gloomy as it may seem. After all, many players have bounced back from poor campaigns to become the players people believed they would.

Another factor that may be in Powell’s favour is the change in the second unit mix. While the group is arguably stronger than last year, there’s no guarantee that it will find the same amazing chemistry it had last season.

Finally, a new head coach probably means a new approach and potentially a fresh look at player evaluation. That should translate into an opportunity for Powell to prove his value in pre-season and early in the season.

It seems obvious that his role and playing time for the coming season will be dictated by his performance in the early weeks of the upcoming campaign. Powell will need to show Nurse he’s a reliable and versatile option that can consistently provide a spark off the bench — which he’s done in the past.

If that is to happen, Powell needs to improve in a couple different areas. Last season’s shift to more of a three-point shooting attack was difficult for him. If he is to enhance his role, he must become more reliable from deep. A 40 percent three-point shooting percentage may be overly optimistic, but he certainly needs to hit around the 35 percent clip. This level of consistency from deep will force defenders to respect his shot, which will increase Powell’s effectiveness off the dribble. He has a solid handle and an explosive first step, which he needs to exploit more than he did last season. He is definitely at his best when he’s attacking the rim with force.

Powell proved this during his sophomore 2016-17 season. No less than 65 percent of his shots were inside the three-point line. And out of those two-pointers, 41.1 percent were within three feet of the basket.

Contrast this with last season, when this percentage of shots from in close dropped to under 28 percent, while more than half of his shots came from beyond the arc. As a result of this, he abandoned much of the slashing, attacking style that is central to his game.

It wasn’t just Powell’s offensive game that suffered. In the 2017 Playoffs, he provided a different look defensively when he was inserted. Last year, his defense seemed indifferent. His anticipation of the previous year was absent and the turnovers dwindled. This put even more pressure on his offense because his game thrives on forcing turnovers and running the break in transition.

After last season’s grim output, it would be easy to quit on Powell, and it seems many observers have. There has been offseason speculation that Masai Ujiri has tried to dump his salary by attaching a draft pick a la DeMarre Carroll. But it’s probably too early for that. After all, Powell is still only 25 years old and entering just his fourth campaign. That is when most players start to hit their prime.

If Powell comes into Raptors training camp with confidence, an improved three-point stroke, and his former tenacity on the defensive end, coach Nurse might be forced to give him a long look.

It won’t be easy for Powell to crack a second unit that looks to already be five deep, but there is a way. He will need to beat out C.J. Miles to be a second unit stalwart. The long-range sharpshooter owns a career 41.4% average from deep but he only shot 36.1% last year, so maybe the mileage is catching up to him. And he’s more one-dimensional a player, so Powell will have to exploit his versatility if he is to surpass Miles. If he doesn’t overtake the veteran, his chances of unseating Wright, FVV, Siakam, Green/Serge Ibaka or Monroe seem remote.

While there are still a lot of questions swirling around Norm Powell’s future with the Raptors, a quick look at the highlights from his 25-point outburst against the Bucks in the 2017 Playoffs should remind skeptics of the player he can be. If he can rediscover that version of his playing self, he will be difficult to keep off the floor.