Since before the ink had even dried on Norman Powell’s four-year, $42-million extension with the Raptors, the contract looked like a risk to me. A smaller guard (albeit with good wingspan), with a limited history of outside shooting and a worrying habit of developing tunnel vision, getting top-reserve money was puzzling — even if the desired upside, an energetic 3-D guy with some play-making chops, was enticing.
Those worries carried over into last season as Powell struggled mightily — his numbers cratered across the board — setting career lows in true shooting percentage, total rebound percentage, steal percentage, and free-throw rate. Powell did set a career high in assists, and assist percentage, but that came with a new career high in turnover percentage as well. All told, for the first time in his short NBA career, Powell fell below replacement level.
But, does that mean a player who was a main driver in at least two Toronto playoff wins has nothing to offer?
What Does Norm Do Well?
Unfortunately for Raps fans, the gap between what Norm Powell excels at in actuality vs theoretically is growing. Still, there are some things that Powell did right, even in a lost season — he was in the top 75 percent of wings in both playmaking metrics and perimeter defense.
The playmaking comes as a bit of a surprise, until you think of how Powell turned around the complexion of the 2016 Milwaukee series. As a secondary, or even tertiary ball-hander, Powell gave the Raptors offense a release valve — and created space for DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry to go to work. It’s a roll he can still be counted on to play — and one that suits his abilities best. As a straight-line driver getting to attack against a scrambled defense allows his aggression and burst to play up — because when he has any sort of lane, Powell will attempt to do violence to the hoop.
Because of that desire to cram, Powell has a decent off-the-ball game. In the example below he does a nice job of simply moving into empty space, and despite the play taking a while to develop, his athleticism allows him to finish over two Piston defenders.
Powell is also a willing, and engaged defender on the perimeter. He generally fights through screens well, is usually correct in where to be in help situations, and uses his length to bother shooters without having to over-commit on close-outs.
Here we see how Powell, even though he did get caught by the pick, used his athleticism and hustle to get back in the play to deny the three.
And of course, there is the hard-work factor. Whatever struggles Powell has, it isn’t because he’s lazy — he’s an infamous gym rat who wants to win. Motor is a skill, and Powell has it. Although controlling it better would likely lead to fewer ball-handling mistakes.
What Does Norm Do Poorly?
Unfortunately for Powell, besides his physical gifts, being able to handle the ball, and providing resistance at the point of attack, there isn’t a lot he is doing at an NBA calibre.
On the defensive end, as Dwyane Wade showed in those same 2016 Playoffs, Powell, despite his wing-span, struggles against bigger, physical guards — which is a big part of what made me question the extension. His post defense, even for a wing, graded out horribly last year.
Powell is also a below average rebounder on the defensive side of the ball, and was in the bottom seven percent of wings at getting offensive caroms.
Aside from the occasional dunk, and ability to take a dribble and move the ball, Powell has been below average at basically every other offensive skill. He’s in the bottom 30 percent of wings in one-on-one play, finishing, and roll gravity, while being in the bottom 15 percent at perimeter shooting and post-play.
Simply put, Norm is more of a threat to the Raptors than the opposition when he puts his head down and tries to score. And, putting his head down is the problem. Despite his high-play-making scores, Powell has a bad habit of breaking for the basket with no other plan than to loft up a shot — regardless of the likelihood of that shot going in.
Part of that may have been him pressing, but if Powell felt the heat in the last year of his rookie contract, what is the pressure of earning $10+ million going to do to him?
What Does Norm Need To Do To Succeed?
The most obvious answer is become a better shooter. There just isn’t much evidence that he can do this. In his rookie year, Powell shot 40.4 percent from three, but in just 89 attempts. Strip out that, and over 713 attempts through college and the NBA, Powell is a 30.9 percent shooter from distance.
Still, Powell can give more than he has. A more realistic improvement is for Powell to take a page from DeRozan’s book and learn to drive for multiple purposes, keeping an eye out for simple passes as opposed to crashing into the teeth of the defense every time. Here, his good play-making scores, and the eye-test suggest that Powell could consistently become a player who can force the defense to collapse, or over-commit, and then punish them for that.
On the defensive end Powell is fine. You can quibble about that post-performance, but thankfully few wings have Wade’s mix of guile and ability to play bully ball. Experience should also help Powell weed out some of the over-eagerness to his defensive game. Then again, maybe the pressure of living up to his contract might make him more jumpy.
What Will Happen with Norm?
Powell plays within himself, gets smarter about his forays to the rim, leading to fewer turnovers and wild shot attempts, and hits the three ball at a roughly league average clip. Even still, that collection of events might not do anything more than make him the Bench Mob mascot. But if any of the wing depth ahead of him is hurt or ineffective, that version of Powell would allow the Raptors to keep humming — possibly even in a starting roll.
It’s 2017-2018 all over again basically, as Powell hits a new low in shooting accuracy, and either gets hurt and loses a step, or defenses are even more ready for his largely one-trick-pony drives, and Powell’s contract starts to get discussed as a stretch-provision possibility.
It’s another year of frustration for Powell, who plays better, but not so well he forces himself into regular minutes as Toronto stays mostly healthy.