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The Raptors need this version of Norman Powell

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After a brutal 2017-18 season, and an injury this season, Norman Powell has bounced back and reasserted himself as a key second unit player for the Raptors.

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Toronto Raptors Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

During the last campaign, Norman Powell was the forgotten man in Toronto’s rotation. This year for the team’s 2018-19 run, especially this most recent period, it’s been a completely different story. Norm has been turning both his game and his status in the Raptors’ rotation around.

Granted, the fourth year shooting guard out of UCLA came out of the gate slowly this season. Through the first month, he played a mere 14.8 minutes per game and averaged only 5.0 points on 46.1% shooting. These numbers were hauntingly similar to last season’s, and it looked like he was headed for yet another disappointing campaign.

Making a bad start even worse, Powell suffered a left shoulder injury on November 5th in Utah that would keep him out of action for the next 21 games.

Unfortunately for the Raptors, but luckily for Powell, the bench continued to struggle during his absence, opening the door for a long look when he returned from injury. In Norm’s absence, C.J. Miles couldn’t (and still can’t) find his range, and OG Anunoby has struggled at times with the adjustment of going from starter last season to bench player this year. This provided Powell with a golden opportunity to play more minutes upon his return, and he jumped all over it.

In Norm’s first six games back, Nick Nurse upped his minutes to 21 per game. Nurse also appeared to gave him more freedom to shoot than in the early season. During the first month of the campaign, Powell took only 3.9 shot attempts per game, hitting 46 percent of them. During his first six games back from injury in December, his attempts per game almost doubled to 6.4.

Still, Powell wasn’t shooting the ball particularly well, as his 43.8 percent from the field and abysmal 18.8 percent from deep attested to. Yet Nurse stuck with him, in part because of his commitment to rest Kawhi Leonard for back-to-backs and with Miles continuing to misfire from the arc.

In January, Nurse increased Powell’s minutes and offensive load even more, with Norm averaging 22.4 minutes while attempting 9.2 shots per game. The difference, however, was that he was now converting at a much higher clip than December, hitting 47.8 percent from the field and a respectable 37.5 percent from deep.

In 2019, Powell’s been averaging 11 points per game, injecting a spark off the bench on most nights. This past Sunday versus the Pacers he exploded, going 10-of-12 from the field and tallying 23 points.

This current version of Norm is having a similar impact with the Raptors that he delivered two seasons ago. The reason for his recent success is crystal clear – he’s back to playing a much more aggressive game, and doing it with a greater sense of control.

The numbers don’t lie. During the 2017-2018 campaign, almost half of Powell’s shot attempts were from deep, with only 50.3 percent of his shots coming from inside the arc. Of this amount, only 27.8 percent of them came from within three feet from the basket. So a whopping seven out of 10 shots Norm was taking were jumpshots far from the rim.

For the athletic slasher that Powell needs to be to be effective, these percentages were completely out of sync. His shot needs to complement his attacking the basket, not the other way around.

Since this January, Powell’s shot selection has changed drastically. Two thirds of his attempts have been taken inside the three-point line. Out of these, over half of them (53.3%) have been three feet or less from the basket — right in Powell’s wheelhouse. His game since returning from injury has become much more aggressive, with him consistently attacking the rim. And the results have followed. Norm is converting a remarkable 87 percent of his shots from in close. He has returned to being the bench catalyst he once was.

Expect Norm to continue building upon this as the season continues. His minutes should stay in the 20-22 range, providing him the platform to deliver double-digit performances off the bench as he has done for much of January. And no one should discount him popping off for 20+ points, as he’s done in the past.

Powell is no longer the forgotten man he was last season and at the start of this season. He will likely feature as one of the first options in the second unit, and a key figure in the inevitably tightened playoff rotation.

To maintain this, he’ll need to stay aggressive and not revert back into the jump shooter that led to his demise in 2017-18. And he’ll need to continue converting threes at his current 35%-plus rate — a must for a Raptors squad that has struggled from the arc all season long.

With the belief that coach Nurse has shown in Powell since his return from injury and the confidence his teammates once again have in him as a key contributor, there is no reason that he shouldn’t excel moving forward.