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Player Preview: Is Norman Powell ready to be a consistent veteran?

Coming off a career-best season, can Norman Powell become a reliable piece for the Raptors this year as one of the team’s veteran players?

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Utah Jazz Russell Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Norman Powell can be a key piece on the Toronto Raptors. He’s shown that throughout stretches of his career, including last season when he put up a career-high in minutes, points, and other offensive categories.

Entering his sixth season in the NBA — all with Toronto — Powell has been a valued role player who can occasionally step into the starting lineup when needed. On the flip side, his career has also been marred by inconsistent play, missed time due to injury, and questions as to whether the former 2015 second round pick can become a consistent veteran the Raptors will need this season.

While the number of missed games due to injury hasn’t been a large concern for Powell — he has played in 81 percent of Raptor games between 2016 and 2020 — it’s been the timing of those injuries that’s the problem. They’ve most often come during moments when Powell is given an opportunity to potentially take on a larger role with the Raptors or when he’s been playing well.

Powell’s absences peaked in 2018-19 when he missed 22 games. Last season, he almost hit that number again, with 20 games lost before the stoppage’s stoppage. (Powell only played in 49 games in his rookie season but a majority of those were DNP – Coach’s Decision.)

Powell’s first two seasons were mostly spent coming off the bench, but he did start in 42 games. It was the 2017-18 season when Norm finally got an opportunity to start after the Raptors dealt Terrence Ross at the trade deadline the year before and shuffled the wing depth during the offseason.

Of course, 12 starts into that season, Norm was shooting 41 percent from the field and only 30.8 percent from three, and then missed four games due to injury. Then-rookie OG Anunoby filled in for Powell in that time, and then held on to his starting spot. Powell only started in six more games that season and settled into a bench role, a spot in which he put up a career-worst in points per game and field goal percentage and had the second worst minutes per game of his career. Powell would fall even further down the depth chart in 2018-19 when Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green were traded to the Raptors for their championship run.

This past season was some what of a redemption or career-defining year for Powell. It was an opportunity to be relied on more as a scoring option. Fortunately for Toronto, Powell proved he could fill that role with style, posting career-highs in points per game, minutes, field goal percentage, and field goal and three-point attempts. He was also rebounding better and for the first time in his career averaged a steal per game too.

In a career so far defined by trying to find his role, it must be asked: Which Powell will the Raptors get this season? This is an especially pointed question this season, as Powell has a realistic shot at being on the floor to help close out games for Toronto (more on that later).

While there are questions about the level of consistency Powell will bring this season, he does enter with minimum pressure. He won’t have anyone trailing him in the depth chart like in 2017-18, and Powell’s contract isn’t something to worry about either.

The way the Raptors’ roster is structured, Powell will most likely be the first player off the bench, pending foul trouble or other unforeseen circumstances. Throughout his career, he’s been asked to provide a scoring spark and that won’t be any different this season. There might be a little more pressure to increase his defensive play, but coach Nick Nurse asks that of any of his players.

Powell also has two years remaining on his contract, the second year being a player option worth more than $11.6 million. So even if Powell takes step back this season, that player option will allow him a second chance to earn a pay raise in the future — either with the Raptors or with another team in the league. If he improves on his play from a season ago, he could opt out and seek a pay raise sooner, which gives him just a little more to play for this season.

And while some fans have consistently thrown Powell’s name in the rumour mill as a potential asset to give up in trades, what fans think isn’t a factor for him, either. At this point in his career, Powell is a veteran who has learned the ropes of the NBA as a business, and secured his place and value much more than in previous years. Even if the Raptors are seeking trades that could improve the roster, Powell’s job will be simply to play.

It’s this mental approach that should allow Powell to continue to be a more consistent presence on the Raptors and in this league. If he sticks to his game and shows confidence in his scoring ability, he’ll be OK.

Powell’s 20 missed games a season ago came in stretches of 11 consecutive games and nine in a row. Again, 20 missed games are not a whole lot, but it is easier to perform at a high-level, at a consistent level, if you’re able to remain on the floor. In this, remember: the Raptors were a +5.3 with Powell on the court — the best since his rookie season — and -2.3 when he was off it. These numbers are useful to keep in mind for his role as the team’s Sixth Man.

This is also the season the Raptors will need Powell on the floor late in games, especially when scoring is needed. A lineup of Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Powell, Anunoby and Pascal Siakam might be the best offensive option the Raptors have this season. It almost got them past Boston in last season’s playoffs, and Powell was part of the reason for that.

Powell will also need to continue to build on his decision-making to remain a consistent veteran. This last season he averaged 36.5 touches per game, which was a career-high and nearly 10 more from the year prior. While he was getting more touches, the ball wasn’t necessarily sticking to Powell either. He averaged 2.5 second per touch — a career-low not including his rookie season — and 1.92 dribbles per touch, an actual career-low.

Powell is at his best when he doesn’t get caught with the ball in his hands for too long. It allows his scoring opportunities to come to him, and often puts him (and his teammates) in the best position to succeed. That showed last season, as the Raptors provided Powell more opportunities on the catch-and-shoot from three.

Powell attempted four shots per game on catch-and-shoot opportunities beyond the arc in 2019-20, up nearly two attempts from the season prior. While his percentage on catch and shoot (44 percent) only improved by one percentage point between the two seasons, it speaks to his stable efficiency despite an uptick in usage.

The opportunities to be an isolation player or to attack off-the-dribble won’t be there as much for Powell. But that hasn’t always been the best for him anyway. For Norm to strive offensively, he has to take advantage of playing with Toronto’s two point guard lineups, e.g. with Lowry and VanVleet, who often put him in the best opportunity to score.

The touches will be there for Powell this season, and so will the chances to score with plays designed for him off-the-ball. Taking advantage of those opportunities will allow him to really hold on to his role of veteran in Toronto. Especially for a season in which the Raptors will need Powell to continue to take consistent strides forward with the rest of the squad.