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Player Review: Norman Powell has discovered who he is for Toronto

Powell has been up and down for the Raptors over the years, but the 2019-20 season saw him settle into a solid role for the team. In fact, Toronto could even rely on him.

NBA: Playoffs-Boston Celtics at Toronto Raptors Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It wouldn’t be a season for the Raptors if we didn’t somehow get into the oscillations of Norman Powell, his fifth year with the team now in the books. If we tracked and logged Norm’s performance over the years in Toronto, it would appear like a scatter plot — the general trend is upwards, but the data points appear all over the place. Still, this past season was the strongest of Powell’s career, even chopped up as it was by injury and a suspended season. What’s more, the Raptors could for the first time admit something else: they relied on Norm.

Appearing in 52 games for the Raptors this past season, and starting in 26 of them, Powell posted career best averages in points (16.0 per game), rebounds (3.7), assists (1.8), steals (1.2), and blocks (0.4). Along the way, his minutes per game went way up from 18.8 per game in 2018-19 to 28.4 in 2019-20, which also meant Powell took more shots and had the ball in his hands more often. Nevertheless, despite this increased usage, Powell’s shooting numbers held strong or improved. He posted a career-high in field goal percentage (49.5%) and free throw percentage (84.3%), and kept up his three-point shooting at 40 percent even after almost doubling his attempts. In all, Powell’s true shooting percentage crept up past 60 percent for the first time in his career (to 62.4%), which marked him as a truly efficient player.

And yet, if you read anything about Powell during the 2019-20 season it was impossible not to detect a note of skepticism or disbelief, as if surely the inevitable drop-off was just around the corner. Throughout Norm’s career in Toronto, there have been times when he’s looked like the shooting guard of the future, and then there have been times when it seemed like he barely knew which way he should be running. During the regular seasons of 2017-18 and 2018-19, when Powell was presumed to be primed for a step forward with the team, it looked like he was regressing. That $42 million extension he signed with the Raptors back in 2017 even felt like a massive overpay at times, an albatross for the team to deal with at some later date. The odds of Powell becoming more than the 46th pick in the draft continued to shrink.

It really does feel like winning the title with Toronto in 2019 changed things for Powell. This past season he looked like a different player. Even after missing two different stretches (of 11 and then nine games) due to injury, and despite even the long pandemic-induced lay-off, Powell became one of Toronto’s more reliable players throughout 2019-20. There were moments, long stretches in fact, where the Raptors would go specifically to him to get the team a bucket. In this, Powell showed a new eye for attacking the basket and continued to be proficient from three-point range. He was still getting up and down in transition, but now his drives felt more controlled, patient even, with an eye towards finding the seam (or a teammate) instead of always trying to tear a hole in the opposing team’s defense. That’s not to say Powell wasn’t still playing with power and authority — he just looked better at harnessing his ability. It was the surest sign that Norm had found himself.

Maybe it was just a matter of ageing into his prime, but the 27-year-old Powell also found a new confidence this past season with the Raptors. He was still in effect the team’s sixth man, the gunner off the bench hand-picked by coach Nick Nurse to juice his team’s offense and change their energy, but it really did feel like Powell had finally settled into the role instead of trying to prove he could do more. Maybe that’s part of it too: in a sense, the “pressure” on Powell to become the team’s next star, their two-guard of the future, is all but gone now. Toronto surely knows what he is now, and to a certain extent so do we. Ironically, even with Norm’s ups and downs, there’s comfort to be found in that too.

That was evident once again in these past Bubble playoffs. Powell helped the Raptors slide by the Nets with ease, posting 29 points in their Game 4 close-out. For much of that series, against a clearly overmatched opponent, Powell looked like he was at the peak of his powers, and ready to tackle the Boston Celtics head-on. But here’s where it gets funny — or, perhaps, it turns Peak Norm. Through five games against Boston, Powell was all but invisible, getting outplayed at times by journeyman guard Brad Wanamaker. This was, in a word, distressing and unexpected — but also just part of the Powell experience.

Much as he’s done in every Raptors’ post-season run since his rookie season in 2016, however, Powell still had some huge playoff moments for Toronto. In their thrilling Game 6 double-overtime win against Boston, there was Powell hitting big shots and making huge plays to help the Raptors pull out the win to keep their season alive. One game doesn’t make a year, but Powell did explode for 23 points in that penultimate Game 6 when everything was on the line. This after being almost taken entirely out of the series’ first five games. It was Norm making the big clutch steal on Jayson Tatum late in that one, it was Norm driving the length of the floor and putting in the lay-up — and drawing the foul — on Marcus Smart, it was Norm who helped the Raptors win.

Of course, it was also Norm who tried to drive it in on Smart again in Game 7, this time getting blocked at the rim for his efforts. That’s just how it tends to go with Powell. He’s trying his hardest at all times, he believes in himself beyond all measure — and Toronto just has to live with the result.