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Norman Powell has levelled up for Toronto

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It’s not a hot streak, this is simply who the Raptors’ Norman Powell is: one of the best scorers in the NBA. So what’s that worth to Toronto?

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Indiana Pacers Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Norman Powell is on fire right now.

Since shaking off an early season slump on January 8th with a 22-point performance on 6-of-8 shooting in the Raptors’ dynamite win against the Sacremento Kings, Powell has been putting up the best numbers of his career.

Except, actually, he isn’t.

He’s just matching a level he’d already shown. Which means, six years after being a second round pick, Powell has matured into one of the very best scorers in the NBA. Yes, it’s true. What that means for the Raptors going forward, and for Powell himself, could prove to be one of the most interesting sub-plots of Toronto’s season.

First though, the evidence. Since January 8th Powell is putting up incredible numbers

General Powell Excellence

MP PPG FG% 3P% FT% TS% Net Rating REB AST
MP PPG FG% 3P% FT% TS% Net Rating REB AST
30.3 19.4 51.3 44.8 89.5 62.3 5.3 3.5 1.8

Not only is Powell scoring the ball, he’s doing it very efficiently. For players who are taking at least 12 shots a game in that stretch (Powell is at 13.1), he ranks sixth in True Shooting percentage, behind such names as Joel Embiid, Steph Curry, Zion Williamson, Paul George, and Zach LaVine (number two on this list, and quietly turning himself into an absolute problem on the offensive end).

Powell is doing this all by combining his increasingly dangerous marksmanship from deep — he’s 13th in the league in percentage of players taking at least five a game — with a skill he finally perfected last season: scoring at the hoop.

Among players 6’5” or smaller who go for at least four “at rim” attempts a game, Powell (6’3) is 10th in accuracy — at just over 61 percent. His ability to rain fire from deep, while also pressuring the rim is the clear blueprint for a difference-making offensive player.

Of course, if you were watching last season you’re not surprised. After a similarly rough start, Powell took off over the final 52 games last year, again fuelled by that combo of long-range accuracy and at the rim finishing.

Deja Vu All Over Again

MP PPG FG% 3P% FT% TS% Net Rating REB AST
MP PPG FG% 3P% FT% TS% Net Rating REB AST
28.4 16 49.5% 39.9% 84.3% 62.4% 4.6% 3.7 1.8

As you can see Powell’s basically replicating his numbers from a year ago. The big difference is that Powell’s usage has ticked up. This season, he’s getting up an extra shot and a half a game.

With a total sample size of 79 games over two years, and Powell firmly in his athletic prime, it’s safe to say this is who Norm is as a player. One of the five to ten most efficient relatively high-usage players in the league. It also means that Powell is a virtual certainty to opt-out of his $11.6 million deal for next year. But what is Powell worth — and should the Raptors pay it?

One point of comparison would be Jordan Clarkson of Utah. He’s seen a simillar surge over his last 80 games since going to Utah, becoming a fairly high-efficiency scorer. He’s also, like Powell, competent defensively — albeit while playing on a good defensive team. Clarkson was also a former second round pick, and is a year older than Powell.

The Jazz locked Clarkson up with a four-year/$51.2 million deal. If the Raptors can get Powell to take a deal like that, they should absolutely offer it to him — it would represent, though, just a small raise on what Powell is making now.

Before you say there’s no way in hell Powell does that, keep in mind: Clarkson was coming off a contract that paid him about the same Powell is getting now. That suggests, even with each players’ improvements, there may be a hard ceiling on the value of this skill-set. (And that $50 million is a lot of money to say “no” to.)

The major difference is that Clarkson was going into a free-agency period where the majority of teams had minimal room. This coming off-season is not going to be the same. According to Spotrac.com, almost half the league is predicted to have room to bring in at least one $15-million dollar player, and that’s without the cap gymnastics that go on to free up more room.

The playoffs could also figure in here. If Anthony Davis is healthy and the Lakers romp to another title, or if the Big 3 in Brooklyn proves to be unstoppable, it could depress teams desire to spend for a player like Powell — now a proven complimentary piece, but argubaly not a true difference-maker.

If the Lakers and Nets stumble, however, the league could seem as open as it’s been since the beginning of LeBron’s career (the Raps’ title year excepted). In that world, a number of “second-tier” teams could look at Powell’s high-efficiency scoring and his “you can play him to close out a game” defense, and decide he is the last piece of the puzzle.

In that case, maybe Eric Gordon becomes the comp for Powell. Gordon’s peak efficiency numbers and Defensive Box Score numbers lag behind Powell’s most recent level — but Gordon had a much longer established track record when he signed his current four-year, $75.6 million deal — which works out to a shade under $19 million a season.

At that level, do the Raptors have to pause? Toronto has almost $69 million committed to OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, and Fred VanVleet alone next year. Based on current cap-projections, that would leave Toronto with a shade under $38 million to flesh out their team with $14.5 million tied up in players you assume the Raps would want to keep in Chris Boucher, DeAndre’ Bembry, Malachi Flynn, Paul Watson, and Matt Thomas (and even buying out the Thomases and Watsons of the world doesn’t create much wiggle room).

In this scenario, $24-odd million wouldn’t be enough to bring back Kyle Lowry and add the mobile big Toronto clearly needs to stabilize their defense. Toronto would have to go into the cap — which could add anoter $25 million to play with — but in a revenue-depressed environment. It’s fair to ask what Toronto’s appetite for going into the tax would be with what doesn’t seem to be a title-contending core.

If Lowry is traded or prefers to start a new adventure, does signing Powell at $19-20 million per year — basically VanVleet money — make sense even if the value is there? At that point, maybe it’s pivot to an on-the-fly rebuild and wait to see if a true difference-making star comes available. Then again, maybe that’s the argument to keep Powell. At $15-20 million a year, and with clear value, he could be a secondary piece in a star-stealing trade.

Regardless of how Bobby Webster and (hopefully) Masai Ujiri play this, it’s comforting to know that Norm Powell is no longer a question mark for the Raptors. He’s now an answer to the question: “who is one of the best microwave scorers in the NBA?”