Toronto Raptors: Norman Powell’s struggle with growth and stagnation

PHOENIX, AZ - FEBRUARY 02: Norman Powell
PHOENIX, AZ - FEBRUARY 02: Norman Powell /

With the culture and youth of the Toronto Raptors rapidly growing past him, Norman Powell could find himself on the bench more for the rest of the season.

It’s hard to stay hidden when you’re stunting on a jumbotron. Norman Powell is no longer only a cult hero for the Toronto Raptors, he’s a legit player, he’s on the scouting report.

The Raptors’ roster is filled with guards, Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet, C.J. Miles, Powell and Lorenzo Brown, meaning if you stink up the joint there’ll always be someone to replace you.

Since Powell moved to the bench full-time his stats have cratered. Registering 11.2 minutes, 3.2 points 1.2 assists,1.7 rebounds and two DNP’s over the past 11 games, we’ve officially arrive at a nadir in his career.

In seasons past we’ve seen Powell completely alter series. His tenacity and shooting provided an eccentric element to the Raptors that oft seemed stale. Depending on the matchup, the post-season can make a role player look like a god, ask Roy Hibbert.

Clamp down on the stars and make the others beat you, and that one dude off the bench could change a series, especially someone as young as him. But for someone who always grindin’, Powell’s offensive game has barely evolved past his rookie season.

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Powell maintains the reputation as a hard worker (as evidenced by countless interviews) and even the way he arrived in the NBA is a path forged by relentless work combined with determination rather than one of innate physical advantages.

Drafted in the second round, Powell pierced the G-league averaging 24.9 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.6 assists. He’s an undersized shooting guard with penchant of taking the ball to the rim, every once in a while he hits a shot from outside and gives effort on defense. That’s a grinders game.

The 40% 3-point shooting in his rookie season fell to 32% last year and is now a piddling 28.8% this year. The Raptors’ revamped offense is predicated on the 3-point shot and playing within the system without it is an exercise in exasperation.

That spotty outside shooting means defenders don’t respect you from deep. And when defenders don’t defend you from deep, they crowd your drives and cut off your driving angles. Through ways that exist for the likes of James Harden, Steph Curry, even 2017 DeRozan are closed when you can’t shoot from deep. But, if Powell can’t hit that three he’s recklessly headed to the rim, regardless.

See, Powell is right handed, very right handed. His drives are predominately to his right, he dunks right handed and almost always lays it up right handed.

Predictable. If the defense can presage what you’re doing before you even do it you’d be hard pressed to finish at the rim effectively. The drives are obviously more effective when attacking closeouts but Powell is prove-it shooter. The defense can sit back and wait for the right hand drive.

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And although Powell loves to drive to the rim it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s good at it. Powell’s drives per game have escalated every year from 2.7 to 4.8 to 5.4 but the amount of point generated per game are mediocre.

Scoring 1.4, 3.1 and then 2.5 points per game, as per, on drives in progressive years is a mark of minimal growth. Powell drives like vanilla ice cream with no sprinkles, in straight lines with no wrinkles.

The drives aren’t creative in any way and leave him susceptible to the defense.  Three point shooting isn’t an absolute necessity to scoring in the NBA but If they don’t respect you from deep, they must fear you within the lines, ask Deebo circa 2016.

Powell’s turnover rate has bounced from  6.9 to 9.4% to 10.3%, per, when attacking the rim and it’s easy to see why, the defender has a beat on Powell’s movement attacking the rim and never worries about a change in pace or direction. His game lacks what developing guards need, craft. Not only is he hound on the drive but big routinely deny him at the rim.

Powell’s never been a good finisher at the rim, ever. The thunderous dunks in transition make it look like he’s a spectacular finisher but he struggles around the cup. At 6’4″, 215 pounds Mr. Serious isn’t a juggernaut at the rim.

Powell has a wiry frame, with long arms that would be great for creative layups underneath the rim but he’s yet to actualize that advantage. His finishes are rudimentary and without the extra heft on him to power through defenders he’s left with struggle layups.

Powell’s play has landed him effectively outside of the rotation. And If he does see any playtime he’s doing little of consequence. Defensively Powell’s is a net neutral when he’s on the floor, but offensively is where he’s doing the most damage. When Powell graces the floor for the Raptors this season, the offense plunges by 7.9 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass.

Through the past three years Powell’s moveset hasn’t altered and his approach is no different. Much like a one-dimensional MMA fighter who bursts on the scene with striking knockouts, people are quick to catch on and counter your style. You can succeed professionally only so long without evolving.

The Raptors could assign Mr. Serious to the G-league giving him more leeway for his game to sprout. He hasn’t fulfilled three years of service in the NBA yet but the optics are bleak. A clear demotion for a player that just signed a contract extension for four years, $42 million is an easy way to shatter confidence between Powell and the organization, and Powell and himself. But, the G-league would be a place where he would get significant run instead of languishing on the bench.

The Raptors are off to their best start ever running a record of 31-13 and all without Norman Powell. It’s hard to tell if that’s a condemnation or revelation of Powell’s struggles.

The team doesn’t need him in any particular way, VanVleet, Wright and Miles are gladly sopping up the minutes. But that also means Powell’s struggles aren’t a priority for the team to correct, he has to do it on his own.

Mr.Serious has fallen out of the rotation only to be slotted back in recently showing that Dwane Casey hasn’t completely lost faith in him. Although Powell keeps posting feeble statlines like 2/1/1  while shooting 25.3% from the floor against San Antonio.

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Coaches try to play as many players as possible while still winning.  But with the Raptors’ roster, culture and youth rapidly growing around him, Powell could find his shorts stapled to the bench through the second half of the season and the Raptors playoff run.