It’s not easy being the new guy in the NBA, even in the most welcoming of environments, and that’s especially true for players acquired midseason. From picking up and moving, sometimes across the country and with little advanced notice, to figuring out a new role in a new system in the middle of a playoff race to traversing personalities, egos and competing interests in the locker room, the issues that arise when changing teams in a competitive league are typically a bit uncomfortable, at best.
So while Norman Powell joining the Trail Blazers midway through the 2020-21 season after spending his first five years with the Raptors went about as well as could be expected, it wasn’t an integration without issue. It’s not as if the arrival was all that problematic -- Portland was undoubtably a better team with Powell in the lineup -- but being in a contract year, joining a team whose two best players also play the same position, supplanting a starter who would then fall out of the rotation, an unfortunate playoff flameout and eventually a coaching change to cap a truncated season in which previously routine tasks became much more difficult didn’t afford Powell the opportunity to fulfill his full potential.
But whatever hardships occurred, they didn’t keep Powell from signing a five-year contract to come back to the Trail Blazers. And with his future with the team secured, he’s ready to show he can do more than he displayed in his first 27 games with Portland.
“Neil (Olshey) talked about that I kind of deferred a little bit here and there in the game because I didn’t want to do too much or overstep boundaries and stuff like that,” said Powell. “But now, being able to be signed and going through a full, actual season, being able to sit down with Dame (Lillard) and CJ (McCollum) and talk and figure out different ways to make this work and being able to understand each other and play off one another to really take this team to the next level.”
In fact, Powell said that never having a real chance to fully acclimate to his new team was something of a selling point for coming back.
“I think it’s another reason why I came back, because there’s so much that I can do that I feel like, coming in at the trade deadline, it’s kind of hard to make everything mesh and work, especially as a coach,” said Powell. “You don’t fully know the player -- you’ve played against them, you know the numbers and things like that but actually the abilities, what you can do and try to make it work with a group that you have is really tough. But to be able to go through a full training camp and really figure it out from ground zero, especially with a new coach, I think it’s going to be really fun and exciting.”
And so far, it has been. Through the first few days of training camp, Powell said his second start with the Trail Blazers, under first-year head coach Chauncey Billups, is already markedly different than the first.
“Totally different. I feel really a part of the team, a part of the organization,” said Powell. “It’s starting to feel natural and normal to me, just getting into a routine, knowing exactly where I need to be. It’s definitely going to still take some time but it’s definitely a process that’s speeding up day by day.”
Being under contract for the next five years and having an increased familiarity with his teammates and surroundings has undoubtably helped Powell reach a level of comfort that eluded him in Portland last season. But Billups being deliberate about expanding Powell’s role on the offensive end in the fledgling days of both of their first training camps in Portland has played an important role as well.
“Just in talking to the coaches, they’ve been pulling me to the side, from Chauncey to the assistant coaches, talking to me about where they see I could be the most effective, different plays to be ready for, getting me to where I can be most effective getting downhill,” said Powell. “Even switching up who’s bring the ball up, who is starting the plays, things like that to get me comfortable with having the ball in my hands a little bit more, find the right spots, knowing where other guys have to be, really understanding the offensive playbook. It’s only the first few days but I’m definitely feeling more included on the offensive side of the ball.”
Billups helped recruit Powell to re-sign with the Trail Blazers back in July during a meeting in Las Vegas by laying out a vision for how he could be better utilized on both sides of the ball. That vision apparently helped assuage any concerns the 6-3 guard out of UCLA might have had about returning.
“I just wanted to share what I believed, how we were going to play,” said Billups. “Defensively, being more aggressive. Coming from Toronto, they had some really, really good, kind of cutting edge concepts and principles defensively. They switched a ton and he really liked that. We talked a lot about defense and the kind of culture that we wanted to bring as a staff. He agreed with a lot of the things we wanted to do, it’s kind of how he wants to play. He’s really competitive so he wants to take some of those tough matchups, things like that, and as a coach, that’s what you want. You want guys to be able to do that or to want to do that.
“And then offensively, wanted him to know that he’s just not going to be sitting there standing the whole time, we’re going to actually use him. He’s a really good downhill driver, especially and particularly going right, he’s a knockdown shooter. So when we create an environment where we’re moving that basketball and that ball is hoping, everybody is going to get shots.”
While having a more defined role on offense and being able to play a style of defense more in line with his skills will go a long way toward Powell being more comfortable on the court in his second season with the Trail Blazers, those variables would likely be moot if he wasn’t feeling the same comfort off the court. But with a with a few more months as a certified Oregonian under his belt, a long-term contract and the opportunity to spend more time around his teammates and coaches due to the loosening of COVID restrictions, Powell is looking forward to showing Rip City the best version of himself.
“I feel now that I’m one of the guys, one of the featured pieces and my voice will definitely be heard in different situations, being able to talk and speak up, not always defer and stay quiet just to try to fill a role,” said Powell. “What I say is definitely going to change a little bit. Not too much -- that’s never me -- but definitely be able to hold people accountable in different situations and really voice how I’m feeling about different things, different coverages, the flow of the game and stuff like that. I think that’s definitely a little confidence boost just because I’m going to be here for so long and be really with the guys, being able to actually spend more time with them. Not only just at the practice facility and going back and forth, just because of COVID and being the new guy, actually being able to hang out with the guys on the day-to-day, going to dinners and things like that, I think is going to be really big for me to really get adjusted and immerse myself into the full team aspect for a full season.”