Norman Powell Embraces Opportunity, While Working For More

Holly MacKenzie -

It’s been a season of patience for Raptors rookie Norman Powell. Minutes have been sporadic since a stand-out summer league showing that earned him All NBA Summer League First Team honours. This is how it works when you’re drafted onto a team that’s second in the conference and sitting at 43-20. You work and you wait.

Neither is new for Powell, a four-year player at UCLA who worked his way into a larger role and more minutes each year of his college career. Between his stints with Raptors 905 and energy during practices and after-practice sessions, Powell has earned the respect of the coaching staff for his work ethic and professionalism. He’s also ecstatic that Raptors head coach Dwane Casey has started to call upon him. Thursday’s victory against the Atlanta Hawks marked Powell’s seventh start of the season, all in the previous six weeks. Toronto is 6-1 in those seven games.

“It means I’m doing something well,” Powell said. “It’s exciting. I’ve been putting in a lot of work, a lot of shots up, studying film. Doing all the small things, the little things that instil trust in the coaching staff and the front office and I’m just glad to see it’s paying off and being noticed. It’s a real confidence builder for me.”

The Raptors drafted Powell for his ability on the defensive end of the floor. Last Friday, Casey gave Powell the start and defensive assignment of most improved player candidate C.J. McCollum when the Raptors defeated the Portland Trail Blazers. On Thursday, it was sharpshooting veteran Kyle Korver.

“He played like an old man,” Casey said of Powell’s performance against the Hawks. “He’s physical, he’s gritty, he’s grimy. His attention to detail, he didn’t fall asleep. I was really proud of the way he competed. He’s growing as a player each and every time he walks on the floor.”

For the season, Powell is shooting 31 percent in the 30 games he has appeared in, but over his last six games, he has made 47 percent of his field goals. In eight games with Raptors 905, Powell is averaging a team-high 24.9 points on 50 percent shooting to go with 5.1 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 2.1 steals per contest.The opportunity to get shots up and be aggressive on both ends of the floor with 905 has paid off and Powell is starting to get more comfortable playing with the Raptors starting lineup.

“When I’m in the game [during four-quarter blowout] minutes, you’re just playing, trying to bring energy, things like that,” Powell said. “When you’re in the game with Kyle [Lowry] and DeMar [DeRozan], you really have to think, ‘What do they like? What are they looking for?’ You’re trying to present yourself and get open spots and try to find your way in the offence because primarily they’re the scorers. The plays are ran for them [so you’re] trying to not get in their way and make opportunities for yourself as well.”

Both DeRozan and Lowry have been complimentary of what Powell has shown in games, but also of the work he’s putting in behind the scenes. On non-game days, the rookie is at the team’s Bio Steel practice facility by 10:30 A.M. He gets stretched before weightlifting, and then heads to the court to get shots up. A typical shooting session lasts between an hour and a half and two hours and involves Powell working with assistant coaches Jama Mahlalela and Jerry Stackhouse. The workout includes mid-range jumpers, catch-and-shoot threes, ball handling and one-on-one sessions.

I’m really focusing on tightening up my game, my shooting especially,” Powell said. “The drills we’re doing, we usually do make 10 out of 12, or 10 out of 14. I’m trying to get that low, make 10 out of 10, 10 our of 11, really focusing on my shooting.”

Although his aversion to cooking is something he shares with many 22-year-olds [he says he’s used his oven “maybe four times and that was to cook breakfast”], he has a leg up on many young NBA players when it comes to stretching, strength-training, and nutrition.

“I’ve always been really good with taking care of my body,” Powell said. “That was something that was a big focus for me going into college. I wanted to gain muscle but not be too heavy. My first year in college I put on like 15 pounds of muscle and ever since then I’ve been really good at watching what I eat. Making sure I don't eat too much junk food, keeping it balanced. I think I do a good job of keeping my weight where I want it and keeping my body fat percentage low.”

In Toronto’s win against the Blazers, Powell bounced back from a scoreless first half to finish with 10 points, including two 3-pointers. He credits a halftime conversation with Jonas Valanciunas for helping him to stop focusing on the misses and be ready for the second half. Support from teammates is a common theme in the Raptors locker room. Lowry mentions contributions in practice from Powell, Lucas Nogueira and Delon Wright in the same breath as in-game performances from Patrick Patterson or Terrence Ross. DeRozan stresses the importance of his teammates taking open shots when they have them, and says there isn’t ever any concern over who is taking the shots, only that they’re getting good looks.

Cory Joseph occupies the locker stall four spots to the right of Powell in Toronto’s locker room. Now a candidate for sixth man of the year, Joseph’s career started in San Antonio where minutes were hard to come by. He created his own solution, asking Gregg Popovich to be sent down to the Spurs’ D-League affiliate. Powell has paid attention to how things have turned out for Joseph.

“Me and Cory talk all the time,” Powell said. “He’s been really good at keeping me motivated and talking to me throughout the whole year. It’s just a process. Being able to take that grind, go down and harness and hone your skills in the D-League and come back and show it in the NBA game. He did with the Spurs. I’m in a particular situation that’s the same thing. It’s just the process. Embracing it and learning.”