Powell's Confidence At A High As He Continues To Impress

Holly MacKenzie - Raptors.com

Even the tiniest of details matters to Norman Powell. As the 22-year-old rookie gets more comfortable playing in the NBA, his attention to detail has allowed him to earn the trust of his coaching staff. Whether it’s studying film or asking teammates and assistants the right questions at the right time, Powell is doing his best to learn as much as he can so he can be as prepared as possible when he steps onto the floor. As Sharon Powell, Norman’s mother, can attest, it’s always been like this for her son, the youngest of three children.

“He is focused on the task at hand,” Sharon said. “When he was in high school, the day before [a game], everything became more systematic. He seemed to have his mental to-do list. He was focused. He followed a routine. I remember him pulling up his socks and the logo on his socks had to be aligned, everything had to be just the right way. His shorts were turned [to match the logo], his shirt was in, everything had to be the right way. He wasn’t comfortable until he had everything perfect. Game-day approach, he became more focused and it was all about the game.”

When training camp kicked off in Vancouver, Powell was coming off a standout performance at summer league, but there were other storylines to cover. With DeMarre Carroll at the forefront and Cory Joseph, Bismack Biyombo, and Luis Scola serving as sidebar stories, Powell and his solid summer showing faded into the background. This isn’t unusual for rookies who are drafted by good teams. Staying patient and waiting for an opportunity is part of the process. Powell stayed patient, but he also kept working as he waited for his shot. With two weeks remaining in the regular season, Powell has started 13 of the previous 15 games for the Raptors. An injury to Carroll provided Powell with an opportunity. His poise has helped him earn and extend it.

In Sunday’s game against the San Antonio Spurs, Powell led the Raptors in scoring. With Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan sidelined for rest, he was aggressive on both ends of the floor, looking more like veteran role player than second round draft pick in his first season. This is the thing about Powell: there’s no rattling him. In a game against the Oklahoma City Thunder last week Raptors head coach Dwane Casey had Powell start out guarding Russell Westbrook. An unenviable task for even the league’s greatest defenders, Powell relished the moment. Growing up in California and following Westbrook’s career by attending UCLA, he was thrilled to earn the assignment of guarding one of his heroes.

“I was excited,” Powell said of guarding Westbrook. “I was talking about it yesterday with one of my friends and I wanted to guard him. We have a little rivalry talking about UCLA all the time in the summer going up against him. He’s one of the players I try to model my game after. It was a big game or me. I was excited and ready to take on the challenge.”

Toronto’s coaching staff appreciated the way Powell approached the assignment.

“I like his toughness,” Casey said. “The moment doesn’t bother him. His overall physical toughness, his presence gives us a person at that position to put in front of a guy like Westbrook, to chase a Kyle Korver around. He’s really been a plus for us.”

Casey stresses daily the importance of Powell’s defensive play. But with the 22-year-old Powell now making 45 percent of his 3-pointers in his last 18 games, Toronto’s head coach has also had to field questions about the rookie’s offensive game. Powell has played at least 30 minutes in each of the last six contests, offering 14.5 points on 52-percent shooting. Sprinkle in rebounds, assists, blocks and steals, and the rookie is providing much more than the defence that caught Toronto’s eye.

“That’s gravy,” Casey said. “It’s a good gravy, but it’s gravy. We want him for his toughness. We tell him he has the green light to take the shots he works on. He works religiously on his jump shot, but he’s in there because of his defence, his toughness, his athleticism. Now that his three-point shot has come along, it’s really helped us.”

The depth to Powell’s game may be a surprise to those who saw him as a defensive stopper, but it isn’t to those who have watched his career arc take shape.

“When I was a freshman [at UCLA] he was a junior and he was one of the leaders on the team,” Minnesota Timberwolves sophomore and UCLA alum Zach Lavine said. “He was always about whatever it took to win. He didn’t care about his shots. He cared about defence most of the time, but he could always score the ball. Not a lot of people knew that. I knew it, because he was one of the hardest people to go against [playing one-on-one in practice].”

It seems like Powell provides a highlight-reel-worthy dunk every game. During practices at UCLA, Powell and two-time dunk champion LaVine took turns impressing the other with their ability to stare down the rim.

“He’s an incredible athlete,” LaVine said. “He and I were the best athletes at UCLA. He dunked on everybody. He’s got huge hands, he’s strong — really strong. He’s a dog on the floor and he works really hard.”

LaVine’s teammate, fellow UCLA alum Shabazz Muhammad, has known Powell since the two played AAU ball together in San Diego during high school. As his former teammate’s profile rises, Muhammad points to the work Powell puts in before and after games to illustrate the success he’s having in his rookie season.

“Norman, he works hard,” Muhammad said. “He’s a hard worker. I know that for a fact. He’s going to be there and he’s going to be ready. One thing about Norman is he stays in the gym. He’s a gym rat. He has skills. His athleticism is off the charts, too. He has a chip on his shoulder. Norm is going to be fine in this league because he works hard and he wants to kick somebody’s butt every night.”

Sharon deserves some of the credit for her son’s relentless work ethic. First a track and field athlete, Powell switched to basketball but never allowed his focus to drift from his education.

“I remember us having conversations about colleges and basketball programs,” Sharon recalled. “We had conversations about that and my thing was, ‘Great you have to have the grades to get there. They can offer you scholarships, but if you don't have the grades you won’t be able to access the scholarships.’ That was in the forefront of his mind: Going to college and playing basketball.”

Sharon has always stressed the importance of doing things the right way and of seeing them through. When her son tried to cut corners by ducking out of homework or other chores, there was a price to pay. The punishment took place at the kitchen table.

“I would sit with him and we’d get a book, open it up to the middle of the book, a couple chapters in, and then I’d have him write down, verbatim, the next six pages, eight pages or whatever,” Powell said. “It would pique his interest. I knew I had accomplished my goal when he turned to the front of the book and start reading it to figure out whatever the dilemma was going on.”

Prior to getting selected on draft night, Powell graduated from UCLA. Earning a degree was important to both mother and son. Even with NBA dreams, Powell had grown up valuing education. Sharon made sure of it.

“My children know you are an adult once you reach a bachelor’s degree,” Sharon said. “I would have hated for him to be one-and-done [at UCLA] and be playing in the NBA but can’t make decisions because you’re not an adult, you need your mother to make decisions for you. I’m very proud of the fact that he hung in there and pursued it. It was important to him and it was important to us for him to do that. Im very proud of him. He wanted his degree. He knows I wanted him to have a degree and he pursued it and stuck with it and got it done.”

The Powell family can look back at draft night as a fond memory, now that a successful rookie regular season is winding to a close. In the immediate aftermath, it had been stressful as Powell and his family expected that he would be selected in the first round. As the evening went on and he waited to hear his name get called, the chip on his shoulder grew heavier.

“I think he was a first-round talent for sure,” LaVine said. “He’s a four-year senior. He’s mentally strong. He really wants it. He’s a great talent and I feel like Toronto is going to really like him.”

DeMar DeRozan’s rookie season was spent starting alongside four veterans. He understands the balance of trying to get used to the NBA without getting in the way of an All-Star teammate. The way Powell has been able to adjust and improve game by game has earned DeRozan’s respect.

“For me, it’s great to see him out there [with us],” DeRozan said. “Every single game he looks more and more comfortable.”

Like Casey, DeRozan has taken note of Powell’s fearlessness.

“He’s got that toughness about him,” DeRozan said. “That’s one thing I loved about him the first day I was in the gym with him. I think that’s why the coaching staff, everyone likes him. He doesn’t care who it is [that he’s guarding].”

Prior to getting game action with the Raptors, Powell was splitting his time between Toronto and Mississauga, practicing with the Raptors while playing with Raptors 905. The stints with Toronto’s D-League affiliate gave Powell crucial game experience when he wasn’t getting time with Raptors and helped him get comfortable taking the open shot when he has it.

“It speeds up the process,” Cory Joseph. “It speeds up the transition from college to the NBA. It’s a big step, so the D-League is exactly what it’s called: it develops your skills so that you’ll be able to play the way Norm is playing right now. As a rookie you can’t be scared to make mistakes. You’ve got to be able to take risks. Norm’s been playing aggressive. He’s been playing his game as of late and he’s finding his rhythm. He’s making the most of his opportunity and I’m happy for him.”

As Powell continues proving the teams that passed on him wrong, Joseph and the rest of his teammates will continue providing information to aid his NBA education.

“When I was a rookie I could look back on a couple of opportunities, where I thought, ‘Dang, I could have done better.’” Joseph said. “I just try to keep that in his ear where every opportunity he gets, go out there and be himself. He’s here for a reason. Just play his game. I feel like he’s been doing that the last however many weeks.

“I feel like this is just the start of Norman Powell.”