Norman Powell: Inspiration, NBA Champion, and Raptor forever.

by Holly MacKenzie

The Toronto Raptors announced the trade of guard Norman Powell to the Portland Trail Blazers in exchange for guard Gary Trent Jr. and guard-forward Rodney Hood on Thursday. Though Powell’s time as a Toronto Raptor has come to an end, Powell will be a Raptors NBA Champion forever.

“Norman accomplished so much with the Raptors” Raptors President Masai Ujiri said. “He committed to the process, he worked on his game, he grew as a person, and he thrived as a player. Norman gave us great performances to remember. Norman is an NBA Champion, and he has earned his place as one of the great success stories in franchise history. We are grateful for everything he did for our team and our city.”   

Coming to the Raptors by way of a draft night trade with Milwaukee’s 46th overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, 27-year-old Norman Powell has spent all six seasons of his NBA career in Toronto. 

“My roots are here,” he said after scoring 22 points in a 135-111 Raptors victory over the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday. Since entering the league as a late second-round pick, until his 22-point performance in what ended up as his final game in a Raptors uniform on Wednesday, Powell’s singular focus on improving and developing his game has never changed.

“I want to thank Norm, his family, his mom, they have been incredible people,” Ujiri said. “ He grew up in our organization, was a draft pick of ours, and that touches you. It's not an easy thing to do. The other thing I will say is as much as we try to develop players and make players better, Norm made himself better. You see where his game went and the level he took it to.”

Powell’s scoring average has grown since the team’s championship season in 2018-19 where he averaged 8.6 points per game. In 2019-20, that average nearly doubled to 16.0 points per game. Through 42 games this season in 2020-21, Powell has averaged a career-high 19.6 points per game on 50 percent shooting, including 44 percent from beyond the arc.

When asked what he would want to be known for from his time in Toronto, as always, Powell’s focus was on the work.

“[I’d want to be known for] what I’ve always come in here talking about, he said. “ The grind. I’m a hardworking person that is committed, fully focused on trying to maximize being the best that I can be with the team. Being a winner. No matter what happens, I’m not going to quit. I'm going to figure it out. I’m going to keep going.”

A San Diego native, Powell grew up watching Kobe Bryant. After arriving in Toronto, he became teammates with former Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan, another Bryant devotee. Already inspired by Bryant’s work ethic, Powell now had a blueprint for how to develop and expand his game from DeRozan. 

With his “Understand the Grind” slogan, merch and community initiatives, Powell reported to training camp each year with evidence of an offseason spent in the gym, grinding away at improving every aspect of his game.

Powell came to Toronto just as the Raptors were beginning to establish themselves as one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. After many years of being on the outside, the Raptors began to embrace their status as the lone NBA franchise outside of the United States and the #WeTheNorth era began. When Powell arrived, his own mindset was a seamless match.

“Toronto was the perfect fit for me, for my mentality, for my personality,” Powell said. “Toronto was an underdog city, in a sense. Not many people knew about it. Obviously It got a lot of [publicity] my first year with the All-Star game being in Toronto. Toronto started blowing up, people started talking about it.”

People also started talking about Powell. After a solid rookie season, Powell provided Raptors fans with one of the franchise’s most memorable postseason dunks, getting a steal and then throwing down a thunderous one-handed slam in Game 5 against the Indiana Pacers to tie the game and help propel the Raptors to a 3-2 series lead. Toronto would go on to win the series, 4-3.

A year later, Powell again saved his best basketball for under the brightest lights, scoring a playoff career-high 25 points in a 118-93 blowout win for the Raptors against the Milwaukee Bucks to give the Raptors a 3-2 series lead. Again, the Raptors went on to win the series.

“I feel like the city and the fans see that in me, that hard-working mentality, that underdog mentality,” Powell said. “I think that’s what I stand for.”

Powell signed a four-year contract with the Raptors to start the 2017-18 season. For a player that had been a late second-round pick, the contract was proof that his hard work was paying off. Though a shoulder injury would keep Powell sidelined for 21 games, in typical Powell fashion, his work continued through his rehab and return to the court. During the 2019 postseason, Powell averaged 12.3 points and 3.5 rebounds in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks as the Raptors came back from an 0-2 series deficit to win the series 4-2 and advance to the NBA Finals for the first time.

When the Raptors defeated the Golden State Warriors in six games to win the franchise’s first ever NBA Championship, the euphoria of Raptors fans was reflected through Powell’s own reactions. From his postgame celebration in the locker room with his teammates, to the unforgettable scenes and his interviews given from the bus during the championship parade in Toronto, Powell’s celebratory days in the aftermath of the team winning the “Larry OB” trophy will never be forgotten.

His love and appreciation for the Raptors fan base will also be remembered.

“They grinded with us just like we grinded,” he said of the fans and their support through the team’s championship run. “Through the ups and downs, they stayed believing. It’s amazing to be able to share this moment with them.”

When Powell was asked if his belief had ever wavered when things got tough, his response was a lesson in perseverance. 

“It’s all possible,” he told reporter Cabbie Richards. “There’s always a way as long as you’re able to focus on that and work for everything you want.

“My faith never wavers,” he continued. “That’s what my motto is about. Understanding the grind. Understanding the process. Understanding the work, the dedication, the commitment that it’s going to take to achieve your goals, no matter what it is.”

Powell’s journey will now continue in Portland. Thanks to all of his early mornings and late nights in the gym, he heads to the Trail Blazers as an NBA Champion. He also can leave for Portland knowing that for Raptors fans everywhere the grind will forever be understood.

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