Understanding Norm's Grind

by Chris O'Leary

As the early morning sunlight pierced the windows of the gym at Lincoln High School in San Diego, a pair of freshmen getting up shots provided the only sound in the otherwise pristine setting.

Those sunlit, empty gyms can almost take on a cathedral-type feel. Maybe Norman Powell picked up on that vibe. As he knocked down shot after shot with his best friend and teammate, Kevin Smith, he visualized opponents in the present and in his future. 

A 14-year-old Powell turned to Smith and shared something of an epiphany. 

“I told him, ‘Man, I’m gonna play in the NBA,’” Powell recalled. It was something he’d said as a kid -- childhood dream stuff, he described it -- to his uncle when the two of them were watching the Lakers on TV. This was the first time he’d said it to somebody as something he genuinely believed.  

“I'll never forget that,” Powell continued. 

“He was like, ‘Yeah bro, honestly, I think you can make it. But you know, it’s fine, you’ll make the NBA, be at the end of somebody's bench.’ 

“I said, ‘Nah, bro, I’m gonna be in the NBA and I’ll be like Kobe. I'm gonna make an impact. I'm gonna be on teams scoring and being one of those guys. I'm gonna make it.’ 

“He just looked at me like, ‘Yeah, all right, bro. Keep dreaming.’ 

“I'll never forget that, the way he looked at me. But that was the first time I really said something to somebody like, I'm going to make it and be what I want to be in this league.” 

It’s funny in a way, given where we are now in Powell’s NBA career, but that exchange with his friend might have been the first glimpse that Powell would get of what his career would actually be like. From his days at Lincoln High in San Diego, to a four-year stay at UCLA, being a late second-round pick in the 2015 draft and now into Year 6 of his career, Powell has turned a bar that’s been routinely set too low for him into steps up a ladder. 

Since he was put into the starting lineup on Jan. 22, Powell has arguably played his best stretch of basketball in that six-year career. Over his last 20 games (18 starts), he’s averaged 21.3 points on 51.7 per cent shooting from the field and 43.5 percent from three. He’s added 3.5 boards, 2.3 assists and 1.3 steals in that span. 

That high level of play has become so routine that after Powell scored 30 points on Friday night against Houston on 10-15 shooting, he wasn’t a part of the post-game availability. 

“I think he’s shooting the ball phenomenally and I think that’s opening up his other game, his driving ability. He’s finishing the ball well.” Kyle Lowry said of Powell’s play over the last month. 

“Also his athleticism in the open floor. The way we play, we give him the ball and let him go. He

can weave and attack and get to the basket. He’s strong. I just think his confidence is better, I think he understands what he’s going to be. I think he’s in his own skin, he knows who he is, he knows what he’s going to do and he knows the shots he’s going to take.” 

“I’m super happy for him because a lot of the stuff that Norm has got has come against the grain,” said Fred VanVleet, one of Powell’s closest friends on the team. The two sit next to each other on team flights and have gone through figurative and literal turbulence together. 

“He becomes an easy target sometimes when things aren’t going his way. It’s great to see him in this zone that he’s in.”

Maybe it’s when you see him take the court as a starter that you think about how far Powell has come in his career. Maybe it’s on a night where he’s torching a team, like when he shot 9-12 from the field and scored 29 in a win over the Bucks. Maybe it’s when you think back to the early days of his career, when minutes or the spark he could provide off of the bench weren’t always a given. 

Powell is one of the few people that isn’t surprised about where he’s at right now. 

“It’s funny, all my boys even to this day are like, ‘I really can't believe that you're in the league. Like, it still shocks me,’” he said, his laugh giving way to something more serious. 

“Where we’re from...there were guys that we grew up around, guys that we looked up to who had the potential to make it and were recruited and just didn't make it or you know, fell off on the wrong tracks and things like that. 

“It was like nobody in southeast San Diego is ever going to get to that level because it just doesn't happen like that for us.” 

To understand Norm’s drive, his hunger, his grind, you start with his mom, Sharon. Powell grew up in San Diego, with Sharon raising him and his two sisters. 

“My confidence and work ethic came from seeing my mom work and provide for my two older sisters,” he said. 

He remembers waiting 60- or 90-minutes some days after school, with Sharon arriving to pick him up long after the other kids were gone. There were stretches at home alone with his sisters while Sharon worked to get them the things they needed the most. 

“It was tough. I didn’t always get the right amount of lunch money to go to school. I was relying on the free meals and the free lunches we got on campus and saving those throughout the day,” Powell recalled. 

“Me and my boys would go after practice to a 24-Hour Fitness and we’d walk from Lincoln to the 24-Hour Fitness. Some of them would stop at the KFC and get food and I still had warm salad and things from lunch to hold me over while we were at 24-Hour Fitness playing basketball. 

“Stuff like that, the struggle of trying to maintain a solid household was all motivation for me to get to where I am to make life better for my family.” 

Powell was about 13 when he first met Jeff Harper-Harris, who would end up coaching him in AAU and at Lincoln. He remembers Powell and his group of friends -- a loaded starting five by the time they reached high school that won a state championship in 2010 -- all having a work ethic that was different than other high school kids. 

“They had plans at an early age of what they wanted to do with their lives,” Harper-Harris said, remembering them going from practice after school to that 24-Hour Fitness until 11 at night, until Sharon or the other kids’ parents would come looking for them. Powell took it further, bouncing from coach to coach on weekends and in downtime. He’d hit up Harper-Harris for a workout on a Sunday morning, then jump to coach Stacy Dooley for another one in the afternoon or evening. 

“His mindset was a little different for a high school junior,” he said. 

His mindset was different and so were his goals. In high school, Harper-Harris saw Powell’s work ethic at an elte, NBA level but in his eyes, his game wasn’t there. He didn’t see that until Powell’s sophomore year at UCLA. 

“I tell kids that going to college is doable. The NBA to me is icing on the cake,” Harper-Harris said. 

“There’s a college for everybody. It may not be Div. 1, it may not be Duke or North Carolina or the Power 5s, but there’s a college for everybody. The NBA and the professional level is how much do you want it? What will you sacrifice for it? Some kids get to the point where that sacrifice gets tough. I think Norman figured it out in high school. He’d say, ‘Coach Jeff, I can always party. I can always watch another movie. If I’m sitting home watching, someone else in America is getting better.” 

While Powell worked (and worked and worked), the basketball world was already building a low ceiling above his six-foot-three frame. In a 2010 interview with SLAM, Powell was heading into his senior year of high school and by then had caught the attention of Div. 1 schools close to him like UCLA, USC, San Diego State, Arizona, Arizona State and Cal. He was happy to have multiple offers, but he was late getting on scouts’ radar. The questions are from a decade ago but you could easily hear some of them in an interview with him today. 

How did it feel to go unnoticed for so long? How does it feel to finally get the attention you deserve? 

“Norman is one of those young men that you tell him no or that you’re not good enough and you’re just helping him become better. He’s always got something to prove and I think that shows in where he’s at right now,” Harper-Harris said. 

“People don't expect it and when you don't expect it and he knows that, he's going to keep proving you wrong.” 

In that SLAM interview, Powell mentioned taking part in the NBA’s summer camp and that his favourite player that he met was Jerry Stackhouse. Five years after that first meeting, the two ended up working closely together in Powell’s rookie year with the Raptors, when Stackhouse was an assistant on Dwane Casey’s staff. 

“He probably came in with a chip on his shoulder. I think he felt like he probably should have been drafted a little bit higher,” Stackhouse, now the head coach at Vanderbilt, said of Powell. 

“I think that's just who he is. He's used that as motivation from the time that I've known him. He’s competitive and that's what I loved about him.” 

Stackhouse remembers surprisingly intense one-on-one games after practice with Powell. They were just short games to five and when Stackhouse -- who scored over 16,000 points through an 18-year career -- would beat Powell he’d see that competitive side of the young guard. 

“Whenever I’d win, it’d kill him,” Stackhouse said.  

Powell took his habit of pestering coaches for workouts to the two-time All-Star, asking for those one-on-one games on the road and getting messages to Stackhouse on off days to meet him at the Raptors’ practice court. 

As his coaching career has taken him from Toronto to Memphis and now to Vanderbilt, Stackhouse has kept a close eye on Powell, sending him advice early this season when Powell got off to a slow start. Stackhouse was never worried about him working his way out of it. 

The 27-year-old has taken the long road in his career, pouring in years of work to make these incremental steps. 

“He’s a good person and that helps when you’re not playing well or you’re out of the rotation for whatever reason, you’re still that teammate cheering your teammates on,” Stackhouse said. 

“He’s not someone over there sulking. If Norm’s out of the rotation for whatever reason, he's the first one out there giving guys high fives. Those are things that you notice about him early on. Once he started to get minutes and whatnot and maybe he wasn’t as consistent as he would have liked, he was still Norm and that speaks more to his tenure with the Raptors than anything. 

“I think he emphasizes what they look for, not only good players but good people to represent the organization. Norm does that well.” 

It’s essentially been a lifelong grind for Powell, but as we near the midpoint of the season he’s in a place that few from the outside ever would have predicted for him. 

He’s grown from that spark player coming off the bench and through circumstance this year has shown that he can be a consistently productive starter in the NBA. He’s efficient, can defend and while he likes to hear his name in the starting lineup he understands that there are other ways he can help his team and will play those roles. To see what he wants to happen next, you just have to go back to that conversation he had with his friend in that empty gym that morning. 

“I don't have a mock up of like, this is me as a finished product. I think that I'm not finished, I'm not complete, you know? There's always another level that I can get to,” Powell said. 

He says he sounds like a broken record referencing Kobe Bryant, but the legendary Laker that he grew up watching, whose No. 24 is on his Raptors uniform, laid the template for him and a generation of players. 

“I feel like there's always something more that I can do and accomplish. People talk about all these “big games.” You're playing the best basketball of your career, whatever it is that they're saying. I brush it off because I can be better,” he said. 

“Everybody just looks at the points but I’m looking at everything: The rebounds, the assists, the missed plays and missed layups, the missed opportunities.

“In terms of accomplishments, I want to get to the point where I'm an All-Star in the league. I want to do all those things individually, but as long as we're winning. The main focus is always going to be winning.”  

He has a player option that he can exercise this summer to become a free agent. A journey of patience and slow, steady growth will continue, with the 46th overall pick in the 2015 draft in a position to be one of the most coveted free agents in the summer. There’s already a heap of non-believers and doubters converted on what Powell is actually capable of. He intends to add to it. 

“I'm telling people, he's done it before. It’s nothing. He builds,” Harper-Harris said of Powell. 

“He’s going to do what Norman has done for many years and that’s continue to get better, continue to prove people wrong, continue to show people that he can play at this level. And I think that's what he's done in the last month.”

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