The direct comparisons that can be drawn between Norman Powell’s 2015-16 rookie campaign and how he got his shot at the starting role that eventually catapulted him to being a key member of the Raptors core and the way his own injury has brought OG Anunoby directly into the spotlight as the future of the Raptors franchise are interesting. In both cases, the starting lineup for the Raptors was struggling to start the season, and although Norm’s ascendance was later in the season, not coming until DeMarre Carroll and James Johnson were both out with injuries in February, and the Raptors went 18-6 down the stretch of the season with Norm as a starter, leading to him playing a pivotal role in their first round victory over the Indiana Pacers as he proved the team’s best defensive asset against Paul George.
But sample sizes are always difficult with young players. Norm shot the lights out in that rookie season and looked like he might be a deadly outside shooting threat for his career in the NBA to go with his defensive prowess, as well as being a difficult assignment off the dribble. There was talk of him even being able to at times run the point with his ball handling ability, and he made up for his small frame with quickness and wingspan. Unfortunately, Norm has seemed somewhat stuck in neutral since then, giving throwback performances from time to time that remind of that explosiveness of his rookie season, but never able to find the consistency necessary to take the next step while his outside shot has fallen off, down to just 30.8% from three-point range this season with his attempts having increased every season he’s been in the league.
This isn’t a doom-and-gloom article about Norm, either, though. Because while he’s largely remained the same player as his rookie campaign, that’s a positive in many ways as well. He remains a strong on-ball defender who can bring a lot of energy to the table, and his one man fast-breaks are still breathtaking. It’s simply a question of role, and he hasn’t seemed to completely settle in his this season as the starting wing beside DeMar DeRozan. Perhaps it’s that neither player is truly a small forward, with DeRozan not comfortable guarding the LeBrons and Durants of the world, and Norm giving up size to those same players, while both tend towards being ball-handlers more than off-ball guys offensively.
If that’s the case, then Norm is only the answer as a starter as long as there isn’t a more natural second wing on the roster to put beside DeRozan, a player more suited to letting the All-Stars run the offense while taking the tougher assignment defensively and bringing the infectious energy that Norm does at that end of the floor, which brings us back to Anunoby.
It’s incredible to think that the reason he fell to the Raptors in the draft was health, the fact that he wasn’t even supposed to be able to play until likely the mid-way point of the season, because it’s hard on many nights to see any signs that he’s not completely healthy. While he began the season looking like one of the centerpieces of yet another strong Raptors bench, Norm’s hip injury put him in with the starters as they were struggling against quality opponents. The Raptors hadn’t had really any success to speak of against potential playoff teams to that point in the season, with just win over a team that had been over .500 at the time of the game, and the Raptors have strung off four consecutive quality wins since OG joined the starting group.
The success can’t be all laid at his feet, of course. Pascal Siakam started one of those games, and had an impressive defensive performance against Kristaps Porzingis, and the team has adjusted their late-game offense to be less focused on simply isolation from their stars, instead taking what the defense gives them more and more which has paid dividends. As well, the bench has continued to be a strength. But, it can’t be ignored that the starting lineup has been stronger with OG out there. On the season, the three-man unit of Anunoby, DeRozan and Lowry has a +16.6 net rating, while DeRozan and Lowry without Anunoby have a -0.5 net rating, with the difference being almost entirely on the defensive end, where it’s a 114.3 DRtg without OG against a 101.4 DRtg with him.
While I’m normally loathe to make an argument based on a single game, if you wanted to, you definitely could with OG as well. In the early MVP race, one of the clear clubhouse leaders so far has been James Harden. The Rockets’ 13-4 mark comes with Chris Paul having played just 3 games, and Harden has been magnificent with averages of 31.6 points and 9.9 assists per game and shooting splits of 45/40.4/86.4. Slowing him down has been a monumental task for any defender, but the Raptors were able to hand the Rockets one of those four defeats with their rookie handling the assignment of containing one of the league’s best. Harden certainly was able to go off in the minutes Anunoby sat, but when they were matched up he struggled, and the difference between the two splits is staggering.
It’s unclear whether or not when Norm returns he’ll return to his spot with the starters, but maybe he shouldn’t. Not because he did anything wrong, but because OG has done so much right so early in his career, and perhaps handling the ball with the bench players allows Norm to find some comfort and take that next step that we’ve been waiting for since his explosion as a rookie. It’s entirely possible that this recent stretch isn’t sustainable for the Raptors’ rookie, but the team should force it to prove unsustainable before bringing it to an end.