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The Hell’s Going on With Norman Powell’s Offence?

Norm has always been the sunken god of garbage time catastrophes

What a weird, wild ride it’s been. Let’s take it way back to the story all Raptors fans know: Norman Powell was drafted 46th overall by the Raptors in the 2015 draft, and he immediately proved to be a steal.

Powell only appeared in 49 games in his rookie season, but he excelled in his limited (14.8 mpg) time. His shooting (40.4% from 3) was far better than advertised, and he used his terrific wingspan and aggression to dig in on defence against far bigger players. A highlight came on March 28th, 2016, when Powell recorded a start against the Thunder. He guarded Russell Westbrook and was baptized in blood by the Westbeast’s 26p-10r-12a triple double. However, Powell recorded a then-career-high 18 points with four made 3-pointers. He had arrived.

Powell would become the breakout star of the Raptors’ playoff run that year when he keyed an instant-classic game 5 comeback win against the Pacers. Paul George recorded 37 points through three quarters, so Raptors’ Coach Dwane Casey threw caution to the wind and flung his rookie warrior at George. Powell held George to two points in the 4th. Just for fun, he also capped off a 15-2 run to tie the game in the 4th with a steal and superman slam – maybe my favourite single Raptor’s moment ever. In that instant, Powell claimed his eternal spot in the admittedly-shallow history of Raptors’ lore.

In 2016-17, Powell quickly receded to the backburners of Casey’s lineups. He averaged a grand total of 1.5 mpg in the team’s first three games, including a DNP-CD in a close loss against Cleveland, who, you may recall, had just eliminated the Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals. Despite an up-and-down season in which he appeared in 76 games and averaged 18.0 minutes, he finished the season with two DNP-CDs in his final four games.

Then came the playoffs and another Norman Powell extravaganza. The Raptors unsurprisingly slunk out of the gate like a guilty puppy, losing two of the first three games to the youthful Bucks. Casey pressed his emergency-Powell-to-the-rescue button and decided to start him instead of Jonas Valanciunas in game four. The Raptors won the next three games as Powell averaged more than 30 mpg. With the series tied 2-2, Powell recorded another dunk for the ages in an exclamation win over the Bucks.

Powell earned a reasonable midrange extension (42M – 4Y) during a summer in which owners lavishly spent money, channeling their inner Pacman Jones. Casey planned on starting Norm coming into 2017-18, and perhaps his playoff magic could be harnessed during the regular season. Not bloody likely.

Despite some positive moments against Cleveland, dude’s looked bad. Like, worse-than-Tin Cup-with-the-yips bad. His shooting ability – from everywhere on the court – has sunk since his rookie year, making his unexpected rookie year 40.4% from 3 seem like a classic small sample size mirage. Here’s some numbers indicating his decline:

FG% at Rim (percentile rank) FG% from 3 (percentile rank) FG% from Corner 3 (percentile rank) Points per 100 Shot Attempts (percentile rank) Usage Rate (percentile rank)
2014-15 57 (40) 41 (87) 51 (93) 111.3 (71) 17.0 (53)
2016-17 57 (35) 33 (28) 37 (28) 108.2 (49) 20.5 (70)
2017-18 54 (17) 31 (21) 29 (16) 100.4 (18) 20.4 (69)

All stats taken from Cleaning the Glass

 

Powell is missing from everywhere this season, making him one of the lowest-accuracy players in the league. Per Basketball Reference, among the 119 players with usage rates over 20 and minutes played over 500 this season, Powell is 8th last in eFG%, at 45.9%. That’s behind noted low-efficiency gunslingers Andrew Wiggins (47.4%), Kris Dunn (46.8%), and Dion “1-11” Waiters (46.1%). Yet, Powell (13.5) is attempting more shots per 36 minutes than star teammate Kyle Lowry (13.2).

What’s actually going on? There’s been a mixture of factors: Norm missing open shots combined with Norm attempting shots that would make final-season-Kobe blush. Here’s a pair of examples from the recent Raptors’ loss to the Miami Heat.

Here, DeMar DeRozan does his job in the clutch, draws a double team, and finds the open man (due to an O.G. Anunoby cut, lest we forget to shout his awesome play). Norm just misses:

Misses happen, even on open jumpshots in important situations. It’s a high variance shot, even for the best shooters in the world. The problem is that Norm has consistently failed to hit his open jumpers this season. Per Synergy Sports, he’s attempted 2.7 open or wide-open (4 feet or more space upon launching) 3s per game this year, connecting on only 29.6% of them. For comparison’s sake, that’s better than Pascal Siakam (15.7% on 1.9 open 3s per game) but only slightly worse than Lonzo Ball (32.0% on 5.0 open 3s a game). One has to think that for Norm it’s a cold streak that will end… right?

This next play is even more concerning. The Raptors run a play for Norm in which a Lucas Nogueira screen gets Norm the ball attacking a moving defender. Instead of using any advantage he may have gained, Norm just pulls up for a contested jumper, resulting in an easy block for the long and athletic Bam Adabayo. This is low-IQ as a basketball decision can be.

Let’s not forget that it has been a weird, wild ride to get to this point. Powell has never been a consistent player, and he has always bounced out of slumps before. Perhaps it is only his new contract that makes this slump seem worse than those previous. However, none of his previous stretches of poor play have lasted this long. Powell has been a net negative for the Raptors this season, whose defensive numbers stay the same with Powell playing, but whose offence plummets by 9.0 points per 100 possessions in his court-time, per Cleaning the Glass.

Norm has always been the sunken god of garbage time catastrophes. I have no stats to back that up – you try finding garbage time stats! – but it’s true. He shoots every time he touches the ball, tries to be mini-DeMar, and ends up missing shot after shot. In previous seasons, these horrific displays have been limited to garbage time. This year, the garbage has bled into almost every minute Norm has played. It’s been a self-fulfilling prophecy: Norm is forcing shots so as to shoot his way out of his slump, so Norm is missing shots, so Norm is slumping, so Norm is forcing shots, repeated until bloggers like me write articles like this.

Should Norm be sent down to the G-League to get his confidence back? Probably not. His role there would be to initiate the offence. Taking even more low-percentage shots is not what he needs right now; he needs to start playing smart. 40 minutes of film work would be more important than 40 minutes of dominating lower-talent competition while still taking unintelligent shots. On the bright side, the team remains confident, as Casey has shown trust in his struggling guard by keeping Powell in his regular spot in the rotation; Powell played during important (and successful) stretches against both the Cavaliers and the Warriors.

But if Powell is going to retain his minutes going forward, he needs to trust his teammates. One of his best and most important plays against the Heat came on his drive and dish for a clutch corner 3 from Delon Wright. It’s significant that he has – throughout his season-long slump – continued to make occasional yet impressive kick-outs on his drives, instead of chucking low-percentage shots around the rim. He must continue to improve on his passing out of drives. An important note about Powell is that he has never created efficient shots as the primary initiator of the offence at the NBA level. His success has come with Kyle Lowry and DeRozan on the floor, drawing defensive gravity to allow Powell to attack his defenders 1-on-1. He needs to improve at playing off the ball, but his play – like former Raptors Patrick Patterson and DeMarre Carroll before him – has a ceiling as long as he can’t hit open shots.

Norm’s been trying too hard all season, using his only gear of top speed to jet into the teeth of the defence. Per Synergy Sports, he’s been awful (0.88 points per possession (ppp)) at scoring in transition, which is supposed to be easy money. That’s 16.8th percentile league-wide. As the pick-and-roll ball handler, he’s been even worse (0.67 ppp). When he’s allowed others to create his offence, he’s been somewhat better: 1.00 ppp on cuts and 0.95 ppp on spot-ups. Unfortunately, Powell has taken few shots out of cuts, as he too often tries to create his own shot whenever he’s struggling. Only 53.1% of his baskets have been assisted this year, which is comparable to Steph Curry (50.8%). Basically, Powell has to chill out, do less, and allow his teammates to do more. This worked against Cleveland on January 11th, when he scored 14 and hit a pair of 3s; 66.7% of his field goals were assisted.

Let’s assume the worst: Norm is not a good shooter or a smart offensive player, and his rookie numbers were just hot streaks (to be fair: I don’t think this is true, and he will improve). He’s still a very good defensive player when engaged, who can keep up with guards and wings while smothering them with his insane reach. At minimum, for a franchise with precious few moments of pure, unadulterated playoff joy, the Raps will always have Powell’s iconic playoff moments. It’s up to him if he’ll amass any more.

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