Your new favorite Toronto Raptor once again led the team in scoring, and the team once again emerged victorious in Las Vegas Summer League action.
Norman Powell dropped 19 in an 81-66 win over the Chicago Bulls on Sunday – read a full recap with player breakdowns and GIFs here – two days after putting up 20 in a 90-68 victory over the Sacramento Kings. In 52 minutes of action, he’s scored 39 points on 15-of-26 shooting, hit 2-of-3 from outside, taken 10 free-throw attempts, grabbed nine rebounds, made three steals, and blocked three shots, all while committing only three turnovers.
That’s very strong production, particularly since he’s also playing some of the best perimeter defense of the tournament, though that’s hardly a high bar. He’s been very impressive, and for those who entered Summer League already believing Powell to be an NBA-caliber player, he’s done little to dissuade. For those who didn’t – and it sure seems there were plenty given the number of people who inexplicably thought DeAndre Daniels was a better bet to make the regular season roster – it seems he’s been doing some convincing. My phone, my twitter mentions, and my DMs all contained plenty of Norm talk through the weekend, and fans from hardcore to casual have been impressed.
I was higher on Powell than most entering draft season, primarily because I’m a UCLA fan and got a good, long look at him defending the top wings in a quality Pac-12 conference. I thought he was worth a second-round flier on the chance he develops an outside shot, something he flashed early in his senior season but seemed to lose as the year wore on. The three-year shooting sample is large enough and poor enough to be worrisome, and the Raptors know all too well how tough it can be to give wings who can’t space the floor heavy run. Role players without a jumper exist, and the defense and finishing ability were intriguing enough that I had Powell going at No. 47 in my final mock draft for theScore.
So when the Raptors took Powell at No. 46, that seemed about right. Earlier in his career, his stock had pushed toward the fringe of the first round, and word was that he had shot the ball well in the pre-draft process. Considering how well he likely worked out against other guards and wings – I can’t imagine many prospects more impressive in an intimate setting that favors athleticism and motor – and how his profile reads like the inside cover of head coach Dwane Casey’s trapper keeper, Powell seemed a good flier, and for as much as any rookie can really be NBA-ready, his being a 22-year-old didn’t hurt.
All of that is to say, his success this weekend isn’t all that surprising. At 22, as a senior, with body and athleticism as primary attributes, Powell should have been expected to succeed. I always maintain that success at Summer League is less encouraging than failure is discouraging – lol, Terry – but that doesn’t mean good performances mean nothing. Powell’s playing very well in the situation put before him, and he’s taken on a bigger role than I expected given the number of NBA-caliber players on the roster.
The biggest thing that jumps out about Powell is his straight-line driving ability. With a ridiculous first-step and serious strength for such a compact frame, Powell barrels downhill at defenders, putting them on their heels and leaving them with little recourse with which to defend. There’s some concern that a north-south approach won’t fly against NBA starters, but he should be able to put lesser defenders in a position to foul, especially if he gets a favorable matchup (not unrealistic given his perceived lack of shooting).
That same driving approach manifests itself in transition, where Powell was one of the most effective scorers in college basketball. He has a good eye for seams in an unset defense, and while his 6-foot-4 stature makes it tough to get visible looks in tight, he uses his length very well to keep the ball protected.
The Raptors have given him plenty of opportunity to show in Summer League that he can work as a secondary ball-handler, too. Even with Delon Wright on the floor, Powell has been tasked with running the pick-and-roll. He’s not the most adept passer – he can identify drop-off opportunities when in close but can miss good passing lanes once he starts his drive – but he’s deadly if given the space to pick up steam against a flat-footed defender or with a big switched on to him.
These are all things we knew Powell could do relatively well. Most encouraging, in the smallest of sample sizes, has been his ability to can jumpers. Defense and drawing fouls are great, but playing a wing who can’t shoot – especially on a roster that already has DeMar DeRozan and James Johnson – is tough to work around. Eminently talented players are worth making such lineups work; role players probably can’t ask a team to sacrifice or be flexible on their behalf.
Powell’s shooting pulling up off the bounce was serviceable, if inconsistent, at UCLA, and he’s seemed comfortable in that regard in Vegas.
Powell also knocked down an open catch-and-shoot transition three Sunday, and his release looked improved from his time at Pauley Pavilion.Criticized some for releasing his jumper too late (on the way down) – a death knell for an undersized player – Powell is now letting fly closer to the peak of his jump.
If Powell can regularly can open looks – and again, he shot 31.4 percent on threes over four years, so that’s not a certainty – he should be able to carve out a roster spot. His ball-handling isn’t the sharpest but it’s clearly an area the Raptors have him working, and his attack game could make him a valuable second-unit piece.
It’s his defensive that got him drafted, though. The 6-foot-4 height makes him seem undersized even for the two, but with great lateral quickness, a 6-foot-11 wingspan, and an 8-foot-7 standing reach, Powell is functionally much bigger. He’s strong, too, and fights through and over screens well. He can get a little too reachy or lungy when he senses the opportunity for a steal, but he does so while staying in front of his man rather than jumping his check.
And the gambles he does take are worthwhile. He averaged nearly two steals as a senior, and with his open-floor abilities, the occasional jumped lane is a worthwhile risk.
He’s also a smart shot-blocker, though he rarely makes a rejection on the ball. He’s not Dwyane Wade or anything, but the threat of a side-swipe or late-help block is there, and if he can pick it clean, he’s gone.
Analytic models didn’t love Powell because of the lack of an outside shot, a good but non-elite steal rate, and his advanced age. Models can only go off of the inputs available, and so it’s not like Powell becoming a rotation player would be an indictment on that analysis. He does do things well that are hard to quantify, particularly that he can be a good and versatile man-to-man defender. There may also be something to be said for role similarity between college and the pros, as Powell wasn’t “the guy” at UCLA and may more easily adapt to playing a more narrowly defined role in the NBA.
Keep that role in mind. Powell probably isn’t going to be a star. He needs to continue to improve his range, work on finding teammates better off the bounce, and prove that he can defend against the next level of athlete. So far, everything looks good, and he’s doing about as well as imaginable with what’s been put in front of him in Vegas.
Landing just about anything with the No. 46 pick is hitting on a lottery ticket. Powell may not be a Manu Ginobili-esque Powerball victory, but it seems the Raptors may have something here.