Norman Powell ready when called, looking to add 3s to role card

It’s nearly three hours after practice began and more than an hour since it officially ended. Assembled media have already departed the practice court at the Air Canada Centre, and staffers have progressed do cardio workouts of their own. Someone has to be the cliched “last guy to leave the gym,” but Norman Powell doesn’t seem to notice it’s him. Again.

“Give me 10-5,” assistant coach Nick Nurse yells, counting off Powell’s progress as he drains free throw after free throw.

When the No. 46 pick appears to have completed Nurse’s task, he heads outside the 3-point line rather than to a sideline, calling for a ball. With a slightly redesigned form, Powell rises from the top of the arc, drilling the triple without any aid from the rim. He calls for the ball again. Swish.

This goes on for a while longer, and Powell hasn’t stopped shooting since the gym doors opened to media 75 minutes ago. First, in five-man around-the-world drills. Then his own mid-range work. Then the free throws. And now, shooting face on from 23 feet, nine inches, the threes. Everyone shoots better in practice, without the threat of a defender and afforded the time to concentrate on form, but Powell’s stroke looks different. And far more effective.

“End on a swish!” Nurse yells.

Powell obliges before finally calling it a day.

Acquired as part of the return for Greivis Vasquez on draft night, Powell doesn’t figure to see a lot of playing time to open the year. He averaged 16.3 minutes in six preseason games, but he’ll start the season behind DeMar DeRozan, Terrence Ross, and DeMarre Carroll on the wing. A more natural shooting guard, Powell has the length – a 6-foot-10.75 wingspan – to handle threes on the defensive end and the lateral quickness to guard point guards. But the Raptors have two point guards and three wings who figure to play prominently, and Delon Wright and James Johnson will factor in on the fringes of the rotation.

Coming off of an impressive summer league performance that earned him first-team All-Tournament honors and a decent preseason, if any disappointment exists, Powell doesn’t let it show. Even with a strong offseason and camp, Powell had to expect his role would be that of a high-energy reserve, at least initially.

It’s nothing he’s not used to. Powell came off the bench as a freshman and sophomore at UCLA before eventually forcing his way into a more prominent role as a junior and then into a starring role as a senior. His path could prove similar at the pro level. Powell began the process of fighting his way up the depth chart as far back as pre-draft workouts, when he was on the fringes of most mock drafts. He’s said to have locked down some other high-profile wings in workouts – “I was trying to go at everybody” – and impressed with his energy and defensive effort.

For now, he’s once again tasked with focusing on a narrower role, one that will likely see his minutes fluctuate, when they come at all.

[aside header=”1-on-1 with Powell”]
Is it more difficult to be aware of your shooting form on transition threes?
“You gotta really focus on slowing down and getting into rhythm. It’s an easier shot because you’ve got momentum going toward the basket, but making sure your feet are set, not jumping as high, focusing on your release.”

Can you check point guards at this level?
“Definitely. One thing that helped me in college is guarding against Larry Drew and Zeke Jones. Those guys are small, quick guards. The league has a lot of those, Kyrie, John Wall. And being able to go against Kyle Lowry and Cory Joseph, two different play styles, it’s really helping my defense. I feel like I can guard one-through-three at all times, as long as I’m on the court playing, I’ll do whatever it takes.”

Are you aware your summer league performance has already gotten you a bit of a fan base here?
“Especially at summer league, I got a lot of comments and followers and mentions on Twitter. People were going crazy up here about my play in summer league. It was nothing new to me, I feel like that’s the type of player I am and the type of player I’ve been.”

“I’m just focused on being ready,” Powell told Raptors Republic on Monday. “I come in, I’m a guy that works, get extra work in before or after practice, last guy in the gym, first one in the gym. It’s always about being ready. When opportunity meets preparation, you know, you’re always ready for that.”

That’s a sentiment most professional athletes express, but it’s easier to believe Powell after watching him put in the work he’s talking about.
Accepting a smaller role isn’t easy – everyone wants to be getting 30-minutes-a-night – but head coach Dwane Casey has continued to promote role certainty and role consistency in the preseason. Casey handed out physical role cards with defined duties for each player to promote buy-in, and Powell filled Raptors Republic in on what his card outlined for his rookie year.

“He’s expecting me to bring the energy, be a defender, an opportunity scorer, get out in transition and run, and defend,” Powell said. “I knew that was going to be my role, I knew it was going to be tough. I feel like I’ve been showing a lot of promising play, so hopefully get in and get some burn during the season.”

It’s probably not a coincidence that Powell mentioned defense twice, given Casey’s proclivity for hard-nosed defenders and Powell’s potential fit as a multi-position bench stopper. That’s going to be his primary function when he’s on the court for now, but Powell’s post-practice work suggests he’s not content with what some may feel should be a development season (“I wouldn’t be cool with it,” Powell says with a smile about a potential D-League stint before saying he’ll do whatever the team asks).

While he waits readily for his chance at minutes, he’ll focus on adding another task to his role card, something that Casey says is entirely possible.

“If you don’t see ‘3-point shooting,’ get on the court and work on it. You can add ‘3-point shooting’ to that role,” Casey said. “There’s always an opportunity to move up and improve and gain some responsibilities on your role card.”

The early returns on the changes to Powell’s shot aren’t encouraging – he went 0-of-9 in the preseason, which he chalks up to adrenaline – but it certainly looks better. With long arms and a substantial vertical jump, Powell lacked economy in his outside shot at UCLA, often shooting on the way down after high elevation, occasionally with a hitch upon release. The result was a 31.4-percent career mark from outside and “shooting” as a weakness in his draft profile. From pre-draft workouts onward, Powell has been refining his mechanics, and he hit 4-of-9 from long-range at summer league.

He still jumps high on his mid-range jumper, which makes sense given the additional arms present closer to the basket, but the staff has been working with him to stay lower to the ground on threes. That should help make his motion more repeatable and, more importantly, help him get it off quicker.

“The coaches really have confidence in my corner three,” Powell said. “It’s just taking what I’ve been doing all summer in practice and translating it over to the game.”

The following clips show Powell’s jumper in college, summer league, and the preseason, respectively. They’re not definitive, but you get the sense of what Powell’s trying to change – he’s releasing lower, and the shot seems more effortless.
Considering Powell’s quick first step and ability to blow by defenders closing out, proving a more reliable 3-point threat should open up other areas of his offensive game. The work will have to continue primarily in the practice gym, and if Monday was any indication, Nurse and the coaching staff may need to put in for overtime if Powell has his way.

For now, any in-game shooting sample he provides will be a small one, but Powell will be ready when his number’s called.

“What I do, every time I step on this floor, I give everything I got,” Powell said.

He’s doing so on the practice floor, too.

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