It wasn’t all that long ago that a young Norman Powell was watching mixtapes of Compton High star DeMar DeRozan. Kendrick Lamar may have been jealous of Arron Afflalo, but DeRozan drew Powell’s attention most frequently.
Powell didn’t follow in DeRozan to Compton High, opting instead to help lead the resurgent Lincoln High program in his hometown San Diego to a pair of state championships. When it came time to choose a college, Powell, like DeRozan, opted to stay in-state but chose rival UCLA over DeRozan’s USC alma mater, despite calling DeRozan “one of my favorite college players.” This wasn’t Powell following in the footsteps of a player he was a “huge” fan of, but carving his own path with an appreciation for what a fellow California two-guard had done and could do.
As serendipity would have it, Powell was drafted by the Toronto Raptors. He’s now getting the opportunity to continue to learn from DeRozan, this time in-person instead of through highlight tapes and game film.
“It kind of makes me feel old, honestly, when I sit and think about it,” the decidedly not old, 26-year-old DeRozan says. “At the same time, it’s a cool thing. I like being able to give him a lot of things that I’ve learned and try to carry it on to him. But, you know, it do make you feel old.”
Powell’s on a much different path than DeRozan took, to be sure. DeRozan was a highly-touted one-and-done freshman drafted ninth overall and given trial-by-fire in the starting lineup from his NBA debut forward. Powell fought his way from a bench role to a starting role to a starring one at UCLA, then dominated spring workouts to secure himself a spot in the draft. From there, he had to dominate at summer league to ensure himself a spot on the roster. Now, he’s trying to show enough at the D-League level to force his way into playing time with the parent club.
He also projects as a different player type than DeRozan, a high-volume scorer and All-Star. “He’s Tony Allen with a better jumper,” Raptors 905 head coach Jesse Mermuys says of Powell, high praise for his defensive potential.
That doesn’t meant there aren’t things Powell can be learning from his teammate. Powell is incredibly athletic and is a terror going north-south to attack the rim. He’s improved attacking closeouts and driving from the corners, and he’s thrived with the ball in his hands for the 905. There’s little doubt he can get to the rim, an NBA skill he shares with DeRozan, and when he’s in Mississauga the focus shifts toward building from that skill.
“Now it’s developing his playmaking,” Mermuys says. “When to go to the rim and when to take his jumper is the first step. So now the next evolution for him is to go to the rim and be able to make a play when you draw the crowd. That would be the next evolution to his game, create a problem with the basketball and make the right play.”
If that sounds familiar, it’s probably because it was a common refrain as DeRozan was developing. From his sophomore season on, DeRozan’s always done well getting to the rim and drawing fouls, something he’s now among the league’s very best at. When DeRozan took the jump to All-Star status was when he began turning defensive attention into easy buckets for teammates – his assist rate jumped from 12 percent in 2012-13 to 18.9 percent in 2013-14, and it now sits at 20.8 percent, a terrific mark for a wing. Being able to pass off the bounce not only helps teammates, but it changes the help or blitz equation for a defense, making it riskier to load up on a drive or an off-ball action.
Powell’s done well to pick up that part of his game quickly when with the 905. He’s been afforded the chance run the point for stretches, focus on finding the dive-man or corner kick-outs, and use his strength and athleticism to fire some degree-of-difficulty passes. After totaling six assists in his first two games on assignment, he totaled 14 over his last three, without an accompanying dip in his robust scoring numbers. (“It’s funny, our older players, they see that stats, they give the guys a ribbing about how many shots they got up or how many points they got,” head coach Dwane Casey says, a nod to Powell averaging 25.6 points on 20.8 field goal-attempts.)
While Powell understandably isn’t thrilled with the occasional D-League assignment – “I still want to be up there at the highest level” – there aren’t a great deal of minutes to go around. So when he does get the opportunity for 30 or 40 minutes, he’s making the most of it. Powell sees the same development Mermuys has seen – “A quick, quick turnaround for him,” Mermuys says – and thinks he’s improving as a decision-maker. That success and those improvements are making him hungrier rather than complacent or impatient.
“I feel like the D-League is really helping me develop my game. That’s how I take it,” Powell says. “I’ve been part of this, waiting my turn. It’s nothing new. This is just a part of it. It just motivates my grind. Keep that chip on my shoulder, continue to work, continue to keep that hard-hat on and know that my time’s gonna come. You gotta pay your dues as a rookie.
“It’s just more motivation for me to get better.”
The D-League experiment is one everyone in the organization has spoken highly of. For a player like Bruno Caboclo, it means getting consistent playing time he’s never had at any level. For more experienced prospects like Lucas Nogueira or Anthony Bennett, it means a quick conditioning assignment to make sure they’re in top form if called upon. For rookies like Powell and Delon Wright, the up-and-down provides an opportunity not only to play, but to watch players like DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, and Cory Joseph closely, and then immediately go put any lessons they’re receiving into practice.
“It’s different sitting on the bench watching with the Raptors,” Powell says. “There’s only so much you can learn from watching the game, from Kyle, picking his brain, picking DeMar’s brain, picking Cory’s brain, on the different reads they’re making and their mentality on the floor. You’ve gotta be out there and be able to put it to work and develop that part of your game. Getting key minutes is really good for me.”
DeRozan, in particular, has been a big help not just because Powell has been a fan for so long, but because DeRozan’s improved so much in the primary area Powell is looking to get better in. Powell watches his reads from the bench, evaluates his pass-or-shoot decisions closely, asks DeRozan about what he’s seeing on the floor, and then gets to go out and see if he can see and react to those same things in real game action.
“I always tell him: Never worry about the guy in front of you,” DeRozan says, good advice given both of them can usually get past their man. “Worry about the other four guys around you, how you could get somebody else an easier shot, an open shot, or get you going to the rim.”
And while DeRozan didn’t have or really even need the D-League as a rookie, given the situation the Raptors were in and his lofty draft status, he certainly sees the value. He sees value, too, in players like himself and Lowry being around to set an example.
“Everything is patience,” he says. “They’ve gotta take it day by day and soak up as much information as they can. This is the building foundation for who they’re gonna be in their careers. Take advantage of it, learning from guys like us and going down there and applying it and having a chance to play instead of just sitting around. I think that’s a great thing, for them to have that opportunity. Take advantage of it.”
Powell’s doing just that. With DeMarre Carroll on the shelf and Powell seeing action, however limited, in four of the team’s last five games, perhaps greater opportunity is coming his way next.