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The Small Forward Situation

It’s been a rough start to the year for the Raptors starting small forward. If you just read that sentence and asked which year this article was written in, that’s not surprising. After all ,the player in that role has been a source of frustration for the fan base for years. Norman Powell was supposed to be the solution to that, after beating out CJ Miles for the starting job during preseason, but the fit hasn’t worked out as expected, with the starting lineup struggling once again, and if a change is necessary, Norm seems the most likely candidate to get relegated to the bench.

The Raptors as a whole are struggling shooting the long ball this year, ranking dead last in the league in three-point percentage while shooting from downtown with the 6th highest frequency. With Norm taking 3.4 threes per game on the floor, and the three players shooting them more frequently each shooting well over than 30% from distance, it’s easy to look at him as one of the main culprits in the team’s struggles.

When you take a deeper dive though, it’s easy to spot that the culprit isn’t actually his shooting, but the shots he’s taking. Norm has never been a proficient pull-up shooter, averaging just 25% last season on pull-up 3s with a 38.8% overall effective field goal percentage on pull up shots. Last year he averaged 0.3 pull-up threes per contest, and this year he’s taking well over twice as many, at 0.8 per game, good for nearly a quarter of his total attempts. On those 7 three-point attempts, he’s hit just one so far. On the other hand, while Norm has never been an exceptional catch and shoot player, he was passable last year hitting 34.3% of his catch and shoot threes and having a 50% overall eFG% on these attempts. He’s opened the season this year largely the same, at 33.3% from three and a 48% eFG% when catching and shooting. He’s also taking more of these shots, at 2.7 a game up from his 1.9 per contest rate of a year ago.

He’s also struggled thus far this year both in isolation situations and as the pick and roll ball handler, while excelling in transition. Which really shouldn’t come as a surprise, because Norm with the ball in his hands in the half court has always been a mix of good and bad while he’s a terror on the run.

So if he’s largely good at what he was good at, and bad at what he was bad at, the question becomes why does this year feel more frustrating? Is it simply the expectation that Norm would become something else with the move to the starting lineup? The reality is that this was supposed to be the benefit of the move to the starting lineup. Playing alongside DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry was supposed to allow Norman to let the offense come to him and not be required to force his own game in situations where he struggles.

This leads to the question of what then, if the starters can’t figure it out? If Powell is at his best in situations where he doesn’t have to create offense for himself, the benefit in moving him to the bench would have to come from him being more efficient in the half court against weaker defensive players, because the bench units for the Raptors don’t have the same level of offensive creation from other players on the floor, so he might be forced to find shots off the dribble.

At the end of the day though, the answer isn’t to wait for Norman Powell to ‘figure it out’, because he’s largely been this year who he was last year. The Raptors just have to acknowledge what that means, and use that information going forward to try to find solutions for the problems facing the team. If the team can focus on putting Norm in the situations he excels in, shooting in space off opportunities created by the Raptors’ All-Stars while reducing the frequency of him being asked to create off the dribble, it should improve his effectiveness.

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