Norman Powell an unfortunate victim of Toronto’s culture change

Culture. No word has rung through the Air Canada Centre, BioSteel Centre, blogger takes, or Twitter timelines more than that one when describing all that has changed with the Toronto Raptors this season.

There is evidence as concrete as DeMar DeRozan’s improved playmaking, or as deft as Fred VanVleet’s finishing around the rim.

This past Sunday, the Raptors’ first ever two-way contract signing added to the impressive list of changes Toronto have made to their culture. Not everyone saw it that way, though. Debate was plentiful over whether two-way signing Malcolm Miller deserved to get a look ahead of a struggling — but recently extended — Norman Powell.

The memory of Powell soaring toward the rim has been just that for some time now, and while his theoretical ceiling can validate the pursuit of it over the course of this final stretch, there is an unmistakable air of hesitance to his play now. As the one and only Harsh Dave noted on Twitter, every open three that comes his way seems to be released with both the metaphorical and literal weight of the world on his shoulders.

Powell is shooting 28.5 percent from three on the year, aided in no part by an abysmal 6-of-33 from the left corner (He’s 8-for-12 from the right corner). If you throw in his numbers from both his UCLA and Raptors 905 days, he’s at 32.2 percent for his post-secondary career on 777 attempts. It takes 750 attempts for a three-point shot to normalize per Nylon Calculus, and while I understand college threes aren’t equal, the eye test points to — barring some type of adjustment — this being the expected return on a Powell three.

With a mediocre outside shot and sub-league-average ability to finish at the rim, Powell struggles to offer anything in between either. In some ways, this is like a standout rookie’s sophomore campaign. The book’s out on the 24-year-old and he needs to learn something new. He’s more the $1.5-million guy on the final year of his deal than the four-year $42-million guy he was hoping to be a year in advance.

Does he deserve a longer leash to be the latter? He has every right to feel that way.

It was only a season ago when DeMarre Carroll’s minutes held the Raptors back, and he was just as bad from beyond the arc. His defense had fallen off and drives to the rim were a heck of a cathartic experience, but Dwane Casey stuck by his man till the bitter end.

All for squeezing out every ounce of value he could from a depreciating asset?

Norman Powell was clearly the better starter at the small-forward position last year when he filled in for Carroll when he sat out one half of back-to-backs. He averaged 13.9 points while shooting 39.5 percent on 4.8 three-point attempts over nine games as a starter. He played another nine games as a starting guard when DeMar DeRozan missed time and left an even better impression, averaging 17.3 points per game on 40 percent shooting from deep and 51.2 percent from the field.

Carroll’s contract and an overzealous effort to fit him in while he repeatedly hurried back hurt the team last season and the positive is that the franchise has learned from that mistake. It’s unfortunate that Powell has come up on the short end of the stick on both occasions, but what the Raptors are doing in seeking out decisions that best serve the whole must be admired.

Make no mistake, the team certainly hasn’t abandoned their 2015 second-round pick, nor have they lost hope.

“What he has to do is go in a game and make it impossible for me to take him out,” Casey told the media after practice on Monday. “Don’t play even. Run the floor, 50-50 balls, make tough plays, and I’m not measuring on made shots or missed shots, it’s the other things, playing smart defensively, executing. We’re going to need Norm Powell. There’s no question about it because his game fits more of a playoff style.”

Casey went on to explain that it’s just been a tough situation on both sides of the equation as OG Anunoby has fit like a glove within the starting unit and the bench has been relentless. Potentially hindering the success of either of those units would place the needs of the individual first. As former GM of the Raptors Jeff Weltman pointed out when speaking with Sportsnet, the Raptors are now in a post-ego phase.

I really look at the Raptors today as having entered a post-ego phase of their development — which is a goal that many teams have. What I mean by that is you have to go through the growing pains of young players who want to make all-star games, and who have contract extensions coming up, and all of those things that are obstacles to bringing a team together.

Once you bring that group together with the same voices then everybody begins to understand that they will now be judged on winning. It’s the only thing. It’s not a matter of ‘Whose toes am I stepping on? Whose turf am I invading?’ It’s about winning as a group. The players have matured and everybody understands why they’re there.

There’s no credit except for team credit. That’s a great place to be.

That’s why Miller, who earned the respect of the ballclub with his stellar play for the 905 was given playing time against Washington and the starting job against Charlotte. That’s why it’s worth exploring what a Nigel Hayes whose three-point shot has fallen at a 45.4 percent clip on high volume for the Westchester Knicks is worth taking a look at.

Miller will be playoff ineligible due to his two-way deal and what happens with Hayes remains to be seen. Powell may appear dead in the water right now, but the culture that’s buried him is the same one that will be the first to embrace him when he finds himself.

In a month or so, the Raptors will be going down the dark alley Casey has been referencing and run into some pretty big dudes with baseball bats. In that type of hard-nosed, physical environment where only the strong survive, Powell’s proven he’s not one to back down.

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