We all remember it well enough, Norman Powell near half court with Lucas Nogueira jogging to set a high screen for him. Kyle Lowry and Patrick Patterson spaced out to the left wing and the corner, Powell was attacking out of the high pick n’ roll. Solomon Hill gets caught behind the screen and Powell comes downhill against Anthony Davis. Powell sized Davis up, used an in-n-out dribble before picking the ball up and made a mad dash for the rim. He cocked the ball back and dunked on Davis, displaying some of his elite athleticism. The potential oozed out of Powell in that moment, as not many players are able to turn that play into a poster of one of the league’s premiere rim protectors. The same player who did that (Powell) also shot progressively worse at the rim every year, until this year, of course.
What was wrong with Powell’s attack? He dunked on Davis after all. Well, nothing, and almost everything was wrong with the way Powell attacked in that moment, and it’s the reason why he was such a mediocre finisher at the rim over his first three years. He’s been unleashing that same move every time he attacks the rim, at the same speed. It’s the antithesis of Pascal Siakam’s game – a player who makes his living on mixing shiftiness and athleticism wonderfully.
Success at the rim has never been an expression of athleticism, but craftiness, guile and skill. Kyle Lowry has been doing it for years – much less as of late – despite his obvious limitations. DeMar DeRozan’s latest improvements didn’t involve the 3-point shot we all desperately wanted, but counters and combos in the paint. For a large part of his career, DeRozan was lauded as a terrific athlete, even though his speed and quickness was always a lot closer to Paul Pierce than it was Kobe Bryant. Outside of DeRozan’s explosive one-foot takeoffs for dunks, his athletic profile was pretty underwhelming. Powell is a much better athlete when it comes to his first-step and explosiveness. DeRozan will never be able to emulate Powell’s quickness, but Powell can steal a few moves from DeRozan’s goody-bag.
In a clip from last year we’ll see Powell attack downhill out of the pick n’ roll, charging hard into Montrezl Harrell and getting his shot blocked. He picks the ball up at the free throw line and leaves his feet near the dotted line. There’s no tact, no dipping the ball to get Harell off-balance, no change of speed. Powell sets himself up for failure.
Another one from last year. Powell waits a bit longer to pick up his dribble this time opting to take one extra dribble, but displaying no awareness outside of that. Jakarr Sampson hardly moves as Powell allows Buddy Hield to corral him directly into the help defense. Powell paid the help defense no mind as he focused speeding to the glass, as he’s wont to do. One of the most predictable parts of Powell’s game – and one I’m sure all defenders and scouts know about – is his proclivity to scoop the ball going to his left and speed to the rim.
Remember that goody-bag of DeRozan’s? Powell is displaying some of those counters in 2019. Powell sprints towards the rim, and if this was like years past, he might’ve tried to beat the defender to the glass and gotten blocked. This year, he plants hard toward the defender, slowing his own momentum and putting the defender on his heels. What this means is that Powell can rise up for a floater with little chance of getting blocked. If you watch Kyle O’Quinn’s feet, you’ll notice that just as Powell is gathering for his floater, O’Quinn is realizing he’s not going to the glass. O’Quinn spends too long in a wide stance – unable to jump for a contest in that position – and has to collect his feet under himself in order to contest. By the time he sorts all this out, Powell has already elevated for a 6-foot floater. This move is borrowed straight from DeRozan and is executed quite well by Powell.
One of Powell’s biggest problems when attacking the rim is allowing defenders to track his steps. When he was always entering that running back mode, defenders stayed with him easily. Knowing he was going to the left side of the rim and meeting him there. Most everyone is familiar with the benefits of the jump-stop (in this case a hop-step) in the lane – you maintain your pivot, can go up at anytime for a shot, your shot-fake becomes lethal etc. – and Powell breaks this one out against Derrick Favors. The hop-step allows him to beat Favors in the air. Forcing Favors to stay square to him because of the possibility of the pivot, and then beating him to the left side. Powell has been great changing speeds this year and attacking with a bit more creativity. This move is something we rarely saw in years past, and now he’s mixing hop-steps and side-steps in with drop dribbles. Defenders have a lot more to think about when playing him, and his athletic gifts are allowed to shine now.
The evidence isn’t just in the videos. Powell’s shooting at the rim has skyrocketed from a previous career-high of 61-percent to nearly 68-percent this year. He’s not being selective either, getting to the rim far more often than last year. He’s turning a relative weakness of his game into a major strength, and the Raptors bench is thankful for it. Interestingly enough, most players percentage at the rim goes up when their 3-point percentage does – players are more eager to jump out at them, thus the lane is less occupied – but Powell is doing all this without a massive jump in his 3-point game. He’s just been that much better attacking and mixing up big men.
Powell is getting trapped in the air and under the rim much less often this year, too. He’s getting blocked roughly 1 out of every 14 attempts at the rim and in the paint, where as in years past that number was closer to 1 in 7. Toss in a career low turnover percentage and things are looking up for #24. The improvements he’s made this year attacking the rim are very real, and are a massive step in the right direction for his game.
With how often the bench has been looking for a true shot-creator, Powell being able to create for himself out of the pick n’ roll is a tremendous win for the Raptors. I’m willing to bet we’ll see his 3-point percentage creep up, too. After last year’s downfalls, Powell has implemented the tools to win the fanbase back over. Hope springs eternal.
Have a blessed day, and remember to vote the quartet of Siakam-Leonard-Ibaka-Lowry into the All-Star game.