Judging Norman Powell’s 2018-19 season is a complex affair. It’s a lesson in how to accredit value, how to decide what matters and what doesn’t. Norman Powell had many good-not-great games throughout the year, and a few spectacular games towards the end of the season, and as a result, Norman Powell had an incredible, unforgettable season. A few moments can redeem a whole year, if those moments are big enough.
To be fair, Powell’s regular season didn’t really need redeeming. He was very good, offering the best season – by far – of his young career. Powell remained a low-minute scorer, even reducing his role to usually just spotting up in the corner. Powell played only 18.8 minutes per game, which is still a career high, but it’s not enough to be a foundational element of a team. His usage rate slipped to 18.2, the lowest of his career, proving either that the Toronto Raptors are accepting that Powell is a finisher rather than an initiator, or proving that Powell is accepting the same distinction.
More important than Powell’s minutes or usage, he became incredibly efficient at scoring in his few opportunities. Powell shot 48.3 percent from the field, the highest by far of his career. The brunt of the improvement came at the rim, where he shot 60 percent. 2018-19 marked the first year Powell was an above-average finisher at the rim. He is an incredible athlete, but Powell’s improvement more came in his decision-making, his conscious efforts to jump from closer in the paint, and the fact that he almost eliminated his proclivity to jump into rim protectors without a plan.
Powell also shot 40 percent from deep for the first time since his rookie season. He was excellent from both the corners and above the break. Still, he only took 170 3s during the regular season, fewer than Pascal Siakam or OG Anunoby. Despite his accuracy, Powell took only one more 3 during the season than Serge Ibaka. Though Powell took discrete steps forward in the 2018-19 regular season, they weren’t enough, or combined with enough volume, to constitute a breakout year. Powell set across the board career-high per game averages with 8.6 points, 2.3 rebounds, and 1.5 assists, but they still mark quiet averages. A team that was 499 points better than opponents in the regular season was only 15 points better with Powell on the floor.
To be fair, Powell had some statement games in the regular season. In January, Powell scored 23 points in a win over the Indiana Pacers. He shot 10-for-12 from the field. In April, he was perhaps even better, scoring 23 points while shooting 7-for-7 in a win over the Miami Heat. Big moments, but those were few and far in between during the regular season.
Then came Powell’s playoff performance. More specifically, then came his playoff performance against the hapless Milwaukee Bucks. First, to set the stage: like all players not named Kawhi Leonard, Powell had been struggling against the defensive length of the Philadelphia 76ers. Nick Nurse limited Powell to 10 minutes or fewer in each of the last three Sixers games. But largely because of Leonard, the Raptors prevailed, and they went on to face the Bucks. The Bucks’ defense offered far more space to tertiary players on the Raptors, and Powell fit the bill. The real Playoff P once again emerged.
In game two, Powell broke out, shooting 6-for-9 in the loss. He earned more of a look going forward, however, and Nurse used Powell as the first man off the bench in game three. Powell responded with 19 points in 30 minutes, and the Raptors wouldn’t lose another game to the Bucks. Powell’s confidence was off the charts, and he added some banging moments to his pantheon of playoff heroics.
Of course, it’s easy to forget that Powell returned to earth against the Golden State Warriors. He scored zero points in three of the final four games of the Finals. It didn’t matter, of course, as Powell’s magic had already done its work. It’s probably not a stretch to say that without Powell, the Raptors would not have dug their way out of the 0-2 hole against the Bucks.
So how to judge Powell’s season? And more importantly, how to project that season forward to predict Powell’s 2019-20?
Winning a championship proved that winning the big moments is more important than consistently winning the small ones. Therefore, Powell could have had a mediocre season, and one great playoff series, and his season could still be called great. That’s sort of how it works when a team needs every last inch to win its first title.
But unless something drastic changes, it’s likely that the Raptors as a franchise have higher priorities this coming season than mounting a full-fledged title defense. Sure, Toronto will be trying its damnedest to win games and advance in the playoffs. But marginal improvement for its young players will be more important this season than in 2018-19. So don’t expect Powell to have too many opportunities for playoff encores. The Raptors will certainly be competitive in the first and second rounds, but expectations for playoff heroics should be raised going forward. Dunks in the first round against the Indiana Pacers, it is bittersweet to report, ain’t what they used to be.
That leaves Powell in a familiar position. Toronto knows that Powell can be a valuable contributor as the eighth man off the bench, but the team is in a position where value in that roster spot is minimal. Will the team try to grow his role and offer him more reps? Powell hasn’t yet shown the ability to consistently create for himself and others, either with starting or bench units, so it’s difficult to know whether he is ideal for an increased role this upcoming season. But because the Raptors lost a pair of incredible wings in major roles, Toronto is once again about to find out how ready Powell is for more responsibility.