Athletes go through an incredibly unique set of trials in their professional lives. The problems and the pitfalls are of course massaged out by being paid an exorbitant salary, that’s the way it works. But, that never erases how unique a situation it is for your job to be on display all the time and for you to constantly be critiqued night in and night out. Oh, to be an accountant and check out your after work “Quick Reaction” only to realize you got a ‘C-‘. It would be strange! We identify deeply with the players who represent our team and empathy drives so much of what is central to fandom and sports in general, which makes Norman Powell’s slogan “Understand the Grind” so fundamentally true, in that we are trying to understand him and his game. And that grind has brought him to what is the current high-water mark of his career. One that we all thoroughly enjoy watching, and one that I’d like to analyze.
A Real Shooter
The Raptors beat the Milwaukee Bucks in 6 games in 16-17, with Powell inserted into the Raptors starting 5 and operating as the offense’s killer from the weak-side and heat-pump/release valve. He shot 44-percent from deep, he made the Bucks pay for overloading on DeRozan and Lowry, and he signed a 4-yr $42 million extension before the next season started. He looked poised to emerge as the Raptors missing piece, but another player arrived instead, OG Anunoby. Powell was locked in as a starter for the first twelve games of the following season, but lost that spot to Anunoby. In that time, the promise Powell showed as a release valve waned. He shot 30-percent from three, barely scraped by 40-percent from the field, and he looked rushed and out of sorts. He got to the free throw line less, he got blocked more often, and he fell out of favour to the point where he only played 10+ minutes in one playoff game.
Often criticized for an underwhelming ability to read the game, Powell made some shrewd adjustments to the way he got his own offense in the past year and a half. He’s started to hunt shots specifically in transition and after offensive rebounds. In years past, all Powell saw was the rim in transition, and perhaps doesn’t receive enough credit for his recognition that, that needed to change. This also coincides with Pascal Siakam’s emergence as the Raptors true rim-runner in transition, so take that for what it’s worth, but Powell started to spring to the wing instead. And when he was behind the play (learning from Lowry here) he became dangerous as a trailing shooter.
Understanding where your shots are going to come from is a subtlety in the NBA, and reading the defense to find those soft-spots is an underrated skill. Steph Curry can shoot the lights out, but his nose for the soft-spots when relocating kills teams. The same can be said for Lowry. So when Powell started to read these situations better and better, forming up off of drives, filling the lane, and hunting threes off of missed shots, he got to let it fly more often.
The natural progression for better shot attempts, was a better return. And that’s started to come in spades. He’s shooting a robust 41-percent from downtown over his last 335 attempts (spanning two seasons) and that type of performance fundamentally changes how defenses view him. His gravity is different, navigating screens is different, and the second level of defense is different. Like Victor Oladipo, Curry, Lowry and countless others before him, the jump-shot has opened up a world of opportunity.
I wrote a feature last year that broke down all of Powell’s counters and his footwork going downhill. It’s a good piece, it’s really in-depth and you can read that here. However (comma) his growth as a jump-shooter and how defenses have responded to him hasn’t necessitated anymore growth in that area. DeRozan has an endless goody-bag of counters and finishes around the rim because he’s attacking a set defense more often. Since Powell’s rise as a shooter began, players have started to chase over top of every screen that Powell comes off of, and if they don’t he simply pivots and locates for an open three point shot. So, Powell is constantly getting the edge and finding himself in more 1-on-1 situations with big men, going downhill. He still has his side-step, and he can finish through contact. But where we used to see Powell gather his dribble early to speed past his primary defender like a running back only to get ambushed at the rim by the help-defense, we see that gather come later and against the last line of defense.
You only have to watch a few clips of Powell scoring to realize where most of his points are coming from. He’s killing teams on pin-downs, DHO’s, and in transition. He’s getting to the rim seemingly at will (or making it rain) and shooting 70-percent there. He’s been so effective that Nick Nurse has started to feature Powell in the offense more and more. So we’re not seeing Powell operating strictly as a weak-side attacker, but the feature of plays, wherein the intended function is a shot for Powell. These plays are called when he shares the floor with all of VanVleet, Lowry, and Siakam. He’s been recognized by the team as a valuable shot-maker, and rather than have his shots come from reads other players make, they’re putting the ball directly into his hands. And he’s responded by scoring 20+ in 8 of his last 9 games. I mean, he’s been so good that he had a shoulder injury, missed 11 games, but didn’t miss a beat.
If you’re wondering whether the 50-60-90 splits that Powell has put together over this last stretch are something he’ll maintain, they aren’t. But, the foundation of his game is concrete now. He’s carved out an important role in the Raptors system, he’s spurred on numerous comebacks, helped maintain leads, and supercharged offensive units. Once this hot streak ends, he’ll still be working within the same framework, with all the same advantages laid out in front of him. He’s a champion, and by the end of this season could have real 6th man of the year consideration.
So, if you love to see an extremely athletic kid out of UCLA build his game up from the ground, that’s what you got. Powell had his athleticism devalued in the league, after relying on it to overcome his deficiencies as a jump-shooter. Then, he worked endlessly on that jumper, and used his it to make his athleticism relevant in his game again. What Powell becomes, I’m not sure. But, I feel like I’m beginning to Understand the Grind.