Norman Powell has become an artist.
No longer is he simply a vibrating ball of raw, interminable energy, corporeally bound by the limits of his own human body, perennially prepared to splash his talents upon the hardwood canvas with surefire and reckless abandon. No longer is he direct and obvious, the hallmarks of a matchup-dependent player.
No, now there is consistency in every sure-footed liftoff. Now there is patience in every hesitation dribble. Now there is artistry.
Indeed, Powell has evolved into the idealized version of the prototypical role playing wing of modern basketball—a multivalent scorer who can punish defences by drilling threes and attacking off the bounce while also holding his own on the other end of the floor. It’s the exact type of metamorphosis the Toronto Raptors needed from the fifth-year wing in their championship defending season sans Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, and it’s understandably altered the general opinion on his value substantially, from potential salary dump trade chip to unquestionable asset.
And yet, attempting to pin down precisely what has turned Powell into a legitimate Most Improved Player candidate (aside from the uber-confidence garnered from winning a title) isn’t as clearcut as it may appear.
On the surface, Powell’s shot profile is largely the same as last season’s, with some slight differences. He’s still, as has become a staple for the Raptors as an organization as well as most of the rest of the league, taking few shots in the space between three feet and the arc (just 12.3 per cent of his looks), and has taken marginally less of his attempts right at the rim (38.3 per cent of his shots came from there last season; 34.9 this season) in order to instead launch more triples (42.5 per cent of his shots last season; 45.7 this season).
While he has upped his volume from distance significantly, taking 5.4 total threes this year as opposed to 2.8 last year, his percentage hovering around the same mark (40 per cent last season; 39.8 per cent this season), while certainly impressive, is not overly surprising, since there’s ample precedent for his being a lethal shooting threat albeit on a lower usage rate (18.2 per cent as opposed to 21.5).
The improvement that’s truly pushed him to newfound heights, then, is his finishing.
Last season, Powell made 62.1 per cent of his attempts from within 0–3 feet of the basket. Now, he’s raised that number to a stunning 68.3, and increased his true shooting percentage from a worthy 59.6 to an elite 62.9—only 12 players in the entire league are averaging a true shooting percentage of at least 62 while also playing at least 28 minutes, and of those 12, only three are non-big men: Duncan Robinson, Rodney Hood, and Powell.
But the question remains: If he’s taking shots from the same area, what’s changed about his approach that’s allowing him to score so efficiently? Simply because he has more opportunities with the ball in his hands doesn’t guarantee development, as has been evidenced countless times in the past by a panoply of players.
To answer that query one need only look back as far as last season. Powell’s primary issue has always been that he’s appeared to play with blinders on (emphasized by his propensity to miss open shooters after drawing help), making obstinate decisions early on after the ball nestles itself in his hands.
Here, for example, he comes down the floor in semi-transition with a lone Jared Terrell in his immediate path. Eyeing him up the entire way, Powell picks up his dribble at the free throw line before attempting to simply power his way directly through his opponent, allowing Terrell to easily stay in solid position one-on-one to eventually strip the ball.
Relying almost entirely on his explosiveness, Powell would drive in direct lines to either side of the rim with purpose, but even when he managed to get a step or two on his defender, they typically were able to stay with him long enough to suffocate his space and give his shots a strong contest.
Here, with Walt Lemon defending rather languidly, Powell makes a cut (something he’s always been great at) down the middle of the floor in the half-court and Fred VanVleet immediately finds him. Upon catching the ball, Powell launches himself towards the basket instantly, allowing for a suddenly recovering Lemon to rise up with him enough to bother the shot.
With his focus so straightforward and obvious, defenders rarely had to think too much when stepping up to Powell’s attacks on the rim. On top of that, Powell often looked contact-averse, choosing to try and explode up or around his opponents in such a manner that didn’t create enough meaningful space.
Here, Powell sizes up Jerami Grant in the half-court, hesitating just above the foul line before exploding to his right in an effort to squeeze past him. Of course, Grant is able to stay right there and makes a good rear-view contest that forces Powell’s attempt far off the mark.
And then, of course, some of his misses were just point blank, with the only explanation being a lack of focus or strength to finish the play.
Fast forward a season and Powell still has some of the same habits. He still has a proclivity to pick up his dribble at the foul line, for example. But what’s changed is what happens both before and after that point—it’s clear that the mindset of driving into the paint with raw force is gone, and has been replaced with a necessary understanding that there must be layers to his attacks.
That there must be an art.
Now, it is as if one can see Powell’s mental gears whirring as he takes in the obstacles before him, calculating how best to utilize his electric explosiveness rather than simply relying upon it.
One of the ways Powell’s done this is by switching direction. Forgoing the straight-line drives, Powell has learned to expertly swerve at the optimal moment, freezing defenders and giving himself space to finish by going up on angles.
Here, Powell catches a long outlet pass coming up the left side of the floor from Kyle Lowry in transition, and finds himself in familiar situation with one man in front of him. Rather than attempting to push by him or barrel through him, though, Powell instead uses his first step to attack the paint horizontally before turning abruptly towards the rim to rise up and softly lay the ball in, leaving poor Kent Bazemore without any way to deliver a proper contest.
Defenders who expect (rightly so) Powell to not only drive directly, but attempt to finish directly are in for a surprise, too. Making use of his opponents’ presumptions, Powell has gotten much better at appearing to try and attempt a finish on one side of the rim, and actually completing the play on the other.
Here, he catches the ball in the half-court, surveys the landscape for a moment, then storms past Mychal Mulder into the middle of the key with help waiting beneath the basket. In the past, with Mulder on his heels and the obvious angle right there, Powell would have attempted to finish on his right. Instead, he goes up as if that’s the plan and swiftly switches to his left hand, surprising both defenders.
The antagonistic relationship with contact has also vanished. Powell has now added a greater, if subtle palette for physicality to his already dangerous athleticism, giving opponents little bumps here and there at opportune times to help create a smidgeon more space and allow him to finish more easily.
Here, Powell gets a switch off of a Marc Gasol screen and, seeing that the entirety of the paint is devoid of life, begins to drive. When Bazemore attempts to stay in front of him, Powell, already on an angle, intentionally initiates a small bump into Bazemore’s chest in order to generate a sliver of space that permits him to zoom into the open area for an uncontested jam.
And while Powell’s had less point blank misses based on an improved level of strength and, perhaps, focus, he’s also reduced that outcome by leaping off of two feet rather than one more often, evidently improving his balance while in the air.
Among all of the wonderful stories grafted onto the Raptors’ season, perhaps none has been more unprecedented and gratifying than Powell’s finishing acting as a catalyst for his metamorphosis into the best version of himself. And Toronto will hope, much like he did after each injury suffered this season, that when play resumes he is able to pick up right where he left off, a man unencumbered. A man who’s finally figured things out.