This season we perhaps got the clearest idea of Norman Powell’s trajectory. Five years into his career and at 27 sounds about the right time to get a good idea of whether the Raptors sell or re-up, and though Powell has performed his role as per requirements, he’s also unlikely to take on a larger role. More on that later.
He shot 40% from three on 5.3 attempts (up from 2.8 last year) which is an improvement that was demanded of him as a sixth man. Volume shot-making was on his todo list last summer and the man delivered in the regular season. In the postseason when it counted he fizzled as against Boston he shot 32% from three and given how tight that series was, any number of factors would have made the difference.
Joshua Howe’s earlier analysis of Powell is a must-read and he talked about Powell’s finishing at the rim which has always been a criticism:
Last season, Powell made 62.1 percent 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.
Powell also corrected that this season so he’s already earned checks on both his three-point shooting and finishing. To heap on the praise he may be the Raptors best slasher as we analyzed in our off/on ball breakdown of Powell a few weeks ago. Not only did he slash more he also finished better while improving as a three-point threat.
Powell’s confidence was never lacking and grew further this year. After temporarily saving the season in Game 6 against Boston, he spoke about how he holds himself to a high clutch standard:
“I pride myself in trying to do it. I’ve done it my whole career playing basketball since I was little being the person that takes the last shots. It’s what I work on, I have a lot of confidence in that, I think the coaches have a lot of confidence in my ability to do that, especially when we do the one-on-one stuff to vault up and get a shot over the defence with the clock winding down.”
Sure, getting blocked by Marcus Smart in the clutch moment is the last memory of the season, but overall, Powell has never been one to shy away from a defensive challenge or take big shots. These can be considered progressions for him and a natural extrapolation sees him further develop his game, especially if his usage rate of 20.6% increases as it has the last two seasons.
If we evaluate Powell based on his job description he’s getting A’s all around. However, at this point we have to view him through a richer lens and see if he was able to hit any of his stretch goals. The main skill that he doesn’t yet possess, and the one that he’s unlikely to develop is the ability to create his own shot consistently, or at least facilitate the creation of points. He can’t create his own shot because he lacks the moves to create space and he can’t facilitate because, well, I don’t think the Raptors have ever asked that of him so it’s a skill gone undeveloped.
Some players “graduate” from role player status to payday status with VanVleet being a good example. VanVleet has the advantage of having the ball in his hands and he’s taken that opportunity to wiggle a license to jack up deep threes and drive with the intention of scoring more than passing. He’s done that at enough of a clip that he’s now central to the team’s offense. Powell, though he completed his homework, hasn’t made that leap nor has he sought to make that leap. Instead he has chosen to play within the role defined for him and it may end up limiting his earnings.
VanVleet and Powell both take the same amount of shots PER36 but whereas VanVleet has looked to add variety to his game, Powell’s approach has been to do the things he already does a little bit better. It is rare to see Powell go rogue on offense and start jacking up pull-up jumpers, take on guys off the dribble in the half-court etc. He’s been arguably the most disciplined team player the Raptors have had.
So there are two camps here as I see it. The first is the camp that expected Norman Powell to continue to fulfill his role player responsibilities, and by that standard Powell has exceeded expectations. Sure, he still gets tunnel-vision and his assist numbers are dire, but in terms of fulfilling his role on the team (which is slashing, three-point shooting, and defense), he’s excelled. The other camp is the one which expected him to move up a tier this season due to natural progression, which hasn’t happened and thus we are in the doldrums of the Norman Powell situation. It’s also why he’s always playing a leading role in any Trade Machine orgy.
I beg the reader for a brief digression.
One of the early works of Fyodor Dostoevsky was The Double. It’s a strange piece which doesn’t get the attention of works like The Brothers Karamazov, which by many estimations is the greatest literature put to pen. The Double concerns a man named Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin, who at a party encounters another man who looks exactly like him. The resemblance is unsettling and when Golyadkin confronts the man he discovers that his name is also Golyadkin. The activities of the “other” Golyadkin starts wreaking havoc in the protagonist’s life, and most of the novel is about their evolving relationship. I will spare you spoilers.
I bring that up because Norman Powell is Golyadkin. Terence Davis is also Golyadkin. One of the Golyadkins projects to be the other Golyadkin fairly quickly, and when you have commitments in Pascal Siakam, likely Fred VanVleet and definitely OG Anunoby, one of the Golyadkins must go. It is a testament to the Raptors management that they’re able to find replacements for role players at lower costs because you can’t pay everyone. As much successful team building is about getting the right stars at the right time, it’s also about getting the right role players at the right cost. Powell firmly fits the role player category and has a replacement in line in Terence Davis.
Powell, despite having done his duties remains on the bottom of the list of priorities. When we’re evaluating Powell at the intersection of his career and what the Raptors plans are, it becomes evident that there isn’t a long-term contract for him in the works. He’s done his job to a tee yet remains on the outside looking in.
My hope is that the Raptors secure him on a reasonably good deal as he’s a fantastic sixth man, but if Norman Powell’s value is to be maximized, it may be as bait to a team that contemplates him as a starter right now. He’s at the age where he’s looking for his biggest NBA deal and it’s unlikely that it’ll come from Toronto.