Norman Powell and the Art of Scoring

10 mins read
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A triumphant return to heat-pump status.

There’s been virtually no expansion to any aspect of Powell’s game that falls outside the purview of scoring. If you wanted a combo guard who creates for others, nope. Perhaps the ‘3 and D’ player he was initially projected as? Nope. He is an injection of shot-making, and hardly anything more. It’s hard to be valuable to a team when all you do is score, but when you do it at the prolific level and efficiency that Powell provides? Well, it’s actually pretty easy.

After starting the year off shooting 37-percent from the field (after 10 games) and providing the Raptors a smidge above 10 points per game and virtually no playmaking, Powell has assumed form since then. Above the 80th-percentile for wings in 2P%, 3P% and FT%, drawing heaps of fouls as well; a ballooning steal-percentage, and an absolutely robust 133.1 PSA (per 100). So, the question is: which stretch of play is closer to the player he actually is?

For starters, he’s much closer to the player we’ve been seeing lately. The bare bones of his game translate easily to effective plug-and-play basketball, especially (and somewhat exclusively) when he’s operating in a tertiary role. He’s a great quick-twitch athlete who can punch gaps to the rim in the halfcourt or in transition and he’s a gifted leaper for finishing at the bucket. As for the 3-point shooting, he’s slinging in 41-percent over his last 600 attempts. Powell is at the very least a good shooter, and over the past 2 and a half years he’s been great. We’re not operating with a small sample size, he’s been this way for awhile. Quite simply, Powell is able to transport himself to the rim often enough to give teams headaches, and he’s a good enough shooter that he requires hard closeouts – which he’ll beat to get downhill. Pretty potent as a tertiary option.

Of the 17 highest usage transition players in the NBA, none of them score it as efficiently as Powell. He’s also quietly operated as one of the NBA’s highest usage spot-up players and converted at 1.14 PPP. The small-sample-size stuff from this year comes in the form of his pick n’ roll ball handling. He’s actually handling in that playtype nearly as often as Pascal Siakam (that’s a discussion for another time) and his high-efficiency is currently buoyed by an absurdly high shooting foul frequency. Powell is drawing shooting fouls at a rate similar to DeMar DeRozan and Jimmy Butler, but with a much shallower bag of tricks. All told though, Powell’s (mostly second-side-action) pick n’ rolls register him in the 95th-percentile. His field goal-percentage is far and away the worst of any player in the 80th-percentile and up, so this is something to keep an eye on. It appears to be an outlier, but if the shooting numbers rise as the free throw numbers return to earth, Powell could have a legitimate claim to more possessions on ball. That, mixed with his pull-up 3-pointer that’s dropping in at 48-percent – and he’s never shot above 30-percent before – there’s a baby boost to his numbers that probably won’t stick around forever.

From a piece two years ago on his finishing, but still quite relevant:

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.

 

 

Counters in the lane to fend off help-side defenders are also paramount to success against more keyed in defenses. When Powell is attacking in transition or bursting to the rim against a shifting defense, the considerations of changing speeds are obviously less necessary and he can simply jet straight to the bucket, but counters are important to have. It’s what’s made him a player the Raptors can go to in some primary actions (pin-downs, dribble hand-offs, and pick n’ rolls).

A piece from last year, on Powell’s ability to handle primary actions:

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.

How are these old pieces relevant to what Powell is doing today? Well, this is how he’s doing it. Powell has been crafting himself into a potent scorer for years now. The skills that have propelled Powell to north of 20-points-per-game on absurd efficiency since the Raptors 2-8 start are the same ones that fueled his excellent season last year, and will likely see him paid handsomely this offseason.

At least offensively, it’s time Raptors fans stopped viewing Powell as a black box, because the things that make him successful aren’t hidden away. He had a bad stretch to start the year, sure, but he’s been a wholly dominant and consistent tertiary scorer for some time now. His craft and skill is on display, and it’s never just hot shooting with him. He knows his lanes in transition, he attacks closeouts like a professional, he can sense when a player is tracking him, he reads shifting defenses to find his spots, and he’s a clever and underrated relocating shooter.

Powell isn’t on a hot streak (at least not to the degree that one might think), he just endured a cold one. In an offense that can sometimes be plagued by passivity, Powell’s scoring punch is worth it’s weight in gold. A fine-tuned jump-shot, footwork counters, rapid quickness to dart around the court – and a basketball brain that recognizes how to use all of it within the Raptors scheme. Forget the streaks, when it comes to scoring the ball this is who Powell is.

Have a blessed day.

 

 

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