By Martin Springall
Down 2–0 in the Eastern Conference Finals, Toronto is facing an uphill battle against a ruthless Cleveland Cavaliers team.
(Christian Peterson / Getty Images Sport)
UCLA product Norman Powell is just one month removed from being named the NBA Rookie of the Month for April, yet that accolade likely seems like a lifetime ago for the rising star’s club, one that is in the midst of a systematic annihilation at the hands of the No. 1 seed in the East.
When small forward DeMarre Carroll (competing in his maiden season with the team after arriving from the Atlanta Hawks last summer) was forced out of the rotation following arthroscopic surgery on his right knee in January, his responsibilities fell upon James Johnson (who then was felled weeks later by a sprained ankle) and Terrence Ross, both of whom performed serviceably in Carroll’s stead. It wasn’t until late March that Powell, the 46th overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, surfaced as a standout, raising eyebrows with his deft offensive prowess and poise more suggestive of a veteran court general than a first-year project.
In April, the 6-foot-4 Powell averaged 15.3 points, 4.4 boards and 2.5 assists a game. With Carroll still injured and the Raptors opting to make judicious use of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry in anticipation of what the team hoped to be a historic playoff run, Powell rose as the team’s third-leading scorer, as well as fourth in rebounds, fifth in assists and turnovers, and second in steals.
More impressive still was the accuracy displayed by the 22-year-old, more heralded for his defensive chops than as a pure shooter, as he converted on 54.8 percent from the field and 53.6 percent from beyond the arc. To the casual observer, the rookie’s numbers may have been remarkable, but Raptors brass were keenly aware of what they were getting in Powell when they acquired his draft rights (in addition to a first round draft pick in 2017, via the Los Angeles Clippers) from the Milwaukee Bucks in exchange for Greivis Vásquez.
Few organizations, including the Bucks (who themselves were gearing up for what they believed would be a coming-out party for their youth movement), could have imagined that Raptors GM Masai Ujiri had committed daylight robbery in his procurement of the San Diego native. In addition to the 2017 selection, Toronto managed to free up $6.6 million in cap space with the Vasquez move.
What the Raptors saw in Powell were the same qualities that had made an impression with scouts during his tenure with UCLA, talents born but not truly honed until his junior year in Westwood. Initially viewed primarily as a role player, Powell spent his four years at the school whetting his raw abilities and polishing the edges off his deficiencies.
One of the conspicuous red flags for several teams concerning Powell was his height, considered to be on the low end of the spectrum for a 2-guard. But what he lacked in size, he more than made up for in aggressiveness, tenacity and unbridled athleticism. He was viewed as a pedestrian shooter, so he revamped his game into that of high-level transition scorer, becoming more combative in attacking the rim.
Powell can be viewed as a prime example of the benefits of seeing out a full playing experience in college. He exhibits consistency when given the chance to shine, and isn’t prone to committing many missteps. His true value for Toronto, though, lies in his defensive skillset. Powell is not shy about getting up close and personal with shooters, relying on his speed and agility to cause problems one-on-one. As evidenced by his workload late in the season, he moves quickly to attack the boards as a rebounder, and is dogged in his capacity to pounce on turnovers and facilitate steals.
When the playoffs began, Powell was given the opportunity to step up, and it became clear that he can serve as a primary option who thrives in big game situations. During the shooting slumps that plagued both Demar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry at the start of the postseason, Powell proved adept at executing under pressure and separating himself from the rest of the pack.
What remains evident over the course of the first two games of the Raptors’ series against the Cavaliers is that the defense that carried Toronto to the dance (ranked third-best in the NBA, holding opponents to only 98.2 points per game during the regular season) is sorely lacking. While the unit as a whole maintains analogous numbers, they appear ill-equipped for the onslaught that is the Cavs’ “Big 3”. Powell demonstrated through the regular season, and during the first round series against the Indiana Pacers, that he is up for the task.
On April 8th, Powell seized the chance to show what he’s made of by dropping 27 points on Pacers, hauling in 6 boards, forcing 3 turnovers and shooting 14 of 19 from the charity stripe. Just one week later, during the final game of the regular season, Powell hung a career-best 30 points on the road against the Brooklyn Nets, adding 8 defensive rebounds and draining 5 triples.
He opened eyes on a grander scale during Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against Indiana at Air Canada Centre, when he intercepted a pass attempt from Monta Ellis, ran the length of the court and threw down a scintillating dunk that tied the game, brought Raptors faithful to their feet and ultimately swung the momentum of the game in Toronto’s favour.
In the limited time that Powell has taken to the court over the course of the club’s 16 contests during the Playoffs, he has ranked top five on the team in shooting percentage, in line with the outings he was recording in March. While 39 percent shooting from field goal range and 28 percent from downtown may be nothing to boast about, it still serves to underline that he’s been more effective than a large contingent of the team’s starting roster.
The Raptors braintrust would be well-served to get out of their own way and concede a few painful truths that may be preventing them from pulling the trigger on giving Powell more playing time in the games that the team may or may not have remaining. First, is the unproductive need to justify Carroll’s $60 million price tag. A player they signed for his staunch defensive skills and grit, the 6'8" Carroll has been no match for Cleveland.
While he was being transitioned back into the starting rotation at the start of the first round, Powell did an admirable job in converting to small forward in his absence. In Game 1 of the Conference Finals, Carroll posted 2 points and 1 rebound while going 0 for 3 from deep in 20 minutes of playing time. In six minutes as a reservist, Powell doubled that production with 4 points and pair of boards.
Another factor holding the rookie back is the team’s bullheaded commitment to Terrence Ross. Powell is shaping up to be everything that Toronto envisioned Ross to become. In his four years with the club, Ross has been anything if not inconsistent. He averaged 9.9 points and 2.5 rebounds in 2015–16, down from his 10.9/3.1 line from just two years ago. Yet Ross still sits ahead of Powell on the team’s depth chart, perhaps an attempt to validate the $33 million contract extension the club offered him back in November.
So how can Powell best contribute in the most important series in the team’s 21-year history? While Cleveland’s J.R. Smith hasn’t been much of a factor thus far due to the Cavs preference in rushing the rim rather than banking on the ridiculous long range game that lifted them past the Detroit Pistons, it won’t be long before the streaky three-point specialist becomes a key consideration in Toronto’s game plan.
Powell can serve as the ideal foil for Smith with his disruptive defense, 6'11" wingspan and 40" vertical. If his team can’t physically stand toe-to-toe against LeBron James, Powell can apply his perseverance to create rebounding opportunities alongside Bismack Biyombo, and can promote space to, at the very least, force Smith, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving to take those outside shots.
(Chris Young / The Canadian Press)
Pundits have given Toronto scant chance to make it to the 2016 NBA Finals. The team currently owns +7500 odds of winning the NBA Championship. If the Raptors are able to pull off the impossible, they’ll have to do so by winning at least one more match-up at Quicken Loans Arena, where the Cavaliers lost just eight times all season. And if Toronto is simply just happy to be in the Eastern Conference Finals, why not throw Norman Powell in at the deep end? Not during garbage time, but in a relevant role that will serve to both spark the team defensively with fresh legs and provide the rookie with invaluable Playoff experience.
At this juncture, the Toronto Raptors have nothing to lose.