During the 2019-20 season, the Toronto Raptors leaned heavily on seven players. When they were healthy, Kyle Lowry, Fred Vanvleet, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, and Norman Powell were Nick Nurses’ go to guys. We saw it on opening night, it became clear that Nurse didn’t trust the rest of the roster. This went all the way to game 7 versus the Boston Celtics, almost a full year later. The Raptors have lost Gasol, and Ibaka this offseason. This will force Nurse to find new players to add to his trusted rotation. Since Powell has the trust of his coach already, expect his role to increase this season.
The Raptors backcourt is becoming a little crowded. We know that Lowry and Vanvleet will be the starters. Given the Raptors willingness to use three guard lineups there will still be minutes for the other guys. Powell is at the front of the line. Last season was so good for Norm that (had he remained healthy) he could’ve been considered for both the Most Improved Player, and the Sixth Man of the year awards. He almost doubled his previous seasons points per game (8.6-16.0) while maintaining elite shooting percentages. Powell played 52 games, where he came off of the bench in exactly half of them.
This season the Raptors will need Powell more than ever. The depth has taken a hit, and they will need him to be an x-factor coming off of the bench. Additionally, with the losses of two centres, Powell may be closing more games. We saw them go small at the end of games in that Celtics series. Given the new front court, it is likely that this trend will continue into this season. The question is: how can Norman Powell become a key for the Raptors this season?
It is clear that Powell took some major steps forward last season. After his second injury he came back and played five (full) games before the league shut down. In those five games, he averaged 28 points per game where he was named the Eastern Conference Player of the Week for his efforts. During the Orlando bubble he played fairly consistent – until the Celtics series. For games 1-4 of that series he averaged 6.8 points on 32% shooting. However, in games 5-7 he averaged 16.7 points on 47% shooting.
It is clear that Powell is a capable scorer and shooter. He has had plenty of high-scoring games throughout his career and shoots 36% from three-point range. One aspect of Powells game that could use some improvement is his playmaking. The Raptors have plenty of playmakers, including Lowry and Vanvleet – who are good for about 15 combined assists per game. Furthermore, Siakam is growing as a playmaker, and they drafted Malachi Flynn to be another initiator. They do not need Powell to become an elite playmaker. Last season, he averaged a career best 1.8 assists per game. This is quite low.
A reasonable goal for Powell this season would be to up that total to around three assists per game. This would get him similar to players such as Lou Williams, and Evan Fournier in terms of playmaking. It would benefit players such as Lowry, Vanvleet, Siakam, and Anunoby, who are good off-ball players. Additionally, with the loss of Gasol, they will need more play-making. New-comer Aron Baynes is a willing shooter, and shot 36% from three last season. He could also benefit from Powell becoming an improved play maker.
Several times this season we saw Nurse go to Powell for a game-winning shot. On opening night, he had a chance to win the game (1:49) against the New Orleans Pelicans. Again, in Game 6 vs the Celtics, he had a game-winning shot in overtime. He missed both. While these are only a few examples, they stand out. The Raptors don’t have many players who can create their own shot. Lowry can to some extent, but he is a lot smaller than Powell so it can be difficult. Siakam is looking to take that next step, but right now he and Anunoby don’t have the handles to consistently create a shot when the Raptors need one.
This is a heavy burden for Powell. It would be unfair to rely on him to be the only shot creator on the team. The Raptors do not need Powell to create a bunch of looks each game, but to have him in the crunch-time is important. Nurse is a very creative coach and draws up great plays when the Raptors need a basket. The plays will get broken up by other teams defences on occasion. To have Powell as an option to improvise a shot will be important. We saw in the two previous examples that Powell settled for deep three-point shots. If he can find a way to get to an easier spot for a basket, he could really raise the Raptors ceiling.
Powell as a ceiling-raiser
If Powell can make these contributions to the Raptors this season it could make a big difference. To have a weapon like this, could be the difference in a 4-6 seed in East who gets knocked out in round one, compared to a 2-3 seed who could make some noise in the playoffs. Of course, other factors will come into play. The Raptors are not solely relying on Powell for this potential. It would be a nice bonus for the Raptors if he can provide them with an increased level of play. We know what to expect with the Raptors starters. If Powell can develop into a Manu Ginobli-esque bench piece/finisher for the Raptors it could change everything. This is assuming that he does not become a trade-chip.