Norman Powell returned from a 9-game absence last week against the Charlotte Hornets, and despite dropping two of three contests since, the fourth-year wing has shined for the Toronto Raptors.
One step back, two steps forward is how the proverb goes. Conversely, the Toronto Raptors 2019-2020 season has been more depictive of the opposite – something more resembling one step forward; two steps back.
Obviously, injuries are nothing of a foreign concept to Nick Nurse or Raptors fans by this point. Toronto already owns 208 man-games lost to injury, which places them highest among all winning teams in the NBA – a testament to how adaptable the coaching staff has been. The same goes for all the secondary players on the roster.
The injury bug hasn’t visited without bearing gifts, or, better yet, opportunities for other players to step up – when Kyle Lowry fractured his thumb back in November, that gave Terence Davis Jr. an opportunity to step up, and the rookie did just that.
The lingering injuries still prevalent with both Gasol and Ibaka have given Chris Boucher chances to step in and play big minutes. Similarly, when forward depth was cut short thanks to injuries to both Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson earned his place in the rotation with an impressive dosage of effort and hustle.
By this point, however, Nurse and company seem to have a firm idea of which guys will be logging minutes past April, and which guys might only be deployed late in the fourth quarter of blowouts. The sooner the Raptors can get healthy, the better it should serve them, as that will allow rotational pieces to settle into roles. Throughout the season, we’ve seen returns of players throw off other games and put the team on a bit of a skid. As such, a stretch of poor play would be unacceptable in the playoffs.
That’s not to say that the Raptors' recent drift is the fault of Norman Powell – although one could make an argument that his return played a part in the diminishing roles of Davis Jr., or even Matt Thomas, who began stringing together a few good games last week.
Powell, on the other hand, has been red hot since his return, keeping up with the same stellar play he exhibited pre-injury. Unequivocally, Norm is in the midst of his best season as a Raptor, posting averages of 15.9 points, 3.8 rebounds, 1.7 assists, and 1.2 steals, all while holding a 58.6% effective field goal percentage – all of which are career highs. This play has also led to him seeing 29.0 minutes per game, up 54 percent from last season.
Over the past three games, Powell is averaging 24.0 points, 3.0 rebounds, and 2.3 assists on 49.0% shooting from the field. Despite losing two of those three games, he’s been one of the standout players for Toronto.
After being involved in trade talks every offseason and trade deadline, Norm has finally found a way to prove his value to the team. This is the type of player that fans were expecting to see heading into the 2017-2018 campaign when Norm was finally slotted into the starting lineup between Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. He was pegged as a favourite league-wide to contend for Most Improved Player honours, after coming up huge in the playoffs just a few months prior. In a series tied 2-2, against Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Milwaukee Bucks, a sophomore Norman Powell stormed into the Fiserv Forum and dropped 25 points, putting the Raptors in position to close the series and move onto the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Those hopes of Powell blossoming into the third star that Dwane Casey and Masai Ujiri craved for quickly dissipated after Powell suffered a hip injury 12 games into the season. These events gave the defensive-minded rookie, OG Anunoby, his chance to enter the starting lineup, and he easily impressed everyone around him. Ultimately, Anunoby never gave his starting spot back, and even became the primary defender of that starting unit with his strength, quickness, and fearlessness.
Now, Powell finally seems to feel comfortable coming off the bench. He won a championship doing it last year, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. He’s been a crucial part of the Raptors’ bench unit so far this season (despite only actually coming off the bench for 21 of his 41 games played) and is one of two shot creators in Toronto's bench mob.
Assuming the Raptors bench at full health consists primarily of Terence Davis Jr., Norman Powell, Patrick McCaw, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and Serge Ibaka, the only true versatile offensive weapons are Powell and Davis Jr. These two are the only players in that lineup who post a positive O-PIPM (Offensive Player Impact Plus-Minus), which is a measure of how valuable a player is on the offensive end of the floor, accounting for luck and box score stats.
When Powell plays, Toronto owns an impressive record of 30-11 – an indicator of how imperative he is to the team’s success.
With VanVleet and Ibaka questionable for today's rematch of last year's NBA Final, the Raptors are once again a sliver away from full health. They’ll be looking for all the help they can get down in the Bay, as Stephen Curry makes his long-awaited return to the Golden State Warriors.
But regardless, Powell’s minutes are firmly cemented in Toronto’s rotation. Whether he comes off the bench or starts some games against bigger guards, he will be a key to success for the Raptors come playoff time – especially against Milwaukee.