Toronto Raptors

Norman Powell: How Toronto Raptors wing can maintain his hot streak as a reserve

The Toronto Raptors are trending upward after a slow start to the season and interim starter Norman Powell has played a major role in the team's recent success.

Powell has scored 20-plus points eight times in his last nine games, filling in the starting lineup as he so often does whenever one of his starting teammates misses any action.

Although Powell himself recently missed two games due to back spasms, he picked up right where he left off as a starter when he returned. He had a season-high 29 points in Toronto's win over the Memphis Grizzlies and followed up that performance with a 28-point outing in a win over the Washington Wizards on Wednesday.

Powell is averaging 23.4 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.6 steals while shooting 50.7 percent from the field and 47.5 percent from 3-point range over that nine-game stretch where the Raptors own a 6-3 record.

Because of various injuries to starters like Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby, Powell has actually started in more games (12) than he's come off the bench this season (11), truly embracing the role as the team's sixth starter. But there is a glaring difference in his play as a starter versus when he comes off the bench, which raises a slight cause for concern when the team gets back to full strength.

Norman Powell's starter vs. reserve splits
MPG PPG RPG APG SPG FG% 3PT%
In 12 games as a starter 33.2 21.6 3.7 2.0 1.6 51.4 47.4
In 11 games as a reserve 21.4 10.5 1.7 0.9 0.7 35.4 38.5

With Anunoby's return on the horizon (he's listed as questionable for Thursday's game against the Boston Celtics), it is all but certain that Powell will return to his role off the bench, which as you can see, has been unpleasant for his output this season.

Powell's numbers jump up in every statistical category when he's in the starting five. While the uptick in minutes surely plays a role in some of the counting stats like rebounds, assists and steals, the biggest difference is his efficiency - particularly from the field - that helps lead to his boost in becoming a 20-plus-point-per-game scorer. That could be a product of attracting less attention from opposing defences alongside players like Lowry, Siakam and Fred VanVleet. It could also be a product of getting into more of a rhythm when starting the game, as opposed to coming in cold off the bench.

Whatever the reason may be, the Raptors need Powell's scoring punch regardless of his situation. So how can head coach Nick Nurse find a way to maximize his scoring wing's production even when he returns to a role off the bench?

When looking at Toronto's lineup data, a clear trend emerged. Take a look at Powell's best three-man lineups (in terms of net rating):

Norman Powell's best three-man lineups in 2020-21
Lineup Minutes Played Net Rating
Powell, VanVleet, Chris Boucher 194 20.9
Powell, VanVleet, Anunoby 192 16.0
Powell, VanVleet, Lowry 218 15.4

In fact, those aren't just Powell's best three-man lineups - it's the Raptors' three best three-man lineups as a team, too (with a minimum of 100 minutes played). Do you see the trend?

Powell seems to be at his best alongside VanVleet, who, unsurprisingly, is the teammate he has the highest net rating with in a two-man lineup. Would you like to guess which player has assisted Powell on the most baskets so far this season?

VanVleet with 29 - nearly double the next closest teammate (Lowry with 16).

When watching all 29 of those VanVleet-to-Powell connections, two things stick out: the attention VanVleet draws to free up Powell (as mentioned above) and their chemistry when running in transition. See for yourself:

Open 3s and easy buckets in transition are certainly a way to improve your efficiency, hinting at a reason for Norm's improved shooting percentages as a starter.

VanVleet's 906 total minutes and 36.2 minutes per game ranks second and fourth in the NBA, respectively. Toronto's star guard already shoulders a heavy workload, running with both the first and second unit often, but it's imperative that if Powell returns to the bench that Nurse continues to slot VanVleet alongside him.

Prioritizing this pairing will only help the Raptors continue to do the damage they have done the last few weeks in trying to maintain their franchise-best offensive rating of 113.9, which ranks sixth-best in the NBA.

Powell's play remaining consistent if he returns to the bench will play a pivotal role in Toronto continuing its rise up the Eastern Conference standings in pursuit of getting back to .500 and beyond.

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