Player development is the key to prolonged excellence in the NBA.
That's not to say it's the easiest way. Winning the lottery or signing a superstar is certainly easier, but for most franchises, being able to consistently develop the players already on your roster is the best path to long-term success in this league.
The Raptors certainly got a taste of that more direct route a couple of years ago, but this franchise has put itself in position to contend for titles post-Kawhi Leonard because of their consistent ability to develop the players that remain on this roster.
While the Raptors organization can boast quite a few shining examples of player development, Norman Powell deserves a spot near the top of that list. In just five seasons, Powell has grown from an overlooked second-rounder to an elite shooter and one of the best bench players in the league.
Even with how far he's come, his game still has room to grow. From just first look, though, it would appear there's little need for change.
Powell's shot chart appears almost perfect. Over 85 percent of his shots came either at the rim or from three last season. Of the 62 players who averaged at least 16.0 points per game in 2019-20, only Giannis Antetokounmpo finished with a higher eFG%. Powell has trimmed the fat off his shot selection down to an analytic ideal diet of shots.
There's no need to alter that aspect of his game. He's an incredibly effective off-ball player and, therefore, his clearest area for improvement can't really be conveyed with a shot chart. In fact, it isn't anything he's doing at all. Rather, it's developing a skill he rarely utilizes.
Powell's self-created offence remains a work in progress. Over three-quarters of his made shots were assisted last season. As were 95.4 percent of his 3s. That number feels almost too high to be realistic, but it fits his role given he plays almost exclusively alongside more ball-dominant guards.
The compounding factor has been that, through this point in his career, he has been largely ineffective off the dribble.
Powell's eFG% on pull-ups last season was just 39.1 percent. Which, when compared to his 65.2 eFG% on catch-and-shoot attempts, helps explain his reluctance to lean on that aspect of his game.
|# of Dribbles||eFG%||Frequency|
The correlation is obvious. As defences force Powell into creating looks for himself, he becomes a progressively less and less efficient scorer.
That said, Nick Nurse will never ask Powell to dribble seven times to create a look like he's Kyrie Irving. There's reasonable room for improvement within the middle of the chart, and growth in that area is the boost he needs to emerge as a more well-rounded offensive force.
Powell has to have a counter when defences take away his first option. In last year's playoffs, Boston did a great job defending Toronto's shooters and he often struggled to find ways to remain effective.
That series was the perfect illustration of Powell's remaining limitations, as well as his potential should he develop those areas.
This play is a pretty concise illustration of where Powell often struggles to create off the dribble:
He makes a good first step and creates a decent amount of space but instead of finishing the drive, he picks up his dribble in no man's land and settles for a push shot from the elbow. The start was perfect but instead of continuing to attack an unprotected rim, he settles for a terrible 15-footer.
Many of the improvements Powell can make are by simply being decisive on his drives. Either by getting all the way to the rim or collapsing the defence and kicking to an open shooter.
Compare how he finished that first play with this move later in the series:
It's night and day. On the second play, he does a fantastic job coming off the screen but instead of settling for a mid-range jumper, he attacks the shot blocker, uses a pump fake to send Robert Williams flying and steps through to finish at the rim.
It's a simple move Powell can clearly utilize, but one he doesn't go to enough. He instantly becomes a more threatening driver by simply replacing most of those off-balance mid-rangers with more aggressive finishes at the rim.
The other aspect of his off-the-dribble game will take more work. Pull-up 3s are far and away the most difficult shots in the game and, while the number of players given license to take them has skyrocketed, the list of who can make them efficiently is far shorter.
Powell is an elite shooter and, in theory, meets the criteria to take any open 3 in rhythm. Once again in the Boston series, two attempted 3s show the difference in his game when he's decisive.
The first shot is a clear example of what happens when he's not:
When he's defended by Kemba Walker in a game-winning situation, that's just simply not a good enough look. Powell had a decisive advantage but it became clear as the clock was winding down that he didn't have a move he was comfortable going to.
He settled for that shot. It's a look he could have knocked down but the defence was relieved when Powell faded away in a situation where a single point would have won the game.
I am not even criticizing the decision to take a three in that situation, but rather his lack of decisiveness in the attempt.
Compare it to this move late in Game 1:
Those moves display two completely different levels of confidence. He looks comfortable coming off the screen in the second, pulling up for an easy rhythm three the instant he recognizes drop coverage.
Powell's off the dribble game has obvious potential. The skillset is there. There's no need for an overhaul, just a refinement in the shots he takes and the rhythm in which he takes them.
He will still be an effective offensive player without adding this to his game, but we've seen where he can the Raptors can struggle in the half-court when their first option gets taken away. If Powell can work on this area of his game and add his name to the list of creators the defence has to worry about, it changes everything for the ceiling of this offence.
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