Blowing cold as often as he blew hot had been the Norman Powell way. Consistency eluded him for much of the first four seasons of his career, to the point where some even doubted the worthiness of a four-year, $42 million extension he received prior to the 2017-18 season.
Those hot stretches, though, most notably coming when it mattered most in the playoffs, left plenty of intrigue over the player he could be. By all accounts, this season, there has been a different Powell representing the Toronto Raptors: a more mature, focused individual who has reaped the rewards of his grind on a nightly basis.
The Powell who teased and tantalized seems to be no more. There is clarity in his mind, authority in his voice, and a strut to his step. The results off the court reflect the man he has become off it, and since the league has begun efforts to resume the 2019-20 season, Powell has scorched the mic just as much as he did the net before the shutdown.
Powell wanted his voice to be heard when the league announced that players would be able to display social justice messages on the back of their jerseys, and didn’t hold back when asked about having that freedom taken away after the NBA and NBPA came to an agreement over approximately 30 messages that would be allowed, and nothing else.
“I was really disappointed in the options that were given to us,” Powell said. “First and foremost, I feel like with a topic just like this—social justice—that we're fighting for, the fact that we were boxed-in to a list of 28, 29 sayings was really unfortunate. We've got a lot of guys in this league that have a voice and have been using their voice through this time and were really excited about the whole thing about being able to change our last names, and put a quote there that represents where we stand and what we want to say and how we feel about this.
“I was really upset about the whole change and how we're really limited. I feel the list was really cookie-cutter, and really doesn't touch the topics of what we're trying to achieve here.”
Despite the disappointment, Powell will wear "Black Lives Matter" on the back of his jersey. How would things go down if the 27-year-old could have his way?
"I was really upset about the whole change and how we're really limited. I feel the list was really cookie-cutter, and really doesn't touch the topics of what we're trying to achieve here."
He revealed he would have worn “Am I Next?” on the back of his jersey, that the league would never have put out a recommended list because it’s effectively blocking freedom of speech. It ignores the power of a player having their name on the jersey in the first place. There is a reason the NBA Draft or seeing your jersey hanging in an NBA locker room for the first time means so much to players—that first opportunity to see a reward for the sacrifice they’ve put in: their name on the back of an NBA jersey. They fought for the privilege of having that name displayed, and they should have the right to replace it with whatever they like without the use of profanity, in Powell’s opinion.
One aspect the players do control is how they use their income, and the likes of Jrue Holiday, Dwight Howard, and Patty Mills have already announced that they will be directing any and all salary they receive for the remainder of the 2019-20 toward social justice causes. Raptors players have long been aware of the power of expanding their brand, with several of them having set up their own business ventures including Powell.
“I did something with my Understand The Grind brand already,” Powell said. “And the recent drop of my spring and summer line and donating all the proceeds to two organizations and I’m going to double that with whatever we raise, so I’m going to put my own money into that as well, to just beef up the charity donation, and I’m talking to my team as well to do some other things around my community. Talked to somebody on the NBPA side about helping and donating some money into the efforts that I’m doing, so it’s an ongoing effort, it’s an ongoing fight, nothing is going to be done or changed overnight, so I’m here for the process and growing and learning and contributing in ways that I can and see fit.”
How Powell would mesh with this iteration of the Raptors was an interesting question when head coach Nick Nurse announced that Fred VanVleet would start alongside Kyle Lowry. Powell stated during training camp in Quebec City that he wanted the job, and after years of making a case for a starting job, this could have been a point of frustration. Instead, Powell thrived as both a sixth man when the team was healthy and as a starter when asked to fill in. With the team back healthy after the lockdown, Powell is taking things a step further as a leader for the second unit.
"Every day you’re out here trying to prove something. Every day you’re trying to show why you belong."
“Norman, just coming in locked in, focused, putting in the work early, being ready, you gotta give credit to him being here so long, understanding the game,” teammate Rondae Hollis-Jefferson said. “And then especially going through what we’re going through now, him keeping a level head and understanding his role and his process, I feel like it’s big. He’s definitely been leading the charge and you got guys like Chris, Terence, and guys like that who’ve just came in and backed up everything we stood for in the beginning of the year.”
The second unit has been so intense that they’ve even managed to ruffle the feathers of Fred VanVleet, Kyle Lowry, and Pascal Siakam a little bit, and that’s by design. The starting unit know that’s what they need: teammates who will push them to their limits so that when the ball goes up against real opponents, the level of expectation is no different. Powell has taken on multiple tasks as far as helping each of Terence Davis, Patrick McCaw, Chris Boucher, and Stanley Johnson with their development and recognizes a big part of it is his demeanor, feeding off his energy and intensity.
“They (the starters) are in the position we want to be in,” Powell said. “So, we’re not going to take it easy on them in these drills, we’re not going to let them feel like they can do whatever they want and take it easy and go through the motions. We’re going to go after them, we’re going to compete, and we’re going to show them that we’re here and we want more. That approach just puts things in perspective for them, and that’s the approach we have to have every day. Every day you’re out here trying to prove something. Every day you’re trying to show why you belong.
“Going at a unit like we have here in the first unit, with a championship squad and all five being part of that championship run last year, really helps us with our confidence. When we’re winning and beating them in drills and getting them frustrated, getting them mad at the coaches for calls that are not being made or whatever it is, I think it’s a confidence boost for us and I’m definitely excited to lead this unit and get them prepared for the level we need to be at.”
Respect is a two-way street, and Powell’s words will surely have added meaning, as he’s not only talking the talk but putting in the time with his teammates to help them get better. Beyond basketball, he’s making his presence felt, setting a clear example for making one’s voice heard despite the restrictions the league is putting in place. Is this a man feeling empowered by his play or is the play boosted by a man feeling tremendous comfort in his own shoes?
Arguably a bit of both, and the Raptors, as well as those heeding his message, will reap the benefits on both sides.