Toronto Raptors Player Spotlight: A Tale of Two Norms

Photo credit: Nick Wass/The Associated Press

There’s something about hearing your name be called in the starting lineup. The fans (erm, artificially generated fan noises this year) roaring, high-fiving your teammates, or doing the workout regimen with Kyle Lowry.

For Norman Powell’s opponents, it means he is about to wreak havoc, and there is nothing you can do about it.

In the absence of OG Anunoby, who’s been out for the team’s last eight games due to a left calf strain, Powell has been slotted into the starting lineup and filled in admirably. He proved that to be true once again Wednesday against the Washington Wizards, dropping 28 points on 10-of-18 shooting to go with six rebounds, four assists and a steal.

After a sluggish start to the season, and after being inserted into the starting lineup, Norman Powell has taken his game to another level. It’s almost as if he is a completely different player on the court, and this overnight transformation could not have come at a better time for the Raptors.

This once again calls into question what we seem to ask every single year: what is it about being in the starting lineup that turns Norman Powell into a human wrecking ball? How is it that there could be two Norman Powell’s that seemingly exist as completely separate entities?

Historically, this has always been a trend with Powell; coming off the bench, he seems to struggle mightily. Insert him as a starter, however, and it becomes a completely different story.

Below are the splits for Powell starting versus coming off the bench this year, and the difference is astonishing:

This is not a new trend for Powell, but it is perhaps the best stretch he’s had as a starter in his career to date. Below are Norm’s averages for his career:

Going solely by the numbers, Norman Powell is literally twice the player when he starts. It goes much deeper than the box score stats and can’t simply be written off by stating that starters shoot more volume.

The Case of Starter Norm and Bench Norm is a curious one indeed, and there are a few key areas to examine that illustrate the remarkable difference between the two Norms:

Control and Composure

One of the biggest differences between Starter Norm and Bench Norm is the level of comfort they have on the court. One looks like they’ve been in the game for years, and the other somehow enters the game with rookie nerves.

Starter Norm gets off to hot starts regularly and with ease, averaging 8.3 points in the first quarter of games on a blistering 71.2 percent from the field, versus Bench Norm’s paltry 2.8. This mark is by far the best of any Raptor this season, with Pascal Siakam scoring the second-most first quarter points at 5.9.

Is this purely a mental aspect of the game? Starter Norm plays with a fluidity and sense of calmness. He knows where he needs to be. He makes smart reads and takes what the defence gives him, and never tries to do too much.

Bench Norm, on the other hand, comes in with what feels like overwhelming pressure to make an immediate impact on the game. He tries to force up contested shots at the rim, his transitions between basketball moves are a little more rigid, and he looks visibly uncomfortable in this role.

While it is true that starters have an extended period to get themselves comfortable in a game in the first shift and feel out the opponent, it makes a monumental difference for Powell. This shows in their respective shooting efficiencies; Starter Norm’s true shooting percentage is 66.0 percent which would be considered elite for a high-usage player, while Bench Norm sits below league average at 51.5 percent.

It’s more likely that a starter gradually adapts to a role as a sixth man who comes in and fires shots at will and attacks with relentless energy in spurts. Former Raptor and current Orlando Magic guard Terrence Ross is an excellent example of someone who transformed themselves from awkward starter into one of the league’s elite sixth men. With Powell, however, it is the exact opposite.

On the Ball

For any lead guard off the bench, one of the major duties that comes with this role is being the primary ballhandler. Although his handle has significantly improved over the years, Powell seems to excel moving off-ball. Starter Norm greatly benefits from the ball movement that the starting unit produces, as it allows him to constantly be in motion and keep defenders on their toes.

What’s most interesting is that they play almost two completely different styles of basketball. Bench Norm thrives on catch-and-shoot threes and has less success in the paint. Starter Norm plays a much more balanced game and can score from anywhere. The point distribution indicates that Bench Norm is getting approximately 51.7 percent of his points from long distance, whereas Starter Norm is a full ten points lower at 41.7 percent.

Surprisingly, Bench Norm actually relies on others to create more for him than Starter Norm does. 77.1 percent of Bench Norm’s field goals are assisted, versus 65.6 percent for Starter Norm. Starter Norm is the better ball-handler altogether, posting an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.20, versus Bench Norm’s 0.91 (meaning he is more likely to turn the ball over than he is to register an assist).

Tying into playing calmly and with composure, there are ways for Bench Norm to work, but it mostly requires having others create offence for him. Starter Norm, however, has a much easier time playing in motion and not needing the ball so much in his hands, and the results show it ultimately translates to much better basketball.

Winning Ways

One undeniable aspect of all these statistics as we look at these two players is that Starter Norm is a heavy contributor to winning basketball.

Here is a mind-boggling stat: in 101 career starts, Powell is plus-221; in 229 career games off the bench, he is plus-121. Starter Norm’s net rating this season is a team-best plus-7.2, and Bench Norm’s net rating is minus-2.0, which would rank near the bottom among bench regulars.

That net rating would rank Norman Powell 31st in the league among starters. That puts him in the company of some elite players, as his net rating is wedged right between Nikola Jokic (plus-7.3) and Ben Simmons (plus-6.9). Starter Norm isn’t just a good player; he is in the upper echelon of the league at that rate.

Suffice to say, the differences between Starter Norm and Bench Norm are staggering, but what does it all mean? Anunoby is expected to be back in the lineup any day now, and assuming the Raptors continue with a traditional starting five, it would send Powell back to the bench.

Starter Norm needs to become the norm (editor’s note: I had to beg for this joke), and perhaps one consideration to keep the good times rolling is to convert to a smaller, speedier lineup with Powell as the team’s starting small forward, with OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam moving up to power forward and centre, respectively. In a small sample size of only 29 minutes, this lineup has proven to be effective, posting a net rating of plus-4.8.

This could perhaps unlock the style of basketball the Raptors have been wanting to play all season: pace and space. Having Powell in the starting five adds an extra ball-handler, additional shooting, and gives Toronto strong on-ball defenders at all five positions, allowing them to create turnovers and leak out in transition. This is how Nick Nurse wants to play, and Starter Norm could be the key to unlocking this on a permanent basis.

The Raptors have a lofty decision on their hands: is it time to lock Bench Norm in a basement vault and keep Starter Norm around for good? If so, could this be a long-term solution for the Raptors? Powell’s contract is potentially expiring (he has a player option for next year), and the decision needs to be made if the Raptors are ready to commit to Powell as a full-time starter.

Looking forward, whether here or elsewhere, it is clear that only one Norman Powell can exist. The choice is obvious between the two, and with Powell’s recent play, he’s making a serious case to be a starter on a full-time basis.

The Raptors may be ready to say goodbye to Bench Norm forever, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing after all.

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