LAS VEGAS — A year ago at Vegas Summer League, the Raptors found a major steal in rookie Norman Powell, who they traded for after he was selected 46th by the Bucks in the NBA draft.
It only took two games in Vegas for the Raptors to sign him, and he went on to average 18.3 points on 50.9 percent shooting, leading the team to the No. 1 seed in the summer league tournament. Months later, he was given the rare chance for a second-round pick to start in the Eastern Conference semifinals, after averaging 15.3 points in April.
This past week in Vegas, Powell was at it again, averaging 19.8 points and solidifying the Raptors once again as the No. 1 seed. From mostly scoring last year as an off-the-ball guard, this summer the Raptors made him the team’s go-to facilitator and he excelled in more pick-and-roll play.
For how quickly Powell has ascended in just one year’s time, his playing days could have ended even faster. He nearly quit basketball when he was younger after his uncle, Raymond, passed away. Raymond was his basketball rock, and Powell decided to dedicate the game to him. He has a tattoo in his honor. But that’s not all Powell faced. He was constantly fighting through his family’s extreme poverty, which even meant sacrificing missing lunch at school so his mother, Sharon, could have some extra money.
This past weekend, Powell opened up to the NBPA on his incredible journey, how he’s risen from being an underdog his whole life, the different parts of his development, motivational one-on-one matchups with DeMar DeRozan and Jerry Stackhouse, and much more. His conversation with the NBPA is presented below in a first-person perspective and edited for clarity and length.
I play with a chip on my shoulder all the time.
That’s been instilled in me from the jump, never backing down, never accepting that you can’t do something. I saw my mom, Sharon, struggle with raising me as a single parent and my two older sisters.
There were many tough times: not having money for lunch, living with the lights cut off, getting kicked out of our houses, moving probably every month to the point where I had to live with my uncle, Raymond, in a one bedroom. There were six people in there; it was really tough. Seeing my mom struggle, she didn’t have money to get us things for school like back-to-school clothes. She struggled with paying bills.
I used to see my mom crying and just break down and depressed, because she didn’t know where the money was going to come from. So that was the toughest thing for me growing up. I was fortunate not being in some other situations where kids’ parents are doing drugs. But it was still tough financially and we were always moving, trying to save our money. My mom would give me money for lunch and I would put it back in her wallet. So I went to school without eating.
My uncle and I used to watch games with him holding a basketball around the house, and he really saw how much I loved the game of basketball. So he always took me to the gym working on my game, and really pushing me around. I couldn’t beat my uncle in basketball because I was so little, but he saw how much I wanted it and told me, “As long as you work hard for what you want, anything can happen.”
I really believed that, and that’s where that chip formed. I was always the underdog, I was overlooked and my uncle just said, “If you continue to work, continue to believe, your work is going to show and people will see that they made a mistake on you.” And that was all throughout high school, all throughout college and even now.
I look back to last year and people were making a lot of knocks on my game, saying that I was too small, I couldn’t be a point guard/shooting guard while I was a 6’4″, and I couldn’t shoot. But it was weird to hear those things because the guys that I compare myself to are my height—Dwyane Wade and Russell Westbrook—and they’ve done really well in the league. I thought what I did at UCLA playing in different roles every year and excelling in every role showed the versatility in my game. So it was shocking to me that I fell in the draft.
Last year, Raptors assistant coach at the time Jesse Mermuys came to me where I was working out in Vancouver, showing me what I could do—having more freedom and not being locked into one role. And it just opened up everything in Vegas last year. Vegas is where I was able to play my game.
I was able to be that aggressive attacker downhill playing in pick-and-rolls and getting into my midrange game. I think that really opened everybody’s eyes because they were saying that I probably wouldn’t be able to score, I’m not creative with the ball. But the floor’s open in the NBA and it really opens up one-on-one play. I was able to do that.
After only my second game in Vegas last year, my agent told me that the Raptors were going to sign me. I was excited, but I was still, like, “This is what I wanted, this is what was supposed to happen, so I’ve still got to go out there and play my game and show that everybody made the mistake.” So it was a great moment for me when that happened, but it just filled my fire even more.
Phase 2: Developing Leadership and Point-Guard Skills
I never was really content with how last season went. I felt like I could’ve played better. I’m always looking at the next thing I need to achieve, even when I do have a good game. Most people are, like, “You did phenomenal for a second-round pick,” but I never pictured myself as a second-round pick. I felt I was a top-20 pick in the draft, and everything else was just trying to go out there and prove people wrong.
It was good for me to make a little noise last season, have people talking about you, but I still block all that out because there’s so much more for myself that I feel like I can achieve.
The whole reason why I came to Vegas this year was to work on things that the Raptors want me to improve upon—leading the young guys, keeping the energy up, talking to the team and getting them ready and adjusted. I’m talking to the young guys about what this season is going to look like, what they should expect and trying to lead by example.
I’m a real hard-working committed guy, so I’m coming in here not looking for rest or an excuse. I’m playing through everything—adversity, bad calls, whatever it is. It’s the same thing they’ve got to do. Mainly I’m a leader by example by just the work I put in, and people usually follow along with that. But now it’s working on being that vocal leader.
I tell them to stay at it. There are so many things going on in Vegas where you can get sidetracked. You’re trying to prove myself, but sometimes it’s not about playing. Being that good teammate, being that person who’s always in the gym working is really what the team sees and what coaches see. It’s just doing the right thing every single time, whether people are looking or not. If you continue to do the right things, you’re going to be able to run through that door and shock everybody.
With my game development, my focus is just making the right play. I’ve been doing a lot of film breakdown of different reads and options, and just looking to see where the defense is at and where the next option would be if something was taken away. I can score the ball and that’s what the coaches want me to do, but now it’s working on getting guys better—taking what the defense gives you, getting to your spots and making the right play.
On film, I’m watching Dwyane Wade, Russell Westbrook and Jimmy Butler on offense, and Tony Allen on defense. I watch those guys because they play like me with an aggressive mindset. I see where they’re looking at the mismatch or the breakdown defensively or offensively. I’m always pausing when Dwyane or Russell is coming off the pick-and-roll to see how they’re setting up their hesitation dribble to get to the basket, or whether D-Wade is cross screening to his step back.
Dwyane was one of my biggest idols—somebody I looked up to and really tried to model my game after with how he uses his body, his Eurostep move, his step throughs, his finishes. So I work on all types of finishes because being a 6’4″ guard with 7’0″ guys with 7’6″ wingspans, you’ve got to be able to finish around them and be as creative as possible.
I’m still trying to get the Dwyane Wade cross screen into a Eurostep finish with the opposite leg. He finishes with his left and extends it right. So that’s something that I’m really working on, and my floaters. Kyrie Irving is really good at that—going fast through a split, doing a Eurostep and then a floater over the defense.
Playing against Dwyane was really competitive in the Eastern Conference finals, and I was still in the, “Damn, I’m playing against Dwyane Wade phase.” I didn’t know how to approach him, but I wish I did. Hopefully I’ll be able to talk to him this year and I’ll pick his brain a little bit.
Special Impact of DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and Jerry Stackhouse
DeMar and Kyle have been really big for me. DeMar found out how much of a player that I looked up to him when I was in high school watching his highlight tapes. He’s always been talking to me, mentoring me, especially in games where he sat out. And Kyle, too. Kyle pulled me to the side and just told me to continue working and good things are going to happen. They’re always taking the team out for dinner, showing that they’re good mentors and role models.
DeMar has really taken me under his wing, and I’ve been able to pick his brain about different situations, especially with all the criticism that he and Kyle were going through about not being able to win. It’s how he deals with it and the way he looks at it—the pressures, the naysayers, the doubters. I think that my competitiveness and the way I go about it really gravitated to him. And he really gravitated to me because I see the same way he sees it of proving people wrong and working, and staying low key and doing the right thing.
I’ve played a little bit of one-on-one with DeMar. It’s a lot of fun. He’s so crafty, so skilled in that low-post area, using his body, using his shot fakes. That’s the next part of my game—the shot fakes in that area, and using my body and footwork to get to where I need to get to. One time, we were playing one-on-one and he’s killing me. But then there’s this one spot on the left block where I hit like five straight midrangers in a row in face-up opportunities. He’ll say that he wasn’t playing hard, but I definitely got him.
I’ve also battled with Raptors assistant coach Jerry Stackhouse. Every day last year in practice me and him played one-on-one early before practice and after. Stack always talked about how he saw a lot of him in me and he was telling me to be competitive, not taking anything from anybody, never backing down, really fighting and competing. He liked that I was just hungry for competition and wanted to be best.
There’s a lot of trash talk going on, but he’s definitely talking to me and letting me know where improvement can be made with my post game and even in post defense—where to guard and how to take away what your opponent wants to do. He was a great low-post player, so he knows that area really well and he’s always helping me, teaching me to improve on both sides of the ball in that area.
It’s been fun because I always joke with Stack. Before, I used to not like Stackhouse. I respected his game, he was really good, but he always used to beat up on my Lakers. So I always used to hate him because he killed my Lakers. But it’s been good to have somebody who’s so involved with basketball and have such an impact on the game just help you mold as a player.
There was a time I thought about giving up basketball.
When Raymond passed away when I was in high school, I didn’t know what to do without him out there on the court. He was a huge male role model, father figure in my life. He was the first one who saw me have all the love and passion that I have for the game.
So I really started to dedicate everything I do not only for myself and my family, but for him to make him proud. There’s a lot that goes into this that’s more than just basketball for me. I have a tattoo on my left shoulder dedicated to him, which has two hands holding a basketball with the words “Raymond Edwards RIP.”
It was a really tough time for me, but I’m playing basketball for him. I know he’s looking down at me, proud of me, watching over me.
With him and my family in mind, I’m really big on giving back to my community. I’m actually putting on my first camp on August 6, and it’s free for everybody in San Diego. And I’m starting up my own AAU travel ball team, NP4 Elite. I have an eight-and-under team and a 13-and-under team right now, so I’m working on next year getting the elite high school team set up.
Giving back is something that my uncle taught me—it’s great to be selfless. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the people who supported me in my life, so giving other people the same opportunity is what I do. Hopefully with my next contract, I’ll be able to set my family up where they don’t have to worry about anything.
On the court, the only one goal right now is to win a championship. I’m coming to be a key contributor to this team, and my main goal is to get back to the Eastern Conference finals and get another spot at winning the title being two games away. To see it come to an end, especially in your rookie season, it was hard for me.
Winning is the whole reason I’m doing this. It’s nothing for all the other things—MVP, Most Improved Player. That’s all great, but none of that matters if you don’t win a championship.