On the night of the 2015 NBA Draft, Norman Powell attended a party organized by his mother, Sharon, in San Diego with close friends and family. Together, they waited until the 46th pick before his name was called. Powell had been drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks, but would be traded to the Toronto Raptors in a draft night deal for point guard Greivis Vasquez. The scene at the party was chaotic, a mix of happiness and relief, according to several attendees. While Powell admits it was a great moment, he also called it bittersweet, feeling as though he should have been selected in the first round. "It was time to go out and prove to everybody they made a mistake," he said.
Two weeks later, Powell made his debut with the Raptors at the Las Vegas Summer League. He scored 20 points against the Sacramento Kings in his first game, attacking the basket in transition and hitting mid-range jumpers in half-court sets. In another victory against Houston, Powell dominated the highlight reels with a series of dunks that gave Raptors fans a glimpse of his ridiculous athleticism. Powell averaged 18.2 points, 4.2 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks in four games. He signed a three-year contract with the Raptors, and was named to the All-NBA Summer League first team. By all accounts, it was the best possible outcome for Powell, a second-round pick without a guaranteed contract when he arrived in Las Vegas. Except, he didn't speak about the experience with the sense of satisfaction you might expect. "We didn't win the Summer League," he explained. "And I didn't win the MVP. So I fell short of my goals."
This never-satisfied attitude, the chip-on-my-shoulder approach would surprise no one who knows Powell. Sharon remembers her son being frustrated with his teammates at halftime of a basketball game when he was a kid. Exasperated, Powell told his grandma his team needed to play with better effort. He explained: "If you haven't left it all out on the floor, you haven't done what you're supposed to do." Sharon could only look at her son and shake her head. "I was like, 'Really, Norman?'" Sharon said, laughing. "But that's what he expects."
Born and raised in San Diego, Powell was a 200-metre runner in sixth grade. Sharon, a track and field coach of the team, wanted to see her son win an Olympic gold medal. Those dreams would disappear after Powell pulled his groin muscle in one of the events. Soon, he was spending a majority of his time at the Boys and Girls Club, falling in love with the game of basketball.
Jason Bryant remembers the first time he saw Powell at Lincoln High School. The basketball coach said Powell transformed from a quiet, even nervous 14-year-old, to a confident young man who would "take shots without conscience" once he stepped on the floor. At a practice before Powell's high school debut, Bryant told Sharon her son would one day play in the NBA. Upon hearing the news, Sharon, who raised Powell and his two sisters by herself, made Bryant promise he would never tell her son. It was all part of Sharon's disciplinary approach. She wanted to keep academics as the priority, with the pursuit of a basketball career a close second.
"She was really strict," Powell recalls. "I was kind of scared of my mom."
Anything less than a C grade was unacceptable. If Powell didn't complete his chores or finish his schoolwork on time, Sharon would not allow him to play basketball, even if it was a championship game. When Powell didn't follow the rules, he would find himself spending hours at his kitchen table.
"You would just open a book," Sharon explained about the punishment her kids received when they didn't follow her requirements. "And I would just have them start writing verbatim. If nothing else, it should have improved their penmanship and vocabulary. My two daughters loved to read. Norman, not as much. So, I would open a book to chapter four and make him write the next eight pages. He started going back and reading the book from the start. It piqued his interest in reading."
By his junior season, Powell emerged as one of the best shooting guards in the nation. Bryant remembers one particular game against Mater Dei when Powell scored 35 points against Tyler Lamb, who had already committed to UCLA. "He was scoring every which way," Bryant said. "He made jump shots, he had some dunks. He showed them everything. Ben Howland was there. That's when college teams started to show interest."
Powell won two California Interscholastic Federation San Diego Section 2A championships, and a CIF Division II state championship while he was at Lincoln. He was the league MVP in his last two years of high school. His team would fall short of the state championship in his senior season, but they were ranked No. 1 in the state, seventh in the nation, and Powell was both the team's most dominant player on the court and a vocal leader in the locker room. He had recruiting meetings with a number of schools, including UCLA, Arizona and San Diego State. The schools that didn't do their research on him and his mother's priorities did not make it very far in the process.
"In one of our visits to the colleges, we wanted to talk about the academic program," Sharon said. "All they wanted to talk about was basketball. So, the schools ruled themselves out pretty quickly by not realizing that academics was important to our family."
As Powell was plotting the next stage of his basketball career, he was dealt a huge loss in his life. Growing up, Powell grew extremely close to his uncle, Sharon's brother Raymond. The two of them would often go on biking trips around the city, even though they would come home and tell Sharon they only went around the neighborhood. Raymond was also a huge influence when it came to pushing Powell to become a better basketball player.
"My uncle was my father figure growing up," Powell said. "He really took me under his wing. He motivated me to play basketball because he saw how much I loved it. He sat me down and told me how much it would take to get to the pro level. I respect my uncle so much and am thankful for everything he did for me."
Raymond passed away during Powell's junior season at Lincoln. It was a trying time for Powell, who experienced a dip in his on-court performance. He needed to grieve, and the college recruiting visits were put on hold. In order to honour his uncle's memory, Powell has a "R.I.P Raymond" tattoo on his shoulder.
When Powell finally visited the campus at UCLA, he noticed a board in the athletic center listing the names of athletes who had made the honor roll. During his recruiting meeting, he told the UCLA representatives he wanted his name on the board. "What board?" was the response he received. Powell took them to the athletic center to clarify his statement. It was a proud moment for Sharon. Her son was off to UCLA, to pursue his basketball dreams and to complete a degree in history.
Norman Powell shined once he finally got a chance to prove himself at UCLA. —Photo by John Locher-The Associated Press
In his freshman season, Powell averaged 17.8 minutes and only 4.6 points per game. The first two seasons were frustrating. The adjustment from high school superstar to a limited role player at the NCAA level was difficult.
"I felt like I had the skill and talent to be a key contributor right away," Powell said. "Instead, I had to sit behind guys. I felt like I was not getting the opportunity and that was the most frustrating thing."
Powell would spend many nights talking to his mother, who would remind him that just because life isn't fair, it doesn't mean you just quit and give up. While Powell did consider transferring to San Diego State after his sophomore season, the firing of Howland and hiring of Steve Alford—who had tried to recruit Powell at New Mexico—convinced him that it would be a fresh start.
Alford's coaching staff included assistant Ed Schilling, who was responsible for individual skill development and the team's defence. Schilling spent countless hours after practice working with Powell on improving his shooting. The two of them worked on his footwork and shot selection. At the same time, Powell emerged as the team's best on-ball defender who was capable of guarding multiple positions. Powell, who lists Jimmy Butler and Tony Allen as players he would like to model his defence after at the NBA level, would often seek out Schilling between classes to study film.
"He was very receptive and wanted to see it," Schilling said. "His maturation was not just on the offensive end. On defence, he just became a force. We could put Norman on anyone at any position other than the five spot. Some guys are reluctant film watchers. That wasn't Norman. He always wanted to get an edge."
Powell set career highs in his junior season, averaging 11.4 points in 25.7 minutes per game, while shooting 53.3 percent from the field. The Bruins finished 28-9 and lost in the Sweet 16 to No. 1 seed Florida. With the departure of Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams, Zach LaVine, David and Travis Wear (all in the top six in minutes per game during Powell's junior season), Powell returned for his final season at UCLA ready to embrace his increased role.
As the team's best player on both ends of the floor, Powell averaged 16.4 points while playing a team-high 34.6 minutes per game during his senior year. Similar to his arc at Lincoln High, he grew into a vocal leader, holding players-only meetings where he challenged his teammates to put in a better effort on the defensive end. At times, if players expressed frustration at the coaching staff, Powell would act as the middle man to diffuse the situation. It went further than his stature and seniority on the team that earned him the respect of his teammates, and allowed him to speak up when necessary.
"All those hours he spent after practice gave him a greater voice," Schilling said. The Bruins lost once again in the Sweet 16, but Powell credits that final season at UCLA as a crucial part of his audition for the NBA.
"I grew a lot," Powell said. "Taking a young team full of freshmen and leading them, helping them grow throughout the year, keeping those guys in line. I just grew mentally and as a leader." Powell also completed his history degree, meaning he was finally a grown up, per another one of Sharon's rules, which states you're not an adult until you have a Bachelor's Degree. Four years later, Powell's name ended up on the athletic center board he pointed at during his recruiting meeting.
At the conclusion of the Las Vegas Summer League, Raptors head coach Dwane Casey wanted Powell to continue working on his point guard skills and 3-point shooting, which remains a work in progress.
"In college you can just be a guard," Schilling said. "When he was at UCLA, he ran the pick and roll, he ran off some screens. But he's going to have to define a position a little more in the NBA. If he's going to be a shooting guard, then he's going to have to develop a consistent 3-pointer. On the other hand, he's a challenge for defenders if you put a smaller guy on him. He's powerful and will get to the rim. He can guard threes in the NBA. He has that physicality and explosiveness, and this great balance where he can put his bodies on guys. He also has a great wingspan, so he plays bigger than he is."
The Raptors have been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in consecutive seasons, and have re-tooled the roster with an emphasis on defence to make a deep run in the postseason. There are many players ahead of Powell on the team's depth chart, including first-round pick Delon Wright. Powell might spend more time in the D-League this season, and realizes there's work to be done before he can stick with an NBA team.
"Continue to watch film, learn from Kyle [Lowry] and DeMar [DeRozan] and pick their brains, and continue to model myself after players like Jimmy Butler and Tony Allen on defence. That's going to help me improve my game, by just being a student," he said.
While her son works towards becoming a regular in the NBA, Sharon also has no plans to stop working, either, even if her friends tease that she should take it easy now that her son is a professional basketball player. Sharon is a social worker who deals with pregnant teens and at-risk youths, and doesn't envision a career change or retirement any time soon. Another routine she plans on continuing is attending as many of her son's games as possible. Sharon visited Toronto for the first time recently, and is making plans to be there for the preseason and Raptors home opener.
Powell may carry himself like a veteran instead of an unproven rookie, but in brief moments of reflection, you have to assume he realizes just how far he's come despite the adversity he faced during his high school and college career. It's his attitude and commitment to getting better that may define him at the NBA level, as well. Asked to tell me the best words of advice he's ever received, Powell recites a quote he credits to both his mother and late uncle.
"When the going gets tough, the tough gets going," Powell said. "Never quit, never give up. When you have your back against the wall, keep pushing and believing that the best is right around the corner when you're hitting adversity."