The thing that made Kawhi Leonard so special with the Toronto Raptors was his ability to score when the entire world knew he was going to take the shot.
It's that skill that separates the very good NBA players from the truly elite. There's only a handful of players in the entire league that can take on an opposing defence and not only get up the shot they want but also score at an efficient rate.
At the midway point of the season, there have been 11 players in the league who are attempting at least 19 shots per game. The list is essentially the who's who of NBA stardom: Bradley Beal, Damian Lillard, Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum, Stephen Curry, and a handful of other NBA stars. Of those elite scorers, only three are shooting above 50% from the floor: Kyrie Irving, Zach LaVine, and LeBron James.
That's what has made Norman Powell's recent stretch so improbable. With Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet sidelined due to COVID-19 issues, the Raptors have shifted almost their entire offensive workload onto Powell's shoulder and somehow, he's thrived. Over the last three games, he's attempting 19 shots per game and shooting 56.1% from the floor and 53.6% from behind the arc, all while opposing defences are treating him like the superstar on a mediocre high school hoops team.
"It's a good learning experience to me, learning how teams are guarding me, trying to take me out," he said Thursday night after scoring 33 points on 11-for-20 shooting against the Atlanta Hawks. "Full facial denial, things like that, I haven't had that in a while, since high school. So it's a lot of fun, playing at a high level like this."
Powell has become a pretty efficient shooter in recent seasons, but what he's doing this season, especially over the last few games has been mindboggling. His True Shooting percentage — a statistic that adjusts for 3-pointers being worth 50% more than 2-pointers — this season is 64.4%, just ahead of players like Steph Curry and James Harden. And lately, over the past three games, his True Shooting percentage has jumped to 72.4% with defences draped all over him.
"He's got to put up the shots. I think he's kind of, he's really playing carefree I would say," Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. "He comes up the floor and if there's any space at all he just vaults up and takes it with no worry of whether it's a good shot or not.
"I think he realizes that he's the number one option and he's got to put them up. So I think that's a big factor."
For the season, Powell is averaging 5.1 so-called 'tight' shot attempts in which the closest defender is between two to three feet away from him, according to NBA tracking data. Those are some of the toughest shots to take in the league and are usually reserved for bigs scoring close to the bucket. Over the last few games, however, Powell has been forced to take those shots. He's attempted 9.7 of those 'tight' shots with Siakam and VanVleet out of the lineup and he's shooting 55.2% on those attempts. For comparison, only four players in the entire league are attempting that many 'tight' shots per game this year: Beal (49.5%), Kevin Durant (54.4%), Zion Williamson (60.7%), and Andre Drummond (45.0%).
"I just know that the guys, especially with the way the team is now with guys being out, guys lean on me to make plays," Powell said. "I just continue to try to read the game, see how teams are guarding me, [and] being aggressive."
And frankly, it's a style Powell said he's kind of enjoying. He's adjusted to what the team needs and he's even with a bigger workload he hasn't let it impact his efficiency.
Powell is still a long way away from being a true NBA superstar like the Raptors had in Leonard just a few seasons ago. His defence is just so-so and he's still developing his playmaking game, but from a scoring point of view, it's hard not to put him in that rarefied air of truly special scorers. The Raptors have seen him do it as a secondary or tertiary option, but now he's showing at least recently, he can keep that efficiency even as a team's No. 1 option.