Raptors gamble on Norman Powell's progression with 4-year, $42M extension

Toronto Raptors guard Norman Powell (24) reacts after dunking against the Milwaukee Bucks during the second half of game five of an NBA first-round playoff series basketball game in Toronto on Monday, April 24, 2017. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)

With an impressive showing in the 2017 playoffs, Norman Powell has quickly developed into one of the league’s most promising young two-way guards. And it’s that progression the Toronto Raptors are counting on after signing Powell to a four-year, $42-million contract extension on Thursday.

Powell, who was drafted 46th overall in the 2015 NBA Draft, has averaged just 7.3 points in two NBA seasons. Those numbers are hardly worth writing home about, but the UCLA alumnus began turning heads with 11.7 ppg and 44 per cent shooting from beyond the arc in nine playoff games last season. With Powell’s role set to expand in 2017-18, Raptors President Masai Ujiri jumped at the opportunity to lock up his prized combo-guard before he becomes a restricted free agent next summer.

Powell has quickly become a fan favourite in Toronto; he’s easily the team’s most athletic player and his relentless desire to attack the rim has won the hearts of the Raptors faithful. But Powell is going to have to elevate his game if he is to justify a hefty raise that will see his annual salary jump from $1.14 million to $10.5 million.

In his first two NBA seasons, Powell has been below average in player efficiency rating and three-point shooting ― the latter stat category increasingly becoming more significant in today’s NBA. He barely pushed the needle in any direction in terms of the Raptors’ plus-minus and, as already mentioned, his career PPG leaves some to be desired. But if his performance in Toronto’s 106-101 preseason loss to Portland is any indication, Powell appears to be primed for a breakout year.

Starting at shooting guard, Powell scored 15 points while going 3-4 from beyond the arc in 25 minutes on Wednesday night. That stat line comes after scoring 16 points on 5-8 shooting in 24 minutes Sunday night against the L.A. Clippers. He averaged just 18 minutes per game in 2016-17, but with his role set to expand, Powell is likely to see 25-30 minutes per game in the upcoming season. It’s a small sample size, but his preseason output suggests Powell will make a strong case to justify his contract extension.

And that’s exactly what the Raptors are banking on. Powell made a strong bid for starters minutes in the 2017 playoffs, convincing Ujiri to clear some space on the team’s roster for Powell to thrive. Ujiri punted the 2018 NBA Draft just to get DeMarre Carroll off the books and in allowing P.J. Tucker to walk in free agency, the Raptors have freed up some minutes for Powell at the small forward position.

All signs point to a break out year for Powell, and the Raptors believe they were wise to lock him up before he hits restricted free agency. The league has taken notice, and there were bound to be a few teams willing to extend a big offer sheet to Powell after the 2017-18 season. Ujiri did the same thing with Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross ― he signed both players to extensions before they became RFAs as Ujiri likely assumed he’d have to compete with an offer sheet if Toronto had let those players reach the market.

But it’s safe to say the Raptors were disappointed in the return-on-investment with Valanciunas and Ross ― they tried desperately to trade Valanciunas over the summer, while Ross was shipped to Orlando during the 2016-17 season in a package that brought Serge Ibaka to Toronto. Player development can be a cruel guessing game, which makes gambling on a player’s progression to be a fairly risky endeavour.

There’s no denying the Raptors have rewarded Powell based on the player they assume he’ll become, and not necessarily the player that he’s proven to be. But with his progression steadily trending upwards, coupled with a strong preseason showing, Powell and his contract extension could prove to be a smart gamble for the Raptors.

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