Clippers' Norman Powell learns to accept role, no matter how big or small

Clippers guard Norman Powell lets out a yell along the baseline after scoring against the Suns last season.

Norman Powell celebrated his 30th birthday in May by touring Italy’s Amalfi Coast, posting pictures of himself in piazzas and on private boats.

When the Clipper guard’s grand tour continued in July in Greece, the trip was as much about his vocation as vacation.

Outside of Athens, he trained inside the home stadium of the famed club Olympiacos.

On the island of Crete, Powell and Shaun Fein, the Clippers assistant with whom he works most closely, found a tiny gym for a workout. A few local children watched from the sideline, then later scored an autograph.

It was in Mykonos, their next stop, when plans hit a snag: The indoor court they’d booked for the day was no longer available, and similar options were slim on short notice. Powell could have bailed for friends, drinks on ice, the Aegean Sea. Instead, the employees of one of the NBA’s most resource-rich organizations spent the next 45 minutes working on ballhandling and passing under the sun on an outdoor court adjacent to the island’s soccer stadium.

“No net, rim covered in rust,” Fein said. “It wasn’t the best of situations, but we made it work.”

Powell has made a career out of it. Since lasting until the 46th pick in his draft class to hear his name called, the 6-foot-3 guard has lasted nine NBA seasons by vowing never to be outworked, the session in Mykonos an extension of his childhood in east San Diego where he mimicked the moves he saw on his Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant VHS tapes on an unglamorous patch of concrete tucked behind a liquor store.

To Powell, “Understand The Grind” is a forearm tattoo, his lifestyle apparel brand, a serious way of life. Along with A.J. Diggs, a former NBA assistant who has been Powell’s personal coach for several seasons, Powell also consults regularly with David Nurse, a mental performance coach.

The work delivered a championship in 2019 when Powell played for the Toronto Raptors, and two years later the stability that came with a $90-million contract.

San Diego native Norman Powell clutches the Larry O'Brien Trophy before meeting fans at Lincoln High, his alma mater.
San Diego native Norman Powell clutches the Larry O'Brien Trophy before meeting fans at Lincoln High, his alma mater, after winning the NBA title with the Raptors in 2019. (Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

But it did not always bring peace of mind.

“I've always felt that I set the bar, end of the season, on a high note, every year feeling like I'll have more opportunity to grow in my role and in my lane of where I want my career to go and how I see myself as a player,” Powell said. “But that doesn't always align with where the team is going or how the team is built out.

“I found myself looking back like, beating my head against the wall, being upset that I'm not where I feel like I should be or where I can be or where I know I am, fighting against myself, or fighting against what the situation is and trying to change it.”

This offseason, he decided to change himself — his outlook, his perspective.

In “The Four Agreements,” “The Power of Now” and “The Obstacle Is the Way,” he found books that helped him to stay present. While reading “The Daily Stoic,” he found a philosophy that complemented his own, making him more receptive to self-critique and able to disconnect from the emotion of the moment. Through talks with Nurse and Diggs, he took stock of his headspace.

In all of it, Powell found his new norm: greater tolerance for “acceptance,” Powell said, “of things I can't control and controlling things that I can.”

Poor shooting nights used to lead him to “get in my head about it and beat myself against a wall, saying, 'I'm better than this,'” Powell said, “put undue pressure and stress on myself. And this year I'm like, OK, I can analyze it and can talk about it and feel whatever I feel but at the end of the day, it's over with.”

Powell calls himself less emotional now, adding: “Letting mistakes go and learning from a detached standpoint, I think that's just really helped me stay even-keeled and balanced and in the present moment.”

Referees’ non-calls still work him up. But where Fein once saw such moments linger for three possessions, distracting Powell's focus, now he sees it pass within one. On Friday, Powell's disbelieving reaction after being called for a fourth-quarter foul against Memphis was gone by the time the ball was past half court, as Powell made a three-pointer on the ensuing possession to add cushion to a suddenly tight game.

A more purposeful Powell has manifested itself into a more productive shooting guard and, in turn, helped turn the Clippers into a more formidable championship contender than at the season’s start.

Known for his slow shooting starts each season, Powell found immediate success in October and has carried it into January. Through Monday's win against Miami that improved the Clippers to 20-12,  he has made 55.4% of his shots inside the three-point arc — his career average is 52.5% — and 44.9% beyond it, far above his 39% career average from deep.

Clippers guard Norman Powell, right, elevates above Nuggets guard Reggie Jackson during a dunk attempt.

His usage rate is his lowest since 2019, yet he’s made his opportunities count: In December, Powell’s average of .534 points per touch is fifth among 301 players to average at least 20 touches per game.

Although Powell has not started, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are the only teammates to have played more minutes in “clutch” scenarios, with the game within five points in the final five minutes, a sign of coach Tyronn Lue’s confidence, and the Clippers have outscored their opponents by 26 points in his 37 clutch minutes, a team-high.

“I love what he brings,” Lue said.

Powell's strong start was aided by clarity he found not only within himself, but within the Clippers’ plans. Though rumors involving what the Clippers might trade to Philadelphia in exchange for James Harden were unavoidable in the summer, he prepared all offseason for a role off of the bench. That contrasted with 2022, when he stated on the season’s first day his goals of becoming a starter and a first-time All-Star, only to be neither. He also felt whiplash last season when injuries to Leonard or George changed Powell’s job, sometimes on short notice, from the sixth-man role he was just beginning to find comfort in, only to become a starter for a night here, or night there — transitioning from a supporting character in the game plan to one with leading-scorer responsibilities.

Powell called his increased attention to his mental approach a reaction to feelings he has carried throughout his career, not simply last season. He will always have confidence he is in the same galaxy as the league’s leading men, but the nights when he is not the Clippers’ sun and moon do not lead him to question his methods or expectations.

“I want the accolades and things that Kawhi, PG, Russ [Westbrook], James and them have accumulated over their career, I see myself as that player,” Powell said. “I put that type of work in and I feel like I've shown in spurts in my career that I can handle that workload that they have been the guy they play through every night and make decisions and the focal point of the team.”

But, Powell later added, “This year with the way the team is constructed and the moves that we made, I’ve been taking a step back and not being so upset that my role isn't going to be where I would like it to be, or where I want it to be or how I view myself, and accepting how the team is built, what the team is looking for and what we have to do to win.

Clippers guard Norman Powell tries to block a layup by Lakers forward LeBron James.

“My whole thing is about winning and sacrificing yourself for the greater good of the team. That's how I've always been.”

To make the pieces work on a roster with four future Hall of Famers, every Clipper had to reevaluate where they fit, the top-billed included. Russell Westbrook eventually lost his starting job, which went to Terance Mann because of his defensive versatility. In their conversations about his changing role, Powell and Fein focused on how Harden’s pick-and-roll threat would tilt defenses. There would be fewer chances to leisurely survey defenses with a dribble and attack for Powell. The 6-foot-3 guard probably would no longer live in the paint and use his 6-10 wingspan and sixth sense for creating contact to draw fouls.

Last season, 24% of his shots came within three feet of the basket; this season, that share has been halved. Last season, he took 8.7 free throws per 100 possessions; this season 4.5.

There would be more opportunities to play off the ball and either catch and shoot or drive past defenders closing out to Powell at the three-point line. Coaches also believe driving against closeouts plays to another Powell strength.

By accepting the inevitability of a changed role, Powell prepared for more opportunities to play off the ball and either catch and shoot or drive past defenders closing out at the three-point line, which coaches see as a strength.

“I think it’s going to help him this year to get more clean looks and I think he’ll shoot 45-47% from three this year because of that,” Fein said. “He’s like, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’ I think he’s accepted it and has kind of moved in the right direction that way.”

Fein's prediction was prescient. Along with Powell's nearly 45% three-point shooting, he has made 47% of his catch-and-shoot threes.

Lue, the best player on his high school and college teams who became a role player in the NBA, can empathize with the gap between Powell’s self-belief and nightly role. The coach wants players with big ambitions. Yet in a season when the Clippers have pushed virtually all-in to win the franchise’s first championship, Lue needs players who see the bigger picture — and understand that on any given night, they can still play a big role in it.

“As a player you always want to get better, you always want to set goals for yourself, and then when you’re dealing with a great team that’s trying to find a way to win a championship sometimes things don’t add up the way they’re supposed to,” Lue said. “Now, are you a better offensive player than Mann or — yeah, you are. But is it a better fit?

“And so, that’s the biggest thing. We know Norm scored 42 points in a playoff game last year. We know he can get hot and can score the basketball so those are just things he can’t get frustrated with, especially when you’re trying to win a championship.”

Even for someone as intentional as their physical and mental approach to the game as Powell, progress isn’t always linear. In early December, after the team returned from a trip to Sacramento and San Francisco, Lue noticed Powell drifting and asked for a talk in his office.

“You can’t get frustrated when a guy misses you on a pass,” Lue said when asked to recall his message. “You can’t get frustrated when you’re not getting shots; it’s going to be different nights for different opportunities and different things and so you can’t be an a— and be mad coming to the bench — because how many guys you miss? I said ain’t nobody doing it on purpose. I said, So you can’t let that sidetrack you and get you out of your game.

"After we had a conversation, he came in the office before the game like, ‘Man, T. Lue, thank you. I needed that.’”

Powell prides himself on being coachable. Still, his most influential conversations this season have become his daily check-ins with himself to identify what he can control and what he cannot, his self-described "internal work." He understands some days are glamorous. Some require a grind. He feels better equipped to make any situation work.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.