UCLA’s Powell finds his niche under Alford

UCLA’s Powell finds his niche under Alford


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UCLA's Norman Powell tries to drive through the USC defense. He has had more opportunities to go to the rim this season, which is his strength.

LOS ANGELES – There’s a lot to be said for understanding your own strengths. And UCLA’s Norman Powell, perhaps the Pac-12’s most improved basketball player this season, has never doubted his.

He is a wrecking ball – an athletic force when driving through the paint, with all the kinetic energy of a Mack truck hurtling down a mountain road. Search Powell’s name on YouTube, and you’ll be inundated by dunk clips – of his posterizing slam over Oregon’s Richard Amardi two weeks ago, of his down-the-middle tomahawk against Nevada, or of the high school dunk contest he won by first jumping over someone and then, for his second dunk, going between his legs midair.

The rim is Powell’s sanctuary, and no one knows this better than Powell.

“I’m a strong driver,” Powell said. “I’m a strong finisher. I like being aggressive. I like the contact.”

It’s been that way since Boys Girls Club basketball in San Diego, when, at 5, Powell was the only one in his age group to charge straight into the paint, play after play.

Other kids settled for jumpers. But not Powell. He idolized Tracy McGrady, and the acrobatic ways he invented to finish at the rim. Why shoot, he found himself constantly wondering, when a lane to the rim beckoned him to drive?

Sixteen years later, in his sophomore season at UCLA, he found himself asking the same question. In former coach Ben Howland’s rigid halfcourt offense, Powell’s greatest strength was bogged down by structured plays that limited his athleticism.

As a freshman, just 24 percent of his shots came at the rim – the lowest percentage on UCLA’s roster. A year later, his rate of shots at the rim rose slightly, but still stagnated at 32 percent. In both seasons, no Bruin took a higher percentage of shots from behind the 3-point line (around 50 percent in both seasons) despite the fact Powell’s jump shot, he acknowledges, has never been his strong suit.

Powell understood the fit wasn’t right. He mulled a transfer to San Diego State and probably would have left had a former coach, Glen Worley, not given his new coach, Steve Alford, a vote of confidence.

Alford had a vision for Powell in his new up-tempo, transition-heavy offense. He wanted his players to run in a free-flowing offense. And unlike Howland, he needed someone like Powell who could collapse defenses on the paint or carve through defenses that focused on the perimeter.

“You’ve got to know what your strengths are,” Alford said, “and I think Norman understands that his greatest strength is one, when he’s in the open floor, and two, when he’s driving and attacking the rim.”

Powell has always understood. But with an offense that finally understands him, this season has been an awakening for Powell, who, despite some shooting struggles, has been UCLA’s second-most efficient offensive player, per KenPom.com.

With Alford’s system opening up more driving lanes, Powell’s percentage of shots at the rim is up to 57 percent – a staggering 25 percent increase. He’s also creating his own shot more often, with only 48 percent of those shots assisted, down 7 percent from last season and 16 percent from his freshman year.

“Coach stays on him about driving,” sophomore Jordan Adams said. “He’s built his confidence up with that.”

“The offense is up-and-down, and that’s my style of play – getting out in transition, getting to the basket,” Powell added. “He’s putting me in positions that work for my game.”

Powell’s jump shot is still a work in progress. He’s shooting just 24 percent from 3-point range, the lowest output of his career. But his shooting form has continually been reinvented. His high school coaches corrected his awkward wind-up release by forcing him to shoot with his left hand behind his back. Then, the problem was a dip in his release, which Howland fixed. Now, the focus is on keeping his right elbow at a consistent 90-degree angle.

His perimeter game has ebbed and flowed, but Powell is convinced his shot will work itself out. With four 3-pointers in his last two games, it seems he might be right.

Last Saturday, Powell hit 8 of 13 shots from the floor to tally a season-high 21 points against USC. After the game, Alford approached him.

No matter how many jump shots you make, he said, you should always keep driving the ball.

Powell, of course, already understood this better than anyone. But the message, three years in the making, was music to his ears.

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