UCLA senior guard Norman Powell learns the value of staying power

UCLA senior guard Norman Powell learns the value of staying power
UCLA guard Norman Powell is blocked by Gonzaga's Kevin Pangos during the second half of the Bruins' loss to the Bulldogs, 87-74. (Chris Carlson / Associated Press)

Just a few months of college remain, so, like many of his fellow UCLA seniors, Norman Powell took a moment to reminisce recently.

Powell's school years have been mostly good to him. He's attended club meetings. He's seen plays at iconic Royce Hall, atop the Janss Steps. Once, as part of a class, he listened to Stevie Wonder perform there.


People recognize Powell on campus and if all goes right, he'll need only a few credits next term before he graduates with a degree in history. All things considered, it has been the classic college experience.

Especially considering Powell also plays basketball — and originally envisioned staying at UCLA for only one season before ascending to the NBA.

"Coming in," Powell said, "I thought I was going to be the guy and just be out."

But, as the 6-foot-4 guard's playing time dipped while he slowly found his footing, one year turned to four, making Powell, 21, a rarity at UCLA: a senior in the regular rotation with his eyes on the NBA draft.

On Saturday, Powell and the Bruins will face Kentucky, the nation's unanimous No. 1 team, in the CBS Sports Classic in Chicago. Kentucky Coach John Calipari is widely credited for perfecting the one-and-done strategy, stocking and restocking his roster with players who dart for the NBA soon after becoming eligible.

Calipari has assembled so many McDonald's All-Americans (nine) that the Wildcats use a two-platoon rotation, yet have no seniors and just one junior who plays regularly.

The one-and-done philosophy has caught on among most big-time programs, even with Duke, whose coach, Mike Krzyzewski, initially eschewed recruiting players on a quick path to the pros.

In this era, coaches must strike a tricky balance, said UCLA Coach Steve Alford, who lost three early departures, all first-round draft picks, to the NBA in June. Coaches need veterans to lead on the floor. But, Alford said, "If you're not recruiting them, and you're not getting a percentage of one-and-dones, you're playing against them. And that's not good either."

Powell, then, represents the flip side of the one-and-done era, a player who needed all four years to mature as a player. During his recruitment, then-UCLA coach Ben Howland told Powell he could be the next Russell Westbrook. The Bruins planned on Powell staying no more than two years, the same number of seasons Westbrook spent in Westwood.

Once he arrived, though, Powell didn't start for Howland and was not a major part of the offense. After his freshman season, Powell reassured himself. UCLA guards Jerime Anderson and Lazeric Jones both averaged more than 31 minutes per game. Once they were gone, Powell figured, he would shine.

Then, by the middle of his sophomore season, Powell's minutes began to disappear again. He was benched.

"That's when it really hit me," Powell said. "Like, 'Dang, no matter what I'm doing, it's just not going to pan out.'"

Powell confided in Tyus Edney, UCLA's director of basketball operations and a former Bruins star and NBA player. Edney kept Powell positive, and Powell began devoting each summer to improve a part of his game.

Powell had always been athletic and could take the ball aggressively to the rim, but his ball-handling and defense needed polishing. So he worked on his defense and last season became one of the team's best defenders.


He was starting to complete his game, but his outside shooting languished. His shot selection was poor and his form sloppy. So this summer, he tweaked his timing and shot release.

Before the season began, Alford teased Powell in front of reporters, recognizing his senior was mature enough to take it.

"When he takes good shots, he makes them," Alford said. "When he gets into Xbox" — Alford pretended to dribble furiously — "he doesn't."

Powell overheard.

"Stop man," Powell said, miming a crossover and shot. "Those step-backs, mid-range."

Alford turned to him and deadpanned, "Your step-back involves about eight dribbles."

Powell didn't have a comeback, but he jokingly mumbled he'd shoot 45% to 50% from three-point range.

Since this season began, his step-backs have been both rare and sharp. He has picked his spots judiciously and hasn't missed often. Already, he's made several momentum-swinging three-pointers, 21 of 45 overall — that's 46.7% — as well as averaging 17.4 points and 4.3 rebounds a game.

Recently, projected Powell as a late-first-round pick, No. 28 pick overall, right behind Kentucky's Andrew Harrison. Other analysts have him cracking the top 20.

Powell still must limit turnovers and avoid foul trouble, but four years of college have yielded a more complete player.

"He is an all-around — he's a baller," Calipari said. "I can't tell you he's this, he's that — he can take it to the rim, he's physical, he makes open shots, he'll score in bunches."

Powell said he is not bitter he's spent four years at UCLA. He has enjoyed the energy of a college campus. He always planned on graduating, and his classes and friends have pushed him to try things he never would have otherwise.

Once, teammates took him along to a meeting where students perform beat poetry. Powell said he enjoyed listening, but he didn't take the stage himself.

"Basketball is one thing, but performing is another," Powell said. "I'm not ready."

For that, he'd need a few more years.


When: 12:30 p.m.

Where: United Center, Chicago.

On the air: TV: Channel 2.

Records: UCLA 8-3, Kentucky 11-0.

Update: The Bruins are in the early stages of a brutal stretch that began with a loss to No. 8 Gonzaga last weekend and ends with trips to Alabama, Colorado and No. 14 Utah. The Wildcats, the unanimous No. 1 team in the Associated Press top 25 poll, could be the toughest test. UCLA Coach Steve Alford said Kentucky's lineup, with three players of 6 feet 11 or taller, would be the second-tallest team in the NBA. Kentucky has nine McDonald's All-Americans and uses a two-platoon system with nine players in the regular rotation. But Kentucky Coach John Calipari said if UCLA catches fire from three-point range, the Bruins can steal a win.