With Kawhi Leonard out, Norman Powell is ready for latest Clippers crisis

Clippers guard Norman Powell lets out a yell along the baseline after scoring against the Suns last season.
Clippers guard Norman Powell clenches his fists and flexes along the baseline after scoring a basket.
(Chris Coduto / Getty Images)

The NBA Summer League game was not yet over when Norman Powell walked over to a collection of Clippers executives last July. It was after 9 p.m., a time when many in the city are just beginning their nights. But the 6-foot-2 guard was saying goodbye, headed to the offseason home he keeps miles from the Strip. He had to be up early.

By 6 a.m., before the sun had risen and heat radiated across the desert, Powell was on a court inside a gym. Five days a week in the offseason he completed three daily workouts. The first concerned basketball. The second, before lunch, was reserved for lifting weights. The third usually alternated between hot pilates or boxing.

Powell has never lacked motivation. He studied his family’s copy of “Michael Jordan to the Max” and videos of Kobe Bryant as a child until he’d memorized his idols’ moves, then mimicked them on a court behind a liquor store near the family’s east San Diego home until they were his own. His right forearm bears the tattooed letters U-T-G, standing for Understand The Grind, the motto he has turned into a brand. On his right shoulder is inked “Philippians 4:13,” a bible verse that reminds him no obstacle is too big to handle.


Yet deep into his workouts, when friends sense his energy sagging, they know how to push his buttons, finding what A.J. Diggs, a trainer and confidante of Powell’s since 2015, called his “soft spots.”

“It’s pretty easy to get him motivated by mentioning a couple names or a couple people that may have not believed in him in the past,” Diggs told The Times last fall.

“They know,” Powell said, “I’m kind of crazy.”

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In high school, they would call out names of the recruits ranked ahead of him. They remind him of the 45 players drafted before him in 2015.

“One of my boys sent me some ranking or whatever, top 100 players, and I wasn’t on it,” Powell told The Times last fall. “I’m like, bro, you send me this s— every year, I really don’t care. They know what time it is. There’s not that many players on that list that are truly better than me.”

Maybe it is only appropriate that the player who loves a challenge finds himself in the middle of the most difficult of the Clippers’ season. Already missing Paul George because of a right knee sprain since late March, the Clippers trail Phoenix 2-1 in this best-of-seven first-round series going into Game 4 on Saturday with their other All-Star forward, Kawhi Leonard, sidelined for a second consecutive game because of a sprained right knee.

In lieu of Leonard, his teammate on Toronto’s 2019 championship team, Powell moved from the bench to the starting lineup in Thursday’s Game 3 loss and responded with 42 points, the fourth-highest total in a Clippers postseason game.


His coach, Tyronn Lue, was not surprised, seeing the preparation behind the production, the fire behind the flurry of baskets. Since joining the Clippers in 2021 via trade from Portland, Powell has peppered Lue, a former Lakers teammate of Bryant and Wizards teammate of Jordan, with questions about Bryant’s workout regimen and mentality.

“I told him about Kobe, if you want to go watch his workouts, you got to be in the doors at 4:30 [a.m.],” Lue said. “He started his workouts at 5. And so I think just taking on that mindset of just wanting to be great and working hard, he definitely picked that up.

“When you put that kind of work in, every single day, just grinding every single day, you’re going to play well.”

Clippers guard Norman Powell throw down a dunk during Game 3.
Clippers guard Norman Powell had a series of layups and dunks against the Suns during Game 3 of their first-round playoff series Thursday.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

The Clippers don’t need reminders that not all plans come to fruition. This is the third consecutive year a late-season injury to either Leonard or George, or both, has replaced the team’s championship ambitions with absences Lue acknowledged were “deflating.” Nothing has come easily. And for Powell, there could be no more appropriate plot twist than this, the latest in a career shaped by taking the hard route.

“I felt like that passion and drive and belief was when I was little, watching all those videos of Kobe,” Powell said. “That mentality was established there and I think I already had the building blocks of the hard work and being committed and figuring stuff out. Everything my mom’s done, my uncles, seeing how they push through and found different ways to support the family and just navigate life, those building blocks were already in me.”


He was tasked with earning his keep early. One Christmas, Powell asked his mother, Sharon, for a PlayStation 2 console. Then, he recalled, he got in trouble — and underneath the tree, there were suddenly presents for only his sisters. Upset, he was asked by his mother later that morning to fetch something from a cupboard, and inside was a wrapped PlayStation.

“My mom was teaching me a lesson,” he said.

There were more at San Diego’s Lincoln High. He wanted a cell phone. His mother said yes — if he earned it by making the academic honor roll. Powell got the phone and later used it to arrange visits to San Diego State’s campus, where he was hosted by Jeremy Castleberry, an Aztecs guard and future Clippers assistant who was a high school teammate of Leonard, also a former Aztecs star.

Powell’s appetite for basketball left an impression on the similarly single-minded Leonard. He recalled a visit when Powell, still in high school, wanted a pickup game against Leonard and his teammates at the student recreation center. The game was “dead,” Leonard said, his teammates reluctant to play after a long season but “you could just see his competitive nature and how aggressive he was and he loved to play the basketball game,” Leonard said. “That was something I could cherish with Norm from that early memory.”

Powell chose UCLA — but frustrated with his limited offensive role under coach Ben Howland, Powell nearly transferred to San Diego State, but was dissuaded from quitting during a meeting with Tyus Edney, the former Bruins star guard who became close with Powell while working on UCLA’s basketball staff. Powell stayed and flourished under coach Steve Alford.

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Alford laughed when recalling that Powell had chosen “Understand The Grind” for his apparel company.

“It’s so Norm,” Alford said. “That is who he is. … He was always one of those guys that’s grabbing a manager, grabbing a teammate and getting in the gym.”


Edney recalled sitting with Powell’s family on draft night in 2015 when players Powell felt he’d outplayed during workouts were taken ahead of him by the dozen.

“That’s been his story,” Edney said. “I even told him like, ‘Norm, this is the path. This is what you do. That’s almost your superpower,’ adversity is like his superpower. It keeps him motivated and driven.

“You could almost see him once it was done like, OK, this is what you guys think I am? Let me show you I’m more than that.”

It has remained a hallmark of Powell’s career. On the morning the Clippers opened training camp in September, teammates casually filtered into a Las Vegas gym to find Powell — just one year after finding security with a five-year, $90-million contract — dripping with sweat after wrapping an early workout alongside Diggs and Clippers coaches.

The season that began with title ambitions now faces a potential first-round exit. The Clippers will turn to Powell, for whom extra motivation is no longer necessary.