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Raptors' Pascal Siakam has emerged as one of the NBA's very best this season

·Raptors Writer
·11-min read
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When Kawhi Leonard left the Toronto Raptors for his hometown Los Angeles Clippers in the summer of 2019 — also known as “the last great summer in history” or “the summer before the storm” — the Raptors chose Pascal Siakam as his successor.

It was an obvious choice, really: Siakam was coming off a Most Improved Player campaign after averaging 17/7/3 on 55/37/76 as a third option on a championship team, and as an athletic six-foot-nine wing/forward hybrid, he had a unique skill set that is rare to find in the NBA; one that the Raptors wanted to build out and polish, even if it would take some time.

“I think that that's pretty much been the case that we were going to try to build him into that type of player after we had a couple departures in the roster,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said about Siakam becoming the No. 1 option. “He was the next logical choice there to do it.”

Regardless of what happens in the rest of the Raptors' season, Pascal Siakam has proven himself. (Getty)
Regardless of what happens in the rest of the Raptors' season, Pascal Siakam has proven himself. (Getty)

The early results were better than anyone could have reasonably imagined. Siakam averaged 23/7/3.5 on 45/36/79 shooting splits in his first season as a No. 1 option in 2019-20, carrying a usage rate of 27.8 percent, which ranked in the 93rd percentile among forwards that season. Siakam was arguably the best player on the second-best team in the NBA when the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted the Raptors' season, earning his first All-Star berth and Second-Team All-NBA honours.

It’s worth noting that the 2019-20 team was stacked with talent, with Kyle Lowry also being named an All-Star, and Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Norman Powell, Serge Ibaka, and Marc Gasol surrounding Siakam. Plus, after not being able to pick up a basketball for months, the Raptors flamed out in the NBA bubble, where Siakam struggled in all areas of his offensive game, as a switchy Boston Celtics team was able to take advantage of some of Siakam’s weaknesses.

And those struggles continued into the 2020-21 season, when the Raptors were forced to relocate to Tampa, Fla., and were hit with a team-wide COVID outbreak near the middle of the season. But regardless of the circumstances, Siakam was inconsistent, going through highs and lows as he struggled to prop up a less-balanced and less-talented team.

The Raptors, for their part, began to worry less about results and more about the process, putting the ball in Siakam’s hands and empowering him to be a point-forward type that could learn different defensive coverages and schemes as he went. That slow-played development has paid off, as Siakam is playing the best basketball of his career in 2021-22, and has been the best Raptor since the start of the new year, leading the team to a surprising 39-30 record, seventh in the East.

Sometimes the advanced stats are the best way to tell the story, but sometimes raw box-score stats do the trick. This season, Siakam is one of five players to average 20 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 assists. The other four are Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Nicola Jokic, and Luka Doncic. Siakam is averaging the fewest turnovers of the group at 2.7 per game.

With a 25.3 percent usage rate and 55.8 true shooting percentage — better than his 2019-20 campaign despite significantly worse talent around him — the debate about whether or not Siakam is a No. 1 option is over.

What’s more interesting for Siakam and the Raptors is that he has improved (on his All-NBA season) in many of the most important ways when it comes to succeeding in the playoffs: he’s drawing more fouls, hunting more mismatches, scoring more in the mid-range, making more plays for his teammates, and defending the rim at a higher level. Let’s break down Siakam’s improvements even further, using some of my favourite clips of him throughout the year to show just how far he has come.

Scoring

Siakam fuels the Raptors' 15th-ranked offence both in the half court and in transition. The Raptors score 7.8 more points per 100 possessions with Siakam on the court, including 6.8 more in the half court and 3.5 more in transition.

He’s at the top of every opponent’s scouting report and is seeing the most defensive attention of any Raptor, but he has learned how to leverage his scoring regardless of the defence being thrown at him or the lack of spacing around him. And the most important part when we project towards the playoffs is that he is doing it mostly by himself, with 60 percent of his made baskets coming unassisted, which ranks in the 97th percentile in the league, proving that he can score without plays drawn up for him (top-5 in isolation frequency) and bail the Raptors out with tough shot-making, an important quality of playoff offence.

“I think the more you get in situations, for me, the better I get … I’m just picking up stuff and the more I see defences, the better I get,” Siakam said. “And I also try to work on just being composed and just knowing where I wanna go and how I’m imposing my will and getting to the spot I wanna get to. I think that’s what special players do.”

One way Siakam has been able to prop up the Raptors' half-court offence is by improving as a mid-range shooter. His relatively advanced handle and impressive post-footwork allow Siakam to comfortably get to his spots in the midrange, where a career-high 52 percent of his shots are coming from. His embrace of contact and newfound ability to seek out and hunt mismatches are allowing him to shoot a career-high 44 percent from the mid-range, which is 10 percentage points better than in his All-NBA season and ranks in the 66th percentile.

Siakam is still getting to the rim a healthy amount despite the terrible spacing around him, often bullying mismatches on his way there or using his trademarked spin move to navigate away from defensive pressure and get all the way to the rim. While a career-low 32 percent of his shots come at the rim (again, spacing), he is converting on 67 percent of those chances, which ranks in the 65th percentile and is his most efficient mark since the championship season.

Siakam’s ability to score in the midrange and get to the rim while getting fouled on 13.4 percent of his shot attempts — which ranks in the 91st percentile for forwards and gets him to the line a career-high 5.5 times per game — should go a long way in the playoffs when things get tighter, slower, and more physical.

Playmaking

The most impressive (and important) part of Siakam’s development might not be his shot-making but rather his ability to read a defence and patience to attack it in the most advantageous way possible.

This is a trait that the best point guards have: guys like Chris Paul who will see how they are being guarded and adjust on the fly, passing up good shots (like a pull-up three-pointer, in Siakam’s case) for great ones (like passing his teammate into a layup). Siakam has started to read the game and execute against set defences as well as any forward in the league.

“The speed or the tempo or the composure he's playing with in traffic seems to have slowed down for him or changed in some way,” Nurse said about Siakam recently. “I think he's just really much more patient. Doesn't get himself in a hurry and get himself into too many jams down there. And I think if he does, he's doing a really good job of getting up in the air and getting it out of those jams.”

It’s no wonder Siakam has an assist percentage of 21.6, in the 92nd percentile, while averaging 5.1 assists to 2.7 turnovers. And he is doing it in every which way, setting up his teammates for dunks, layups, push-shots, and open threes.

In the half court, Siakam is garnering so much attention because of his improved scoring that teams often have no choice but to send a double-team towards him (or at the very least shade multiple guys his way), and he is doing a great job seeing the whole court and making not just the right read, but executing the pass into the shooting pockets of his teammates.

In transition, Siakam has always been a good finisher, but there was an adjustment period when he was asked to no longer exclusively be the finisher and instead be the decision maker, and he struggled with it.

Siakam’s athleticism and speed allow him to be a good finisher in transition, but it takes time to learn how to make reads at 100 percent speed, especially when the defence forces you to be a passer. This year, however, Siakam has been excellent in transition, both as a scorer and a playmaker, and with Kyle Lowry gone and no longer fuelling the Raptors' sixth-ranked transition offence, Siakam has picked up the slack.

Siakam is now able to make every pass in the book, whether it’s in the half court or in transition. That’s because his improved handle allows him to get into tight spots and his court vision and patience allow him to execute there.

Defence

Strangely enough, defence is the part of Siakam’s game that has arguably become the most underrated. Of course, any time you ask someone to play 37.7 minutes per game on a 25.3 percent usage (Siakam has missed just three games in 2022), you’re going to see some mistakes. But Siakam is still one of the most versatile, multi-positional defenders in the league, executing the Raptors' scheme flawlessly as he switches all over the place and uses his speed and length to contest shots all over the floor.

Plus, over the past couple of years as the Raptors lost Ibaka and Gasol and replaced them with less traditional centres, they have asked Siakam to be more of a rim protector, either guarding big men in the post or rotating over as the low man to contest opponents driving to the rim. Siakam has gotten markedly better at this, contesting 4.9 shots at the rim per game (where opponents are shooting 63.5 percent) and more often than not being in the right position to make it hard on his opponents and rebound their misses at a career-high rate (6.4 defensive rebounds per game).

Of course, even when Siakam’s offensive play fell off in the NBA bubble, his defence was stellar. But that was playing beside Ibaka or Gasol, whom the Raptors could count on to protect the rim if they got beat. Now, Siakam is more often than not the last line of defence, and despite being a six-foot-nine wing, he is doing an admirable job quarterbacking the Raptors' 15th-ranked defence.

It’s clear that Siakam is playing the best basketball of his career and has improved in some of the most important ways. Yes, he should be named to an All-NBA team and maybe even an All-Defence team, but let’s think bigger. After flaming out as the No. 1 option against the Boston Celtics the last time the Raptors were in the playoffs, Siakam has turned himself into much more of an all-around player, and based on the ways he has rounded out his game, he should be able to succeed in even the toughest playoff matchups, using his improved handle, mid-range touch, rim-pressure, playmaking, and rim-protection to dominate.

Regardless of what happens the remainder of the Raptors’ season, Siakam should feel vindicated that he has developed into one of the best players in the NBA; and the Raptors should feel vindicated that they picked the right guy to do it.

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