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Player Review: The weird, surprising season of Pascal Siakam

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The late first-round pick had a great chance to prove himself, and while he didn’t quite manage it, he also didn’t suck.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Despite great opportunity, Pascal Siakam did not have a great season.

As a late first-round pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, Siakam came to the Toronto Raptors last summer as an expected bench warmer, filling spot minutes alongside the likes of Delon Wright and fellow rookie Jakob Poeltl. But, despite the team’s standing as a power in the Eastern Conference, a talent gap at power forward opened the door wide open for the lanky rookie out of New Mexico State University.

Over the summer, the Raptors brought in Jared Sullinger, but a mixture of an injury and the fact that he could hardly fit into his jersey forced the team to look elsewhere for a starter. Coach Dwane Casey seemed happiest with Patrick Patterson — the most talented power forward on the roster to start the year — coming off the bench as a leader for the second unit, so Siakam became his guy.

Siakam played in 55 games this season, most of which came before Serge Ibaka arrived around the trade deadline, and he started 38. For a rookie playing on a playoff-bound squad hoping to contend for a ring, that seems like an impressive feat on paper. In reality, Siakam was fine. He did what he was asked and not much more.

The 6-9, 230 pound forward averaged 4.2 points and 3.4 rebounds per game, alongside 0.8 blocked shots in 15.6 minutes per game. He shot 50 per cent from the field and 1-7 on his three-pointers. And, he had a player efficiency rating of 11.5, which is bad.

Realistically, Siakam wasn’t ready for the spotlight that opportunity created. He should have been watching the team’s seasoned vets, but instead he had to try to be them. When he got the chance to play in the D-League with Raptors 905, he did much better, and appeared (predictably) much more confident. Siakam averaged 18.2 points and 8.6 rebounds per game in five regular season appearances, as well as 18 points and 7.9 rebounds in seven playoff games, helping Mississauga win the title. Oh, and his player efficiency rating was 28.1, which is wild.

Siakam is a good player with nice hops and a motor on defense. He beasted bad dudes in the D-League, and shied away from stars in the NBA. After a summer of improving his body and building a jump shot, Siakam may be in the position to be solid contributor with the Raptors.

The Good

Defensively, Siakam has a lot of potential. He is long and athletic, and actually blocked shots at a fairly impressive rate this year. He tied Jonas Valanciunas (25.8 minutes per game) as third on the team in blocks with 0.8 per game. Per 36 minutes, he was second on the team behind just Lucas Nogueira, who is like nine-feet-tall.

Once he gets more comfortable dealing with NBA physicality and speed, Siakam should be a positive contributor on the defensive end. His speed and length allow him to match up against centres, forwards, wings and big 2-guards. Right now, he is best as a rim protector, but there is no reason he can’t become a perimeter stopper as well.

On offense, he’s best scoring around the rim, particularly as an alley-oop option on the run. He can also use his leaping ability to sky for put-backs.

Siakam showed this season that he can run the court in transition, and create offense by getting open for passes from the team’s playmakers. The Raptors don’t get out and run that often, but when they do, Siakam is an asset.

The Bad

It’s hard to say what he will become in a few years once he gets used to the NBA, but Siakam can’t shoot. The league is a stretchy, stretchy place where bigs are expected to create space for their guards by shooting — or at least threatening to shoot — from outside.

This season, Siakam couldn’t do that. In the D-League, he went 1-13 from outside over seven playoffs games. Distance shooting just isn’t his thing, which hurts his ceiling, but isn’t fatal.

Siakam also doesn’t excel at putting the ball on the floor against NBA opponents, so his offense is at the mercy of a point guard’s whims. He is only effective offensively if he gets fed near the basket, or can match up against a poor rebounder.

Defensively, there is a slight confidence issue, but that can probably be accounted for as a rookie problem.

The Grade: B

Siakam had an okay, but pretty weird rookie season. He was given a larger role than he was ready for, but he didn’t completely fail. He has a lot of room for improvement, but GM Masai Ujiri probably feels pretty good about his 27th overall pick.

The Ibaka acquisition made Siakam obsolete, however there is no assurance the Raptors will keep their starting power forward. Before he arrived, Siakam seemed destined for an All-Rookie Second Team nod, but that is unlikely now (not that it really matters).

Whether Ibaka comes back or not, Siakam figures to have a larger role on the team than he did after this year’s trade deadline.