By all accounts, Pascal Siakam got a lot better this summer.
Video leaked of him playing in LA’s famous Drew League back in July, where he had just won a player of the week award and it had fans swooning.
Improvements to his handle, range and finishing around the rim all feature in the package, as do doses of the tantalizing play-making ability he flashed at times during his sophomore season. Couple that with his trademark athleticism and motor, and many Raptors fans feel like Siakam is poised to take a leap in his third season.
But how much of a leap? On a team with championship aspirations and a deep wing rotation, where does the fun, yet sometimes still very raw, Siakam fit in?
The term ‘X-Factor’ is one of those sayings that’s murky in origin. Google didn’t offer any ready responses when I attempted to suss its birthplace; neither did Google’s drunk uncle, Wikipedia. So while we may not know where it comes from, exactly (please feel free to do your own research and correct me in the comments), we all know instinctively what it means.
Something special. A finishing touch. A certain je ne sais quoi that makes something or someone attractive or important or effective — or all three.
We also, as savvy content gluttons, know that it’s one of the most overused terms in a sports fans lexicon. Pundits are forever searching for an X-factor before it emerges, so they can be the one who looks back and says, “Look, I knew Ben Uzoh was going to drop a triple double sometime, I just knew it, hoo boy!”
As worn out a term as it is, every team with championship aspirations has an X-factor or multiple X-factors. Not the sexless application of the term that’s often bandied about by the disciples of Skip Bayless after four Alabama Slammers, but a player who actually pushes a contender over the top. Often that player comes seemingly out of nowhere, like Draymond Green for the Golden State Warriors in 2014-15. Sometimes they’re a veteran taking one last kick at the can, like Ray Allen for the 2012-13 Miami Heat. Regardless of their genesis, those contributions from unexpected places, from the roster spots not occupied by a team’s stars, are the difference between contenders and pretenders.
That’s where Siakam comes in.
We know the Raptors have stars in Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry. We know what to expect, roughly, from Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka. So who will the X-factor be? Will it be steady veterans like Danny Green and C.J. Miles? Or will it, more unpredictably, come from the Raptors homegrown young talent?
If you’ve been reading these previews, you’ve seen the valid concerns about Delon Wright’s health and the potential for OG Anunoby to hit a sophomore slump. Siakam has neither of these concerns. An athletic freak who played 81 games last season, he emerged as a key bench piece as the season went on. Some more casual fans might be surprised to hear that he averaged 20.7 minutes per game during the regular season, finishing a hair below Wright for fifth most on the team.
He showed massive improvement from his rookie season, when he was forced into starting 38 games, due to a black hole at the power forward position that would later be filled by Ibaka and P.J. Tucker. A much more ready Siakam entered last season as a question mark and exited it as a fan favourite because of his exciting style of play. Siakam is a worker through-and-through, playing with elite speed and unrelenting hustle that at times covered up for an as-yet unpolished offensive game.
The issue for Siakam is that because of his inability to stretch the floor effectively, his minutes were tightened to 17.9 per game during the playoffs, right on the fringe of the rotation. Miles and Anunoby both saw their time increase significantly, while Siakam was used relatively sparingly versus Washington and padded his overall minutes with plenty of garbage time in the Cleveland series. His limited offensive arsenal and sometimes questionable decision-making on defense (a team-wide affliction in the post-season) rendered him an afterthought, which sullied a strong sophomore campaign — the turd in the punch-bowl, as it were, though hardly an unexpected misstep for a young player.
So how will be Siakam be used in 2018-19? Will rookie head coach Nick Nurse get creative with one of his more versatile bench contributors?
Nurse said Pascal at the 5 is a possibility down the road, but hasn’t been a focus so far, which we’ve seen in the games.— (((Eric Koreen))) (@ekoreen) October 8, 2018
With Anunoby and Leonard slated to play significant minutes at the power forward position and Ibaka’s rumoured transition to a more centre-heavy role, exactly how Siakam’s minutes will shake-out is a work in progress that will evolve as the season does. Don’t expect the Raptors rotation on opening night to look like it will come mid-March. Fans love to dream on fun defensively switchable lineups like Lowry-Wright-Leonard-Anunoby-Siakam playing together but with Valanciunas, Ibaka and Greg Monroe all on the roster, it’s unlikely we’ll see a lot of anything like that, at least initially.
Expect to see Siakam garner his usual 20ish minutes per night, with the chance to earn more run if his shooting has truly improved. His 22 percent on 132 three point attempts last season ranked dead last among NBA players who attempted over 100 triples. Second last was Phoenix’s Josh Jackson, who managed 26.3 percent, so it wasn’t particularly close either. it will be interesting to see if this is a part of his game that’s emphasized again this season, particularly if he struggles early on.
What you can expect to see in those 20 minutes though, is the fun part. Even if Siakam is simply what he was last year, he’ll be a hugely important bench piece. And if Siakam can show anything like the developing arsenal he exhibited in the Drew League? Well then he’s quickly going to become over-qualified for a bench role, the kind of internal development that is exactly how good teams push themselves over the top.
The Raptors are going to be searching for a player that can fill-in when OG has an off-night or Kawhi needs rest. A player that can take a huge step forward, a la Fred VanVleet last season. A spark, who can also provide a steadying influence on the nightly rotation. Siakam is the leading candidate to be that guy. He has all the tools, he just needs to find the latch to the toolbox on a nightly basis. If he can do that, the Raptors depth goes from solid to scary really quickly. Everything we’ve seen so far about his work ethic suggests that he’ll get there. There’s a clear map to success for Siakam, he just needs to follow it.
It shouldn’t be too hard — after all, X marks the spot. (For the X factor... get it? Eh? Ehhhh? I’ll show myself out).