It wasn’t long ago — last year, as a matter of fact — when the Toronto Raptors’ ability to generate offense rested on the shoulders of essentially two players (three if you count Cory Joseph). The Bucks series in the 2017 playoffs and virtually every series from the past four seasons featured stagnant offensive sets capped off by an array of highly difficult closely contested shots. It was painful, stressful, frustrating — use whichever adjective you’d like.
While the Raptors were ultimately victors over the Bucks in six games, it was far closer than they had hoped and once again highlighted an all too familiar set of issues that have plagued the Raptors throughout an otherwise golden era of basketball in Toronto.
While Bucks-Raptors: Part Deux could be on the horizon, much is still to be decided from a seeding standpoint. The Eastern Conference is a logjam with little room between third and eighth. The Cavaliers ‘tripping’ down the stretch and somehow winding up eighth remains my worst nightmare. That likely won’t happen though (promise me it won’t happen!). Outside of that, no early round potentials scare me. This is a different Raptors team and it’s time they breezed through a round (or two).
Amidst the team-centric changes taking place, the play of Pascal Siakam has perhaps been the biggest surprise from an individual standpoint. Relatively unknown in the 2016 NBA Draft, Siakam has progressed far quicker than expected, turning himself into an exciting point forward in the process. Most of the season and especially in recent outings, we are seeing star-like qualities displayed with more frequency. And let’s not forget that this year essentially amounts to Siakam’s first given that a large portion of his rookie season was spent down the road in Mississauga with the 905.
Compared to a season ago, the biggest area of growth has been in Siakam’s play-making ability, something the Raptors were in dire need of to take pressure off guys like DeRozan and Lowry. He’s become such a confident and capable dribbler, both in the half and open court. A year ago he was creating just over two points per 100 possessions — this season he is producing nearly 12 (per pbpstats.com). In the five games preceding the March 13th contest against Brooklyn, Siakam’s (per 100 possession) numbers have been scary good: 16 pts / 11 reb / 6 ast / 2 stl / 1 blk / +15.2, per NBA.com.
February saw him post his highest usage rating of the season (18%), shooting a season-high 31 percent on threes (1.4 attempts per game), scoring 11 points per game to go along with four rebounds and nearly three assists and carrying a net rating of plus 25. While it was an off-the-charts month for his team, it was a career-best month for Siakam as well.
With Lowry, Fred VanVleet, DeRozan and Delon Wright sharing the majority of the ball-handling duties, the Raptors have many options capable of creating off the bounce. However, we’ve seen what the addition of a point forward can do for a team’s transition and overall offensive effectiveness. Just think of how Golden State deploys Draymond Green, one of the first of his kind.
Since the All-Star break, we’ve seen a spike in Siakam’s defensive rebounding too. Siakam is showing far more aggression in tracking down defensive rebounds as he looks for opportunities to speed away in transition. The Raptors are finding more ways to get the ball in his hands. He has the green light to take off, with or without the ball. Shooters (something Pascal is still working on becoming) now have the opportunity to run to spots and fill lanes in fast break scenarios rather than having to wait for an outlet pass. Siakam’s motor will leave most other players in a cloud of dust. His baseline-to-baseline speed is Usain Bolt-esque, but it’s been the added element of facilitating that has taken the league (and to some degree, his team) by storm and made defending Toronto’s new-look offense so difficult.
An early season drive and dish highlight Siakam’s improvement.
More recently we see open floor creativity and finishing on display...
While his on-ball defending has always been a plus, Siakam has raised his defensive impact all over the court to another level recently. He and the rest of Toronto’s bigs make a habit of contesting everything at the rim — Jonas Valanciunas and Jakob Poeltl’s performance to close out the Houston game was near perfection. Siakam has gotten more aggressive in his shot contests at the rim. He still doesn’t block a ton of shots, yet his length remains a major nuisance for opposing drivers and shooters. As one of the team’s most mobile and flexible defenders, you can bet he will draw some major assignments come playoff time.
Now, given how much Siakam has improved in such a short time and understanding the value he brings when on the court, is it plausible to think he could assume a starting role next season for the Raptors? It wasn’t until Draymond’s third year that he was named a regular starter. Green would start 79 games in his third season year, playing a significant role in transforming Golden State’s offense and defense. Everything I’m seeing makes me believe Pascal Siakam is capable of producing similar results in Toronto. Even his splits show a trend of getting stronger the more minutes he plays.
The question was posed by Sean Woodley a short time ago on Twitter:
trying to figure out what Pascal’s ceiling might be is my favourite exercise— Sean Woodley (@WoodleySean) March 11, 2018
In the words of Biggie Smalls: sky’s the limit.