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Spicy Take: Could Pascal Siakam be the best player from the 2016 draft?

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Ben Simmons still has the pole position, but the man called “Spicy P” is gaining ground — fast.

Toronto Raptors: Could Pascal Siakam be the best player from the 2016 draft? Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Before there was Zion Williamson — “athletic freak the likes of which we had never seen before” — there was Ben Simmons.

At 6’10”, 230 lbs, Simmons was the prototypical man against boys. Sure he may have shot with the wrong hand, and sure, he may have never wanted to have to play in the NCAA at all, but there was no denying the obvious: Simmons was an incredible talent.

And so, the Philadelphia 76ers took Simmons #1 overall.

At the time there were some pushing for Brandon Ingram of Duke, and even the odd vote for the (at the time) intriguing big-man Dragan Bender; or even Buddy Hield (fresh off being named college player of the year). But with the joys of hindsight it seems obvious that the Sixers did the right thing, even though injury, and perhaps The Process, kept Simmons out of his entire rookie season.

All the numbers back it up. Simmons leads everyone in his draft class in points, rebounds and assists per-game, and is the top four in total points, assists and rebounds, despite, again, missing a whole season.

If you were to redo the draft today, Simmons is unquestionably the number one pick.

But...

... if you were to redo the draft today, you can make a very good argument that the Raptors’ own Pascal Siakam would be the second overall selection.

Siakam has played the ninth most minutes in his draft class. Per-game, Pascal is 10th in scoring, 3rd in rebounding and 14th in assists.

More compellingly, he’s right behind Simmons in Value Over Replacement Player (second), Win Shares (second), and Win Shares/36 minutes (third — interestingly it’s Siakam’s one-time front-court partner, Jakob Poeltl, that’s number one).

Couple that with the 44 points he dropped Wednesday night — the second-best single game performance of everyone in his draft year, behind only Jamal Murray’s infamous 48 against the Celtics, and you’ve got an argument that Siakam’s upside matches anyone in that draft not named Ben Simmons.

But...

... is it possible that Siakam could actually overtake Simmons?

It seems like an insane statement to make. But if you look deeper, there is a reason to believe that Simmons vs Siakam could be a legitimate argument in the future.

Number Two, but trying harder?

PLAYER MP WS WS/48 VORP
PLAYER MP WS WS/48 VORP
Ben Simmons 4660 15.3 0.158 7.5
Pascal Siakam 4366 12.9 0.142 4.5

The first thing that’s clear is that while Simmons has definitely been better, the comparison between the two isn’t, in fact, insane.

The numbers here are also pretty apples-to-apples since, despite Simmons missing his first year, he’s played so much since that he’s actually been on the floor more in two years than Siakam was in three.

This isn’t shocking, and makes the case for Simmons’ superiority. From literally the moment he stepped on an NBA court, Ben Simmons has been a star.

Of course, players do grow and improve, and here, even the biggest Simmons supporter would concede that Siakam’s growth has been more pronounced — if only because he started from such a low baseline.

Getting Closer

PLAYER YEAR MP WS WS/48 VORP
PLAYER YEAR MP WS WS/48 VORP
Ben Simmons 2017-18 2732 9.2 0.162 4.6
Ben Simmons 2018-19 1928 6.1 0.152 2.9
Pascal Siakam 2016-17 859 1.6 0.89 0.2
Pascal Siakam 2017-18 1679 4.7 1.33 1.7
Pascal Siakam 2018-19 1828 6.6 1.74 2.5

A couple of things here:

  1. Even for someone who watches and writes about Toronto all the time, it’s incredible how fast Siakam is improving. From being barely better than replacement level in his rookie year, Siakam now sits #16 in the NBA in win-shares. That’s within range of being named to an All-NBA team. In fact, right now, Siakam is on pace to garner more win shares than Simmons in 2018-2019.
  2. Simmons is really good, but he hasn’t shown any marked improvement in year two. He’s on pace to record about half of a win less than year. His scoring efficiently is up slightly (his true shooting percentage has gone from .557 to .587), and his rebound rate is up a little too(14.3% from 13 %), but everything else — assists, steals, blocks and turnover rates — have all trended in the wrong direction, again if only slightly.

To be fair, there are some obvious elements that may be hampering Simmons development. Firstly, he’s already at a border-line All-NBA level. The room to get better from that is a lot less than someone like Siakam.

Secondly, he’s endured a season of incredible change. The Sixers have made two major additions mid-season, and even from the beginning there was more talk about what Simmons can’t do (shoot), than what he can (basically everything else), which you could argue makes it harder to play free and easy.

It’s also very possible that this new Sixers team, now with some real shooting in the starting line-up, could be much better tailored to Simmons skill-set, unlocking another gear in the young Aussie.

And yet...

Simmons inability, and, maybe more importantly, unwillingness to shoot the ball from any sort of distance gives teams a clear book on how to defend him. Play off of Simmons and force him to drive into traffic, while also allowing teams to leave him to gum up Philly’s other actions (Simmons makes this harder by being an advanced cutter for such a young player, but it’s still a problem for the Sixers to puzzle out).

Siakam isn’t any real sort of shooter himself, but unlike Simmons, he’s improving. Siakam’s hitting 34% from distance this season, which has pushed his true shooting percentage up to .626 — 13th in the league, and sixth highest among players who take at least 11 shots a game.

Right now, it’s hard to argue that as a pure scorer Simmons is better than the man they call Spicy P.

Simmons’ remaining major advantages over Siakam are play-making and defense — and those gaps are narrowing too.

Get That Garbage Outta Here!

PLAYER YEAR DEF RPM DWS DBPM
PLAYER YEAR DEF RPM DWS DBPM
Ben Simmons 2017-18 1.45 5 3.6
Ben Simmons 2018-19 0.79 2.6 2.6
Pascal Siakam 2016-17 0.49 1.2 1.9
Pascal Siakam 2017-18 1.09 2.5 2.2
Pascal Siakam 2018-19 1.84 2.5 1.6

Both Siakam and Simmons are impressive defenders, especially for how young and relatively inexperienced the two are. Simmons was far better last year, and at worst it’s a push this year — but again, the gap is narrowing.

A lot of the fascination with Simmons is that he’s a 6’10”, 230-lbs wrecking-ball with the foot speed to be a guard. Siakam stands one inch shorter than Simmons, but with the same listed weight. Their frames could not be more different, but functionally they’re the same sized human-being, with an increasingly similar ability to guard multiple positions.

If you want to give an edge to Simmons because he has a higher career rebound rate (13.5% to 12.1%), which has only increased this year (14.3% to 12%), I won’t argue with you, but it’s clear both are significant pluses on that end.

That leaves play-making, and here there is no argument whose better — Simmons is a genius level passer who has an assist rate up over 35%. There’s a reason Magic Johnson wants to tutor him (beyond tampering), Simmons has the chance to be one of the top passers in NBA history.

Siakam is not in that league, and never will be, but like everything else in his game it’s coming along.

Dropping Dimes?

PLAYER YEAR Usage Assists AST % TOV %
PLAYER YEAR Usage Assists AST % TOV %
Pascal Siakam 2016-17 13.1 0.3 2.9 13.1
Pascal Siakam 2017-18 15.7 2.0 13.5 11.1
Pascal Siakam 2018-19 19.9 2.8 13.3 12.3

To be fair, the improvement in this part of Siakam’s game is somewhat over-stated. His assist percentage has fallen slightly from last year, and is AST/TO ratio has increased, but so too has his usage. The fact that Siakam has tread water as a play-maker while seeing a big increase in offensive responsibility is a good thing that speaks positively to his ability to become better as that usage stabilizes.

Some of that decline in efficiency is undoubtedly related to Siakam’s change in role. Last year Siakam played on a second unit that moved the ball a ton. This year, especially with Kawhi Leonard on the floor, the Raps offense can be stagnant. And of course, last year Pascal was feeling a special kind of way about this guy.

The eye-test also suggests that Siakam is making higher degree of difficulty passes (although the assist to turnover ratio suggests he’s still not sure which ones to attempt).

Again, Siakam will never be anywhere close to the sort of creator than Simmons is, but if there is more improvement to come than things start to get interesting down the line.

Does Simmons’ edge in play-making, and rebounding overcome Siakam’s now elite ability to finish possessions? If Siakam can stay this efficient with a usage rate closer to Simmons’, and his play-making numbers take a jump, and his outside shooting continues to improve, then aside from name-recognition, does Simmons still have an indisputable case for being the best player in his draft year? Especially if his one major weakness is something opponents’ continually exploit in the playoffs?

Of course, Simmons can get better too. If he ever finds an even semi-reliable jump-shot than this question becomes completely moot. Simmons is also just 22, two full years younger than Siakam — the history of basketball strongly suggests that a 22-year old has more room to improve than a 24-year old.

Then again, Siakam started playing basketball almost a decade later in life than Simmons did — so maybe that history means less than usual.

Ben Simmons walked into the NBA a sure-fire star; the best player available in his draft class. Pascal Siakam walked into the NBA to a chorus of “who?”, a virtual unknown in his draft class. Simmons is still the best player available, but NBA fans know Siakam’s name now, and Simmons reign at the top of the 2016 draft class may not last forever.