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Can Pascal Siakam make himself one of the NBA’s truly elite offensive players?

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Pascal Siakam is now the Raptors’ offensive centrepiece. Here’s what he needs to focus on to take the next leap in an already surprising career.

NBA: Playoffs-Toronto Raptors at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

To say that Pascal Siakam is unprecedented in Toronto Raptors’ history would be an understatement.

The forward, taken 27th overall in 2015, has somehow emerged as the second best player taken in his draft year — with a case to be made for him being the best.

By any measure, Siakam’s career arc has been a massive success. From being thrust into a starting role as a rookie due to an injury to Jared Sullinger, to being sent to the G League, where he responded by winning a G League Finals MVP award, to becoming a key part of one of the best benches in recent NBA history, to putting up a 20-8-4 line in his NBA Finals debut, to winning the Most Improved Player, Siakam has continued to clear every hurdle put in front of him.

It’s almost unfair that after all this, Toronto fandom is going to hope for (and/or demand) another leap from the Cameroonian. But if the Raptors want to avoid receding into the NBA background (again), Siakam is going to have to sand off his game’s remaining rough edges. This isn’t just about the Raptors making a valiant effort to defend their title, either. Siakam’s ability to continue raising his ceiling will have a huge impact on team president, Masai Ujiri and GM Bobby Webster’s longer-term team building aspirations.

Is Siakam an imperfect, but ultimately very good Robin figure (as he proved to be in this year’s playoffs)? Or, can he ease into a low-key Batman role? What’s more: can he be the sort of player who, in two years when a number of big name stars are on the market, draws those players to Toronto to play with him?

It’s a massive load to place on a player whose already done so much more than could ever have been expected, but there you are.

Given that, let’s take a look at a few elements of Siakam’s game that coach Nick Nurse would do well to experiment with — even if it costs the Raptors some games in the short-term.

Shooting

This weakness of Siakam’s was seen most clearly in the second and third round of the playoffs when both the Philadelphia 76ers and the Milwaukee Bucks used the same strategy. Both teams switched their seven-foot-plus behemoth centres, Joel Embiid and Brook Lopez respectfully, and had them play well off of Siakam, betting that their size could effectively repel Siakam’s litany of herky-jerky post moves and that he’d struggle to score from the mid-range or with above the break threes.

They were right.

Siakam, who had posted shooting splits of 55/37/79 in the regular season, slumped to 42/26/73 in those two series as he was uncomfortable taking the largely uncontested shots the Sixers and Bucks were willing to give him. More than that though, as both series went on, Siakam became increasingly hesitant, often passing out of what seemed like good opportunities, passing up corner threes or dribbling aimlessly.

Now, while not every team is going to have a Lopez or (especially) an Embiid on the floor, size does seem to be returning to the NBA, and with Siakam likely being the Raptors top offensive option, teams will seek to copy what’s worked against him.

The counter-move is simple. Siakam either needs to become more adept at shooting threes from above the break (ATB), or he needs to develop into a Serge Ibaka-esque mid-ranger shooter, capable of stepping into open 18-20 footers consistently.

Obviously gaining the three is preferable, but for a number of reasons the mid-range game could be more attainable, at least in the short term. For one, tons of NBA players never become proficient ATB three-point bombers; for another, Siakam is already closing in on tenable accuracy from the mid-range.

Pascal Siakam Shot Chart
@AustinClemens2

Last year Siakam shot 26 percent on 65 ATB threes, while he canned 57 percent on just 28 mid-range attempts — which I’ll qualify as between the three-point line and foul-line extended.

Beyond the fact that it’s incredible that Siakam took just 28 shots from that range all season, and the fact it’s a very small sample size, the numbers suggest that Siakam has a lot less work to do to add this weapon to his offensive arsenal.

And while modern NBA mathematics beg players to eschew the mid-range at all costs, most of the very best scorers either have the ability, or in some cases intentionally, thrive on scoring in that area. As modern NBA defenses become more and more fanatical about eliminating corner threes and at-the-rim opportunities, the mid-range has become increasingly under-defended.

The upside in Nurse allowing Siakam to hone these shots in game, regardless of early results, is clear: if Siakam can add one (or both) to his repertoire, how do you stop him?

If a big plays back, Siakam can force them out of the paint by hitting a steady diet of open looks. Asking a player like Embiid or Lopez to defend in space against Siakam is suicide. Switch a smaller player with the speed to stay in front of Siakam, then Pascal will either post him up, or use his size and unorthodox style to get floaters — a shot he excels at.

Of all the improvements Siakam can make this is the one that provides the clearest path for Siakam to be in the conversation as “best player on a title team”.

Play-Making

One of the biggest challenges for the Raptors in 2019-20 will be breaking down their opponent’s in the half-court. With Kawhi Leonard (and to a lesser and different extent Danny Green) gone, the Raptors have very few players who can compromise the opponent’s defense.

Neither Kyle Lowry or Fred VanVleet are elite at getting past their defender, thereby forcing rotations behind their man. Norman Powell can do this at times, but while he bounced back from a disastrous performance in 2017-18, he’s still fairly unaccomplished there. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson gets to the rim, but converts at a poor rate, and while the Raps certainly hope that OG Anunoby can add this element to his game, there’s not a lot of evidence yet that he can.

That means Siakam will often serve as the Raptors primary offensive creator. For the Raptors offense to keep from continually bogging down, Siakam is going to need to create opportunities for his teammates. Like Leonard, this is an element of his game that’s still coming along.

Pascal’s Playmaking

PLAYER YEAR Usage Assists AST % AST Ratio TO Ratio
PLAYER YEAR Usage Assists AST % AST Ratio TO Ratio
Pascal Siakam 2016-17 12.9 0.3 2.8 6.3 12.2
Pascal Siakam 2017-18 15.4 2.0 13.3 21.0 8.9
Pascal Siakam 2018-19 20.5 3.1 14.1 16.8 10.5

At first glance the rising assists and Assist Percentage seems to indicate that Siakam is making steady progress. But because AP is influenced by usage, the fact Pascal saw the ball a whole lot more helps to buoy that number.

Assist Ratio may tell a better story. It shows that in 2018-19 a lower percentage of Pascal’s possessions ended in assists, while a higher percentage ended in turnovers. To slightly oversimplify, basically it means Pascal’s raw numbers were up, while his play-making efficiency declined.

Some of this is due to the fact that Pascal was more aggressive and efficient at scoring the ball, but part of it is that Pascal can still have tunnel vision, and struggles to both find and hit open men when he’s attacking the basket. This isn’t a fatal flaw. For example, Leonard has only posted an assist ratio north of 14 percent once in his career. (Although, by the same token, Kawhi has never a turnover ratio as high as ten.)

By necessity, Siakam will need to shoulder an even higher usage rate, and it will be interesting to see how Nurse uses his lanky forward. Siakam was in the 97 percentile as a scorer as the pick and roll ball-handler, but with less shooting, and no Leonard-esque teammate, opposing defenses are going to key in on him like never before.

There is also the matter of what type of passes Toronto will need Siakam to make. He’s shown a consistent ability to leverage his fellow big-men with all sorts of cute dishes in tight spots (an area where the benefit of ex-teammate Jakob Poeltl’s soft hands and canny positioning was really appreciated), but Toronto is going to need Siakam to make more kick-out passes and advanced reads in order to punish defenses that try to double him.

If Siakam is starting to pick out higher-level difficulty passes by mid-season it will be a great sign, not just for his game, but for the Raptors overall ceiling.

Offensive Diversity

The final area we’ll talk about is Pascal’s offensive versatility. Siakam is already a multi-faceted weapon who does a lot of things well.

See Pascal Score

Playtype Percentile
Playtype Percentile
Isolation 73.0%
Post-up 81.9%
Transition 79.5%
P&R Handler 96.7%
P&R Roll Man 39.8%
Spot Up 85.7%
Handoff 8.1%
Cut 36.7%
Off Screen 26.4%
Putback 65.9%

As you can see he excels in a number of situations, most notably as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll, in the post, and as a spot-up shooter (his corner three game).

There are a few areas where Nurse can try to leverage more out of Siakam’s game. There could be interesting opportunities for Pascal as the roll-man. His athleticism should allow him to cram lobs more often, even if his slighter frame makes him easier to bump off his route than, say, DeAndre Jordan.

Nurse could also look to run some sets that see Siakam leverage the fact that right now defenders won’t respect him off the arc. Siakam moves decently without the ball, but there is room for improvement, and Siakam is nothing if not a willing student. In general for the Raptors, with Leonard’s methodical isolation game no longer an option, there will likely be a great deal more motion in Toronto’s offense.

Then there are the things that may not be worth spending too much time on. It seems unlikely that Siakam will ever be a massive threat off of screens or hand-offs. He doesn’t have the quick release needed to take advantage of those plays, and right now he’s a much less accurate shooter once he takes more than one or two dribbles. Though, I could see benefit in using Siakam more in hand-off scenarios. Give Siakam a little extra space and he’s quick enough to get downhill, even against multiple defenders, and draw fouls, if not muscle in baskets.

The isolation scoring will also be interesting. I wonder if it might dip, at least to start, as, again, teams will likely load up to stop Siakam. Nurse and the Raptors will have to find canny ways to get Siakam into those positions before the defense can overcompensate. Meanwhile, Siakam will need to go quickly to beat the doubles before they come.

It’s going to be an intriguing season for the Raptors, with nothing being more interesting, or more important, than seeing if Toronto’s late-round marvel can make another leap. If he can, it opens up a world of possibilities for the Raptors going forward.