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Player Preview: Can Pascal Siakam continue his ascension?

Sure, the Bubble was a time to forget for the Raptors’ Pascal Siakam. With an off-season to reflect, though, 2020-21 could be the season he silences his critics.

Toronto Raptors v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Was it fans forgetting what it’s like to lose? Was it over-confidence after a supporting role turned heroic in the 2019 Finals? Was it a start to the 2019-20 season that had people convinced that a star was about to become a superstar?

Whatever the reason, the general turn of opinion on Pascal Siakam was sharp and blistering after the Raptors’ season ground to a halt against Boston in the East semifinal.

Fans expressed frustration in Instagram comments, called for trades, and criticized Siakam for a perceived unwillingness to attack when Toronto’s half court offense was stymied by a long, versatile Celtics defense.

Siakam was supposed to be the codebreaker when Toronto’s undersized backcourt failed to find shots. He had quickness, he had a jump shot, and he was supposed to get the un-gettable baskets. He was supposed to be the new Kawhi Leonard.

The criticism was heavy, and maybe a small percentage was deserved — Siakam’s offensive performance in the bubble left a lot to be desired, a point admitted by Pascal himself.

“Obviously, I have to be better,” said Siakam, after a bubble showing where his production plummeted over six points, his shooting fell to 39.4 percent, and his three-point percentage fell to 12.5 percent against Boston. “It was definitely a learning moment for me. Just learning from this experience and learning that you have to be ready and that I haven’t been able to help my teammates. I take a lot of responsibility, man.”

Offensive struggles in the playoffs were just one aspect of Siakam’s season, though — and if Raptors fans have any doubt that they have a solid number one option who can still elevate his game in 2020-21, I invite you to watch Pascal’s work on the defensive end in that Boston series.

There’s a reason these two teams went the distance — Toronto was just as elite defensively as the Celtics, and one of the anchors of that was Siakam. His switching and shot challenging against smaller, quicker wings was incredible to watch, and was the reason he earned his regular amount of playing time even when the bunnies weren’t falling.

Siakam went full “zero dark thirty” after the Celtics series, retreating to workouts and a short off-season after online anger reached a fever pitch. Now, he returns, and so do the questions. Does the bubble experience create a chip on his shoulder? Is he still capable of making another leap on the offensive end? Can the Raptors find new ways to utilize his skillset with a new supporting cast?

Let’s take a look at some of what we should see from Pascal Siakam in 2020-21.

Adjusting Expectations

Let’s start with this: the expectations on Siakam coming into last season, elevated by his superstar numbers in the winter, were totally unrealistic for playoff basketball as a number one option.

Beginning with a 34-point, 18-rebound performance in the season opener against New Orleans, Siakam went on to average an amazing 23.5 points per game on 45.8% shooting before the All-Star Break, including a three-point percentage of 36.2 on 5.8 attempts per game.

Siakam was both the floor-spacing big that helped power Toronto to a championship, as well as a half-court creator in space — picking up Leonard’s usage and scoring with similar efficiency.

As the season wore on, though, playoff teams began to build a solid game plan to slow Siakam. By packing the paint on his half-court touches, they were able to bring help on spin moves and post-ups — forcing Siakam into mid-range jumpers or tough finishes at the rim. As I explored in a series preview during the 2020 playoffs, Pascal’s inefficiency on these shots was the main reason for his offensive struggles. The three-point shot wasn’t shaken until the Boston series, that part of his game was fine throughout last season.

Teams will continue to use this strategy of defending Siakam. We’ve already seen it in the preseason against Miami, who contracted their defense effectively against the Raptors. (The Hornets attempted the same thing but, well, they’re the Hornets.)

Expectations for Siakam this season should be more modest than they were heading into the bubble. They should, however, include an improved ability for Nick Nurse and offensive guru Chris Finch to find shots for their star player. An improved OG Anunoby off the dribble will help loosen things up, but Siakam is still the best frontcourt player on Toronto at creating his own shot in the half court.

Using pick and roll, ball movement, and different actions to get Siakam the ball in space — without the defense able to contract every look — will be critical to the Raptors’ success this season, as much of it hinges on their ability to score at a slower pace. We will see early in the regular season whether progress can be made.

The Upside of the Modern NBA

Luckily, Siakam is going into this challenge with context as his friend.

With the exception of a monstrous team in Los Angeles, the NBA continues to shade towards smaller, more agile lineups, and the Raptors are no exception. With the exodus of Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, Toronto’s roster now resembles their hated rival Celtics in more ways than I care to admit. A lineup of their “best five” players would likewise remove a centre, putting Anunoby and Siakam in the frontcourt with a three-guard set. This should mean more time playing fast for Toronto, and more space for Siakam — who needs all he can get.

The addition of Malachi Flynn as a bench creator in the pick and roll also means Nurse can stagger Siakam’s minutes and possibly get him back into a role closer to the 2019 playoffs, where his off-ball shooting draws attention and creates lanes for other players. I would expect lineups with Siakam and the bench may start to usurp the fabled Lowry bench lineups in order to get their veteran some rest.

This need for creativity in the offense coincides with Siakam’s success, but he can also take a leap individually. In the preseason, his three-point shot has looked tremendous, and this has always been the equalizer in his efficiency. An improved mid-range jumper would force some respect from defense too, and maybe open up the driving lanes once again.

All eyes are on Siakam heading into this season, and for good reason. We will soon learn if context and expectations can re-balance, and whether he can continue his ascension as a star player in the NBA.