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Player preview: Pascal Siakam has a lot of weight to carry

The Raptors star forward won’t play for another month, but will be highly scrutinized upon his return.

2021-2022 Toronto Raptors Media Day Photo by Vaughn Ridley/NBAE via Getty Images

In 2019-20, Pascal Siakam averaged 22.9 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.5 assists on 45/36/79 shooting splits, made the All-Star team and made second-team All-NBA, leading the Toronto Raptors to the second-best record in the NBA. He was labeled one of the league’s up-and-coming stars.

In 2020-21 as the Raptors floundered in Tampa, Siakam averaged 21.4/7.2/4.5 on 46/30/83 splits, and — judging from reactions from certain circles of fandom and media — you’d think he was one of the worst players in the league.

By now, you know this: There really isn’t too much of a raw statistical difference between Siakam’s past two seasons, despite the dark clouds that surrounded him in Florida. Siakam is a very good basketball player! And that hate was and is unwarranted.

But some negativity is indeed deserved. The clutch shooting numbers are not great — we all remember all those Siakam shots bouncing off the rim in critical situations, and the double-dribble in the closing minutes against the Knicks.

Siakam Clutch Shooting:

  • 2019-20: 30 games, 51.9% on 1.7 attempts per game (21-9 record)
  • 2020-21: 29 games, 35% on 1.4 attempts per game (9-20 record)

Siakam’s ability to finish at the rim also suffered; in 2019-20 he made 4.4 buckets within five feet per game, at a 61.6% clip; in 2020-21 that dropped to 3.9 per game at a 59.9% rate. Not a huge difference, to be sure, but enough, especially given how much the Raptors needed scoring at the rim, what with the team’s giant gaping hole at centre.

Then there was the off-the-court/adjacent-to-the-court stuff: Leaving a game early, getting into a shouting match with Nick Nurse and so on.

Here’s the point where I remind myself that this isn’t a review, it’s a preview. What does all of the above mean to Siakam, and to his role on this Raptors squad, heading into 2021-22?

It means Siakam has a lot of pressure on him. To put up better numbers than last year, especially shooting numbers. To be a better leader than last year, especially with Kyle Lowry’s departure. To help the team win more games. To prove that he’s a #1 guy and that he’s “worthy” of his contract.

And that pressure isn’t just the external factors — Siakam will be pressured on the floor. The fact is that Siakam is the team’s most effective offensive weapon. We saw it in the team’s first game: They don’t have a lot of scoring threats in the halfcourt; they couldn’t get anything going on Wednesday night against the Washington Wizards, not exactly known as a stalwart defensive team. They threw multiple defenders at OG Anunoby, effectively neutralizing him. Teams will do the same to Siakam, probably with even more aggression, and they’ll do

Thankfully, Siakam’s improved playmaking last season should pay dividends in those cases — it should also help Anunoby thrive. And if Scottie Barnes continues to develop, his court vision and basketball IQ should also help relieve some of that pressure.

Between the bad vibes of last season, and the offseason surgery, it’s hard to predict what to expect from Siakam this year. Of course, I know he’s capable of doing all of those things. Even in his down year, numbers aside, his defense remained solid and his playmaking improved significantly. He’s still got room to grow. He’s never shied away from putting in the work.

Not coincidentally, the Raptors’ team-building philosophy seems to be “build around guys like Siakam.” From Scottie Barnes to Precious Achiuwa to Isaac Bonga, pretty much every player the Raptors brought in this offseason is long, athletic, can guard multiple positions and play more than one position on offense. Their shooting might need work, but they’ve all got some ball handling and playmaking skills.

Who better to lead them than Siakam? This roster’s built for him.

And he looks to be in good shape, considering the offseason surgery. His attitude seems to be in the right place, which, to me, was the thing that stood out most last year; not just the fighting with his coach but the lack of joy in his game. I really hope to see that return this season.

But none of that really matters if it doesn’t translate to production on the floor. Can he do all those things? Yes. Will he? We won’t know that until he gets back on the court.

What I do know for sure is that A) I can’t wait to see him back out there, and B) I’m rooting for him, big time.