They say familiarity breeds contempt.
See anything for long enough and you start to fault it for what it isn’t. The mini-van I drive my kids to school in, is, by all accounts, very good at it’s job. Catch me on the road on the wrong day though? As I realize I’m not going to have the pick-up to get around the streetcar in time? Then I’m wishing my Chevy was something with more… kick.
It would be an exaggeration to say that the Toronto Raptors fan-base has anything approaching contempt for Pascal Siakam, but as Toronto fans move into their sixth year with the Cameroonian wing, is it possible they’ve become too focused on his perceived weaknesses?
Siakam started as a classic Masai Ujiri: “who?” draft pick — 27th overall from New Mexico State. That first year, injuries saw Siakam pressed into starting 38 games where his major skill was flying down the floor ahead of enemy bigs for uncontested finishes. His shooting range was close to non-existent, his turnovers doubled his assists, and he racked up six fouls per 100 possessions. By the end of the season Siakam was a fixture with the Toronto 905.
In short, he was a raw rookie, who got more run than the plan called for. Still, the fan-base was satisfied that the Raptors had found something — and hey, the guy was named G League Finals MVP after leading the 905 to the title.
Fast-forward two years, and Siakam exploded — putting up 17/7/3 as a key cog in the Raptors championship-winning machine.
Siakam had his best shooting season that year – putting up a gaudy .628 shooting percentage – fueled by a career best 36.9% mark from three and an over 60% mark from inside the arc. He also engineered one of the season’s most memorable, and important, moments.
A max contract followed. Expectations were raised. And then… came the desire for more kick.
A rough stretch in the bubble erased what had been an exceptional 2019-2020 follow-up campaign. Until that strange August, Siakam had put up a 23.1/7.1/3.4 line. He didn’t have the efficiency that most of the superstars who had those numbers did (LeBron, Giannis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Kawahi, Luka and Russell Westbrook... OK, not Russ...), but by any measure, Siakam had passed the test of his first crack at being “the man.” He was named an All-Star starter to boot.
However, the bubble — where he slumped to 16.9/5.7/2.3 on awful shooting numbers, and an even weaker playoff run (offensively at least), left a bitter taste in the mouths of Raptor fans.
The following year, despite being stuck in Tampa all season, Siakam was one of just ten players in the NBA to average 21/7/4.5 – however, continued struggles with efficiency and a seeming inability to hit the big shot cemented the opinion that Siakam was, if not a bust, then at least over-paid, and incapable of taking the Raps where they need to go.
When Siakam trade chatter intensified this off-season the general consensus was a good offer and a fresh start might be best for both parties.
However, this season, after scuffling a bit on returning from injury, Siakam has taken another leap and it’s come not in his shooting, but in what else he does when the ball is in his hands.
Siakam has refined his playmaking each month, and his assists have spiked, from 3.7 in November, to almost double, 6.8, in January. [Editor’s note: Stats compiled before Wednesday’s loss to Dallas.]
That playmaking has helped January to be arguably the best month of Spicy-P’s career — a 23.3/8.8/6.8 line on 47.9/44.8/69.6 shooting.
Only two players in the NBA have put up those sort of numbers: Giannis and Jokic.
But forget January — take Siakam’s season averages of 21/8.3/5.0, and you add one more player to the list — Luka Doncic.
Drop the rebounding down to an even eight, and you add James Harden. That’s incredible stuff, and it feels like it’s gone unnoticed what elite company Spicy-P is keeping this year.
To repeat, Siakam has shown the sort of multi-faceted game that only four MVP-level players have managed this season. Spurred by that sudden and very noticeable increase in his ability to make plays for others.
Those are passes Siakam simply wasn’t making earlier in his career. His ability to outwait the double-team, or make quick decisions on the roll have greatly improved. In previous seasons, Siakam was often a beat late in these situations, causing a turnover, or forcing himself into a low-percentage look.
That perceived lack of efficiency is still the knock on Siakam. Afterall, since Kawhi left, Siakam has seen his shooting percentages plummet.
But, are Raptor fans wrong about that criticism?
Yes, Siakam’s True Shooting Percentage of 54.7% this season is below league average, but, you know who Siakam DOES have a higher true-shooting percentage than?
In fact, of the 39 players in the NBA who average 25% usage (and have played at least Siakam’s 28 games), Pascal ranks 21st in TS%. Just behind Dame Lillard, and just ahead of Bradley Beal. Basically, Siakam is league average at making shots. And, if it wasn’t for some weirdness at the charity-stripe he’d be even better. If Siakam was hitting 80-percent of his freebies — his average for the three seasons previous to this one — he’d be sporting a TS% of 56%.
Still, there are ways Nick Nurse could help goose Siakam’s efficiency. One is by finding him more looks from the corner.
Spicy From the Corners
According to Cleaning the Glass, you can see that Siakam’s seen the amount of corner threes he takes decrease, even though he has generally stayed capable of hitting them.
Bland Above the Break
By contrast, Siakam is far less of a threat when shooting from above the break. A shot that he’s reducing his reliance on, but still might be taking too much.
Of course, on-ball guys usually aren’t chilling in the corner. They’re up top, where they have more options to attack a defense. If you cut these threes too dramatically, you limit Siakam’s ability to use his agility to threaten the defense.
Still, with the Raptors having Fred VanVleet, Scottie Barnes, and to lesser extents, Gary Trent Jr. and OG Anunoby, to initiate the offense, getting Siakam more corner shots is possible — especially as the Raps aren’t overflowing with Danny Green-esque assassins you’d rather have there.
And, while defenses can use the baseline to limit a player’s options, Siakam has more than enough wiggle to attack sloppy close-outs and put the opposition into their rotations — which the better-passing Siakam can now take better advantage of.
The other is to put more of an emphasis on Siakam initiating from the high-post rather than above the arc. Pascal’s handle has improved, but he’s still a 6’9 guy trying to dribble past multiple players closer to the ground than he is. Simply put, Siakam is a much bigger problem in the post.
Put a smaller guy on him and Siakam can either mash them to get a look at the rim, or shoot over them. According to Cleaning the Glass Siakam hits 45% of his short mid-range shots — a 73% percentile mark for a big.
Bigger players suffer similar issues, Siakam’s foot-speed and litany of spin moves can get him to the tin, or allow him to create space for those short floaters he loves. Double -teaming Pascal has become increasingly dangerous as his burgeoning passing ability is allowing Spicy-P to burn teams that send help, even if it’s on time.
Siakam is quietly stringing together a top-25 type of season. If his free-throw shooting returns, and the playmaking gains and improved three-point shooting of late are real, Siakam could be back in the conversation for an All-NBA team this season.
He may not be The One Who Was Promised after Kawhi, but Spicy-P has righted the ship and then some.
Toronto fans who have looked at him too many times in passing, may want to more closely study their star-forward so they can appreciate what he’s blossomed into.