I’m not breaking any news when I say Pascal Siakam’s development as a basketball player has been singularly special. He began playing organized basketball at seventeen years old – within 10 years he became the NBA’s Most Improved Player, an All-Star, earned All-NBA honours, and of course, won a championship.
When Siakam recently shared his lofty goal of becoming a top-five player in the league, the instinctive reaction was naturally a strong sense of doubt. 28 years old is a bit late in one’s career to make the monumental leap that puts a player in the vaunted company of the likes of Jokic, Giannis, and so on. But when you consider Siakam’s unique trajectory and his unimpeachable work ethic... well, it reminds you to never say never.
That being said, let’s be realistic with our expectations. The top tier of NBA superstars is a transcendent group of players, and there’s no shame in being somewhere beneath them. Even if he doesn’t quite reach that level, a leap that vaults Siakam into the top 10 or so is in play.
Worth noting: this was Siakam’s first off-season in three years unaffected by COVID lockdowns or shoulder surgery. Thad Young — who’s seen a lot over his 15-year career — said he’s “never seen anything like [Siakam’s work ethic].” Time will tell whether Siakam takes a step further into the realm of stardom, but we know this: if there’s room left for Siakam to grow, he’ll do his damnedest to do so.
Some non-Raptors followers might not know it, but once he settled in post-surgery, Siakam played the best basketball of his life last year. They might point to the 2019-20 season as his best — he averaged his career high in points, after all, and made the 2020 All-NBA Second Team. But between 2020 and 2022, overshadowed by a magnified Bubble disappointment and overblown trade rumours, Siakam made big strides towards his top-five goal — most importantly, he became increasingly comfortable as the team’s first option.
After losing Kawhi Leonard, Marc Gasol, and Kyle Lowry in consecutive seasons, Siakam’s offensive burden has ballooned into that of a true first option. 51.4% of Siakam’s field goals were unassisted in the 2019-20 campaign — that number rose to 62.6% this past year, good for 23rd in the NBA (minimum 50 games). The Raptors’ egalitarian system and heavy use of isolation force Siakam to create a lot of his own offense. Here’s Siakam thriving as a self-creator:
This clip encapsulates how Siakam uses his quickness and wiggle to attack bigger defenders like Kyle Kuzma. He hits Kuzma with a hesitation move, then gets him slightly out of position with a stepback fake. Siakam closes the deal by driving right, putting his back to the basket, then leveraging a quick fake spin to the right into a turnaround jumper to the left.
Siakam is fidgety yet smooth, quick but patient. He knows how to manipulate defenders. In this example, Siakam forces Kuzma into biting on the mid-range fake. Siakam upped his mid-range frequency last season, and effectively uses the threat of the shot to his advantage. Finally, at the end of the play there’s the shot itself. Siakam carved out an offensive niche for himself in the long-floater-to-short-midrange game. You can see his comfort with that shot in the clip. According to Basketball Reference, across the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons, Siakam converted on 36.9% of 195 field goal attempts between 10 and 16 feet from the basket. Siakam nearly matched those attempts this season alone, shooting 45.1% on 173 attempts. Only 16.7% of those makes were assisted — those shot attempts were often created by Siakam working on defenders as he did in the clip versus Kuzma.
Siakam is adept at attacking mismatches. If the defender’s too slow, Siakam uses some combination of his blow-by speed, fidgety dribble moves and fakes, and length to wind his way past them. Against smaller defenders — like in the following clip — Siakam, well, emphasizes their height difference:
Siakam has also grown a lot as a playmaker for others, which is important for punishing defenses loading up against him. This series of plays against the Bulls during the preseason illustrates how Siakam reads defenses from the post.
In the first clip, Siakam receives the ball in the post. Guarded by the six-foot-five Javonte Green, Siakam backs him down a couple feet, then spins for the finish. Notice how VanVleet’s defender, Ayo Dosunmu, recognizes the mismatch but arrives late to help defend Siakam:
Notice Dosunmu? Well Siakam certainly did. Just over a minute later, the Raptors run almost the exact same inbounds look. But this time Siakam holds the ball a couple beats longer, anticipating Dosunmu’s help. As soon as Dosunmu gets in his face, Siakam uses his length to pass overtop Dosunmu’s arms to VanVleet, who swings it to Trent, who swings it to Anunoby for a clean three-point attempt:
Anunoby misses the three, but it’s a great look, and Siakam generates the entire play by reading the defense and making the right pass. Siakam’s scoring ability allows him to bully Javonte Green, but the added dimension of his playmaking – he sends Chicago’s defense scrambling when they double him – makes him far more dangerous. Siakam averaged 5.3 assists last season – a great mark for a power forward – and quite a few more hockey assists from similar post passes.
The Raptors don’t exactly have an abundance of three-point marksmen, but with the addition of Otto Porter Jr., the Raptors could play a hypothetical lineup of Siakam-VanVleet-Trent-Anunoby-Porter (or slot Achiuwa in, if his shooting from post-All-Star break holds up). Surrounding Siakam with that kind of shooting would give him a dangerous amount of space to work with. It would also mean more post passes would be swung to a good shooter, as opposed to the occasions when Siakam kicks it out and the ball is perfectly swung, only to end up in the hands of a wide-open, non-shooting defensive specialist.
But if Siakam wants to crack the league’s top tier of superstars, it’s not his teammates’ shooting that should improve — it’s his own. Siakam has figured out how to be a consistent scorer without taking many threes (3.2 attempts per game last season), yet he remains a respectable shooter, connecting on 34.4% from long-range last year. His three-point volume has undergone a noticeable drop-off from his 2019-20 campaign, in which he took 6.1 threes per game. Most notably, Siakam attempted just 35 pull-up threes all of last season (25.7% made), a far cry from his 150 pull-up attempts in 2019-20 (34%). Last season proved that Siakam doesn’t need threes to be effective. But reincorporating them into his game could take him into the top-ten stratosphere.
Of the fourteen other players to make All-NBA Teams last season, only one finished the year with a lower effective field goal percentage (eFG%) than Siakam: DeMar DeRozan. eFG% accounts for the fact that threes are worth more than twos and weighs field goal percentage accordingly. While DeRozan doesn’t take many threes, he far outdoes Siakam in the free throw department, attempting 7.8 last season compared to Siakam’s 5.6. DeRozan made 88% of his; Siakam was 75% from the line (a number that should positively regress at least a bit next season).
The point is: the best of the NBA’s best post great eFG% numbers because of their outside shooting prowess a la Stephen Curry, or interior dominance like Giannis, or just all-around touch and shotmaking — looking at you, Jokic (or, for a more attainable example, Devin Booker). And if not, they rack up the free throws like DeRozan. Siakam can average 23 points per game with his current shot diet, but to take his game up a level and score closer to 26, he’ll likely need to at least approach his 2019-20 three-point numbers. Extending his shooting range would not just mean more pull-up threes, but it would force defenders to respect his shot, opening up his game for more blow-by opportunities. Said Siakam during the preseason: “I didn’t shoot the three-ball like I wanted to, something that I’m working on every single day — finding different ways to be effective to score.” I think I believe him.
As for the free throw aspect, 5.6 attempts per game is a solid number. That number could realistically rise, although Siakam likely misses out on some free throw trips because a) the long floater range that he likes doesn’t lend itself to getting many calls; b) the way he uses his length to wrap around and extend past defenders means he sometimes avoids the contact — or at least it looks that way to the refs; and c) there is a league-wide conspiracy against the Toronto Raptors, obviously.
While Siakam needs to grow his game to reach the league’s top tier, there are also ways the team can put him in better spots to succeed. For example, The Athletic’s Eric Koreen points out that as the pick-and-roll screener, Siakam was in the league’s 82nd percentile of efficiency — yet he was only the roll man on 55 possessions last year. The Raptors could certainly benefit from upping their pick-and-roll frequency — more of these plays would give Siakam more inside shots and presumably more free throw trips (conspiracy notwithstanding). Plus, as a good interior passer and known proponent of the 10 to 16 foot range, he figures to be effective as a short roller. A lot rests on Pascal Siakam to make the Raptors’ offense work, but the coaching staff has a responsibility to make life easier for him.
As for the defensive end, Siakam’s life could certainly be easier there too. He is a key part of the Raptors’ swarming defense — his length, blazing close-out speed, and feel allow him to quickly recover to the perimeter while the defense is rotating. Given the team’s aggressiveness, Siakam does a lot of chasing in order to plug holes. He’s also a good help defender, not only because of his quickness but also his ability to contest at the rim. Siakam shows both his recovery skill and contesting ability in this play during the preseason:
I’d be remiss if I didn’t include this clip from last season, too.
Not many NBA players can do that, folks.
What's the biggest difference Hines has seen in Siakam over the years? "His mentality. He's always been a nice guy but now he's becoming a little bit meaner, and that's good. We want him to continue to grow in that aspect because that's what it takes to be one of the elites."— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) September 29, 2022
The stink of Siakam’s Bubble performance — which had a lot to do with his individual circumstances in the pandemic — coloured many people’s perception of the Cameroonian All-Star. The road from 2020 was tumultuous for Siakam, who dealt with the vitriol of Raptors fans and racist online hate. It was ugly, and it couldn’t have been easy for him. The Tampa season, including a blow-up with head coach Nick Nurse, didn’t help.
But Siakam bounced back and put together the best season of his career to date, followed by a spirited playoff performance that put many people’s worries to rest. Now, according to player development coach Rico Hines, Siakam looks “a little meaner.” Training camp quotes are always going to be complimentary, but everyone seems to be in agreement: Siakam is hungry to take another leap.
That Pascal Siakam led the NBA in minutes per game last season is a testament to his importance to the team. He unlocks so much for the Raptors’ offense, and he brings athleticism and a level of understanding that makes him vital on defense. Hopefully, with added depth, Nurse can get away with keeping Siakam on the bench an extra minute or two per game — but it’s not hard to see where Nurse is coming from.
Pascal Siakam makes the team go. Without an offseason surgery to slow him down, Siakam could very well be on his way to his second All-Star Game, and may once again toss his hat in the All-NBA ring. Who knows? He may go even further. Siakam himself said it best:
“I wanna be one of the best, and I’ll do everything I can to make that happen.”