All-Star or not, Siakam's progress opens a universe of possibilities for Raptors

Toronto Raptors' Pascal Siakam reacts with teammate Chris Boucher and Fred VanVleet during the final minute in the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Milwaukee Bucks. (Morry Gash/AP)

When a player is doing everything as well as Pascal Siakam is on a basketball floor these days, it can be hard to distill his game down to one thing or another.

His playmaking, for example, has earned plenty of attention, and justifiably. The 27-year-old came into the NBA as an energizing power-forward after playing two years of mid-major basketball as an under-sized centre.

And yet the Toronto Raptors have been thriving of late in large part because Siakam has become the secondary – and quite often the primary – ball-handler on the team alongside point guard Fred VanVleet.

It’s worked wonderfully. VanVleet is one of the best catch-and-shoot players in the NBA, which is one reason he thrived playing alongside the departed Kyle Lowry on a point guard tandem. But rather than find another option to play point alongside VanVleet – once Goran Dragic and Malachi Flynn were deemed unsuitable – the 6-foot-9 Siakam has stepped into the role.

In his last 26 games Siakam has averaged six assists – not far off VanVleet’s 7.3 per game over the same stretch and 29th in the NBA - fifth among players not considered point guards.

On a team that struggles to rebound – at least defensively – Siakam is putting up the best rebounding rates of his career and averaging a team-best 9.5 a game since Christmas to lead the Raptors.

And of course, he’s been leading the Raptors in scoring with 23.9 points per game over the same stretch.

It’s been a remarkable display only some of the league’s very best can match. The only other players that have season averages comparable to Siakam’s post-Christmas run of 23.9 points, 9.3 rebounds and six assists are defending league MVP Nikola Jokic; two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Doncic, who was a pre-season favourite for MVP.

A slow start coming off an injury and below standard regular season a year ago hurt Siakam’s chance’s at being named to the Eastern Conference All-Star team alongside VanVleet, but the way he’s been playing and the way the Raptors have been surging – Toronto is 22-12 since Dec. 1st, the seventh-best mark in the league – he deserves to be on the team.

The Raptors lobbied hard to have Siakam named as an injury replacement for James Harden only to see Jarrett Allen of the Cleveland Cavaliers get the spot – the game is in Cleveland and the seventh-place Raptors trail the third-place Cavs in the standings.

But if another position pops open – the Chicago Bulls Zach Lavine has missed time with swelling on his knee – it would be hard to imagine Siakam doesn’t get it.

“Pascal would be a great addition,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “Again, I think he's got hurt, maybe, a little bit in the voting or whatever because of missing a bunch of games to start the season. He's played phenomenal. He's played like a superstar here for a number of weeks. Even past the voting deadline and leading into this game, he's been playing better and better, so I think he'd be a great candidate.”

And if not All-Star? The way Siakam is going he could end up earning all-NBA honours when things are all said and done.

As superstars do Siakam has done something of everything for the Raptors this season. But perhaps the most important element that Siakam brings consistently is the seemingly simple act of making shots in high-traffic areas.

It was the part of his game that deserted him most obviously when he entered the long funk that roughly coincided with the onset of the pandemic in March of 2020 and was apparent even in the early days of this season after he returned from off-season procedure to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder. He had missed all of training camp, pre-season and the first 10 games of the regular season.

But once he got up to speed, he’s been a marvel.

“I just think I went through a lot just physically not feeling my best. It was the bubble [in Orlando after the NBA resumed the 2019-20 season) and all these different things,” Siakam said after he went 16-of-22 from the floor while scoring a season-high 35 points against the Nuggets on Saturday. “The different changes in your body, getting COVID, like different things that happened that shook my body up a bit and then also I had the surgery.”

It’s been on display for weeks now: Siakam attacking the lane of the dribble and either kicking out passes to open shooters when the defence collapses; extending past over-matched individual defenders when the help doesn’t come or simply pulling up and finishing with short-jumpers or floaters when time or situation requires.

Siakam has had a solution for almost any challenge defences have thrown at him. The numbers support the eye test.

Last season Siakam was converting just 59.9 per cent of his chances from inside five feet, but since Dec. 1st – a span of 32 games -- he’s been scoring 69.4 per cent of the time. From 5-to-9 feet – typically those tough, heavily contested floaters – he’s shooting 48 per cent, up from 40.7 per cent last year. From 10-to-14 feet – just inside the free-throw line – he is shooting 50 per cent, where he was 42.5 percent in 2020-21.

He’s changed up his shot selection too. He’s taking about three more shots a game in the 5-to-14-foot range, and about one less per game inside five feet, which suggests Siakam is doing a better job of deciding when to attack all the way to the basket and when to pull back from the heaviest traffic and either shoot or pass.

“It’s something I had to go back and just work on the basics every single day, make sure I worked on my body, make sure that I am as fresh as I can be every single day and then just having that focus on both sides of the floor is something that makes it different,” said Siakam. “And yeah, I feel healthy. That’s the most important thing, feeling healthy mentally and physically and I feel like once I have that I can live with whatever I do out there because I know I put the work in.”

It’s a remarkable improvement in a short period of time from the some of the most valuable real estate on the floor. Getting to the paint demands the defence to react, but if a primary ball-handler can’t punish them it’s all just good intentions. The groceries have been bought but dinner doesn’t get made.

When Siakam was at his low ebb during the 2020 playoffs, he couldn’t finish a play to save the Raptors season. He would attack the paint and come up empty. Frustrated, he would step out to the three-point line and misfire from there too, and everything spiralled. His game was falling to pieces. Last season was better, but not at the level he’s been at of late.

“I think … the speed or the tempo or the composure he's playing with in traffic seems to have slowed down for him or changed in some way,” said Nurse. “I think he's just really much more patient. [He] doesn't get himself in a hurry and get himself into too many jams down there. And I think if he does, he's doing a really good job of getting up in the air and getting it out of those jams.

“So, he's probably taking a little better shots, for one thing. Second thing is I think he is playing with more physicality. You'll see him go in there and bump hard and clear some space and go up and score. And then just the other stuff we've talked about a ton. I just think he's in such a physically and mentally better place than he's been in a long time and continues to play great.”

In a league where making shots is the magic dust that cures most ills, Siakam is making more than ever before. It may not be enough to make him an all-star this season, but his progress has opened a universe of possibilities for the Raptors.

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