It’s inside out and upside down. It’s the basketball version of man bites dog. It’s not so much position-less basketball as much as positions being inverted, turned inside out.
The NBA pre-season is a time for some experimentation and Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse has, in some way, staked his claim on his first NBA head coaching job by being someone who’s not afraid to try something different.
In their first exhibition game against the Portland Trail Blazers, Pascal Siakam showed just what that could look like.
Could it continue in Tuesday night’s pre-season game against Utah? The Raptors hope so. They believe they’ve tapped into something that could transform how they play this season and beyond.
Against Portland, Siakam – the Raptors’ 6-foot-9 rod of stored energy from Cameroon — became the team’s point guard on multiple possessions, which is quite a development for someone who was playing college basketball as a back-to-the-basket big man just three years ago and didn’t start playing at all until well into his teens.
But Siakam is proving to be a force with the ball in his hands, making plays for teammates who are more used to having to make plays for others.
On one possession, it was Fred VanVleet – a true point guard and one of the Raptors’ smallest players – grabbing a defensive rebound, shovelling it to a fast-moving Siakam before stepping into a wide-open transition three as Siakam, having taken the ball deep into the paint, twisted and found VanVleet in stride.
On another it was Siakam grabbing the rebound himself, covering the floor in seemingly three strides and two dribbles and finding VanVleet for another three.
Before that it was Siakam taking the ball from an inbounds pass – the defence trying to keep ball out of VanVleet’s hands – and hitting the point guard for a lay-up.
Three possessions, three baskets and three assists – all from Siakam to VanVleet.
“We flipped over,” said VanVleet of his role as the finisher on open-court plays made by the Raptors big man. “You’ll see a lot more of him bringing it up and me shooting [this year] … he does a good job of breaking down the defence and if I can get an open look, I like my chances, so it’s something developed a lot late last year and into the summer and hopefully we can find that again this year.”
You won’t get any arguments from Nurse, who loves the idea of Siakam, all speed and arms and angles, forcing the ball down the throat of a back-pedaling defence only to pitch it out to one the team’s elite three-point shooters, wide-open as the defence instinctively collapses to stop Siakam, who can seemingly get the rim for a high-flying finish in one dribble from inside the three-point line.
“It’s hard to guard,” says Nurse. “…It’s good because he’s exploring all this stuff and all of sudden he’s deep and it’s in the basket.”
Or in the hands of a three-point threat stepping into wide-open jumper.
“It’s like a pre-game warm up look,” said VanVleet who shot 41.4 per cent from deep last season and who knocked down three of his four triples against Portland, two of them on passes from Siakam. “That’s the goal, to get good looks for our offence and especially in transition, playing off stops, getting the defensive rebound. I’ll spray it ahead to Pascal and he’ll pass to myself.”
Or Lowry, or C.J. Miles or Danny Green – all of them who have had multiple seasons where they’ve made in the range of 40-per-cent of their three-point attempts at high volumes.
Much of the discussion around Siakam and his potential as a breakout player for the Raptors in his third season pivots on whether he’ll turn into a reliable perimeter shooter. He hit just 22 per cent from deep last season and while there has been plenty of buzz around his growing comfort level with the shot it’s still a work in progress.
“We know he’s working on his shooting and we want him to continue to take them,” said Nurse after Siakam when 0-for-3 from deep against Portland. “I think he’s got more time than he realizes sometimes. I’m not saying take a deep breath but he doesn’t have to turn and rush and get himself squared so quickly. Maybe that will get him a little bit better groove.”
But with so many good shooters around him, a better play for the moment would seem to be Siakam creating open looks for the more accomplished shooters around him.
As an added bonus Siakam’s rebounding ability – he had 13 in just 21 minutes on Saturday and was third on the team in defensive rebounds per minute last season – means he can initiate offence the moment he pulls the ball off the defensive glass, igniting the Raptors running game.
“We got it going over the summer where [the guard] knows if I get the rebound he’s going to get a good shot out of it,” said Siakam.
It is a bit early to be drawing comparisons – like, really early – to the likes of Golden State Warriors power forward Draymond Green, but there are things Siakam can do that mirror what the multi-skilled power forward does for the three-time NBA champions.
Green’s ability to lead transition from the defensive glass, pitching out to the likes of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson trailing in transition is just one element that makes the Warriors such an impossible team to defend. Like Siakam, Green didn’t start out as a ‘point power forward’ but he hit his stride in his third season and the Warriors have benefitted ever since.
The Raptors can only hope Siakam – who went from 0.7 assists per 36 minutes as a rookie to 3.4 in his second season — can bring a little bit of Green’s skill to their lineup.
Siakam has some ground still to cover. In addition to the still-developing shooting, he needs to be a more varied decision maker in the open floor. Peppered in amongst his three assists were three turnovers – all on charges drawn by the defense that Siakam wasn’t able to read or avoid.
His default mode is full speed, all out. It’s an admirable quality but one that cagey defenders can exploit.
“I think [they] flopped on a couple,” Siakam said. “But that’s all right. I just need to make counter moves and be more cautious of that — people are going to draw charges and just make better reads.
“It’s something I’m trying to do better, changing speeds, not just trying to be too fast; knowing what’s around while I have the ball,” he said. “[but] I have an advantage and with all the shooters we have on the team there will definitely be driving lanes I can attack and make plays off that. It will be interesting to see how teams are going to guard that, with my speed and the shooters we have on the floor.”
He has good reason to be excited about the freedom Nurse seems committed to giving him to push the ball and make plays for VanVleet and Lowry and the rest of the Raptors elite shooters. For a team open to playing unconventionally and finding advantages in unusual places, Siakam’s potential is equally exciting.
“When P goes out there and the confidence he has now, pushing the ball and making plays, is going to be huge for us, and huge for myself, Freddy, when we can kind of run the floor, and trailing, shoot threes,” said Lowry. “That’s going to be a huge part of it, I think he’ll create more for others than he’ll create for himself with that talent …
“It’s a luxury.”