Pascal Siakam’s new role as Raptors’ go-to guy comes with ups and downs


Toronto Raptors' Pascal Siakam (43) looks to move on Boston Celtics' Jaylen Brown (7) during the first half of an NBA basketball game. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

With only the rarest of exceptions, it takes a fair bit of time to become a fully formed NBA superstar. Even the greats can sometimes stumble as they adjust to carrying a heavy offensive burden against the best competition on the planet.

The fate of the Toronto Raptors this season and beyond will depend on how efficiently Pascal Siakam can navigate the sometimes-choppy waters that lie between theory and practice.

In theory, Siakam is the Raptors’ go-to scoring option now that Kawhi Leonard has moved on. It’s been a theme since training camp opened. In practice – with the regular season underway – it’s clear there will be some bumps along that road.

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The good news is that three games into his new role, Siakam has made a very compelling case that the four-year, $130-million contract extension he signed the day before the regular season began will be a very good investment for Toronto when it kicks in for the 2019-20 season.

Siakam is averaging 28.7 points and 10.6 rebounds as the Raptors get set to face the Orlando Magic on Monday night at Scotiabank Arena.

It was against the Magic in the playoffs last May that Siakam staked his claim on being something other than a regular-season stat stuffer fuelled by an endless supply of energy.

He put up 22.6 points, 8.4 rebounds and three assists on 53.3 per cent shooting against Orlando and their lengthy front line, a harbinger of things to come for Siakam on the Raptors’ road to the NBA title.

But even with Siakam off to a quick start, there have been some rough patches. He has fouled too much, has turned the ball over too much – he’s averaging a team-high 4.3 a game – and has seen his shooting percentage slip from 54.9 per cent last season to 47.1 per cent so far this year.

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All three issues are likely related. Without Leonard to account for, defences can collapse on Siakam and his life has become more difficult as a result.

“There’s more help, obviously,” said Siakam after the Raptors’ loss to the Boston Celtics on Friday, when he scored 33 points on 22 shots, but turned the ball over five times.

“I feel like last year I was more by myself, on the side, working. Now there’s a little more attention,” he continued. “I think that’s the only thing I’ve seen. It’s two games, (now three), so you can’t really tell. For what I’ve seen so far, it’s the help coming. … That’s a lot, a lot, a lot of turnovers. I’ve got to figure that out.”

The smart money says Siakam will do just that, and there were signs in Toronto’s blowout win Saturday against the Chicago Bulls that he’s already making some adjustments.

But first some examples of what teams are doing to disrupt the Raptors’ leading scorer:

At first glance there’s not much to see here – Siakam posts up the Celtics’ Jaylen Brown and misses the fadeaway. No great sin, except that Jayson Tatum leaves Kyle Lowry to dig at the ball, an obvious passing option for Siakam.

An open Lowry three is a better value shot than a contested non-paint two. Chances are Lowry would also swing the ball for an even more wide-open Fred VanVleet three in the far corner. It’s not a missed shot by Siakam as much as a missed opportunity for the Raptors.

Siakam’s growing profile means he’s going to draw the best wing defenders every night and Brown is one of the better ones out there. However, the best scorers in the league are generally looking past the primary defender – they expect to beat them – so they can anticipate how the help defence will react. Bottom line: They always have a Plan B.

In this example, Brown defends Siakam well by sitting on his spin right – which is well-scouted by now – and is rewarded as a flustered Siakam passes to nowhere, resulting in a Celtics steal:

Managing aggressive double teams or traps will be an ongoing project for Siakam. It’s a rite of passage for a go-to scorer in the NBA. It was an area even Leonard struggled with last season, but could get away with it at times by sheer force of will. Siakam can do that at times, but he can also look pretty clumsy, such as here:

Or here:

In the first example it looks like Siakam is trying account for the double he expects to be coming, given he’s got the much smaller Kemba Walker on him in the post, but when it does come he tries to go straight over the top rather than an easier pass to the strong-side wing to reverse the ball that way. Ironically, Siakam’s best move would have been spinning baseline on Walker who looks like he’s expecting help from the baseline rather than from the middle.

In any case, Siakam looks confused and hesitant, which is the entire point of the Celtics’ varied approach.

In the other example, the Celtics’ Gordon Hayward takes away Siakam’s preferred spin to his right on the baseline, to which the Raptors forward complies by spinning back to the middle into a hard double and ends up travelling.

The good news is that even with these difficulties and the foul trouble he was in all game, some awkward offensive fouls were part of that, Siakam still managed to get his, helped by going 5-of-5 on above-the-break threes. Those weren’t part of his game a season ago, and if they become something defences have to account for it will only make Siakam more difficult to guard when combined with abilities to attack mismatches off the dribble or in the post.

He knows it and has been working on it.

“Like I always say, whatever is my weakness, I try to work on it and I try to get better at it,” he said in Boston. “(Saturday) I made some shots. It feels good to see them finally go in, something that you work on every single day. It kind of encourages you to continue to work on those. It feels like whatever you’re doing every day is (meaningful). Sometimes you do something for so long, you still don’t make them. It feels good to see them finally go in.”

The Raptors will need Siakam to score and be aggressive, there is little question of that.

“I don’t think we’ve sat down and mapped it out – ‘you’ve got to score 26 and take this many shots’” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “(But) with two guys gone – Danny (Green) and Kawhi – there is more opportunity. … That’s just the way we are right now.”

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With that said, it’s unlikely that the Raptors want Siakam to maintain his current 34.7 per cent usage rate – even during the playoffs last season Leonard clocked in at a mere 32 per cent – and if he does end up with so much of the offence going through him, they’ll need him to be more efficient.

But even on a back-to-back it was clear that Siakam was doing some film work and trying to smooth out some of the wrinkles.

In this example against the Bulls on Saturday, Siakam patiently waits out the inevitable trap, uses his dribble to create some space and fires a crisp pass to a wide-open Matt Thomas (who relocates just enough to get in Siakam’s line of vision) for the three.

Or in this case – even without being prodded by a double team – Siakam feels pressure and looks for help and rewards OG Anunoby for making the sharp, hard cut.

It’s probably fair to say that the Raptors will go as far this season, and in the future, as Siakam can take them. Early signs are that he’s putting in the work to put theory into practice, sooner than later.


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