Raptors Notebook: ‘Opportunity is there’ for Siakam to become go-to option

Toronto-Raptors-forward-Pascal-Siakam

Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

TORONTO – Nick Nurse knew the second he laid eyes on Pascal Siakam as a then-assistant coach of the Toronto Raptors that Masai Ujiri & co. had drafted somebody special – sort of.

“First day of practice, his first year here, I said that’s a max player if I ever saw one,” Nurse remarked Sunday afternoon after the team’s penultimate practice before the regular season begins.

The comment of Nurse’s was meant for laughs – and it hit – but, really, who, besides the man himself, could’ve ever predicted that the raw and very much unseasoned Siakam – the No. 27 pick in the 2016 draft – would command a four-year, $130-million max contract extension?

“I think it’s surprising all the way along,” said Nurse of Siakam’s ability to turn himself into one of the highest-paid players in the league. “I think he’s continued to surprise and I always go back to this: I love what he says about it, ‘This is who I thought I was going to be. Why are all you guys acting so surprised? This is kind of how I always saw myself and I think that goes a long way.’”

Siakam believed in his own abilities, put in the work and has been rewarded handsomely because of it. But the question for him now is whether he can take that next step to become one of the NBA’s elite and worthy of his $32.5-million annual-average-value salary.

Nurse is confident he can become that kind of player because he sees him as that kind of player already.

“I think I get asked that a lot. ‘Is Pascal going to be the go-to guy?,’ ‘Can he take it up another level?’ Etc,” said Nurse. “I think the opportunity is there for him, right? I think his role can expand a little bit more. Then I sit back and I think, jeez, the guy scored 26 points in Game 6 of the Finals, I mean, that’s pretty good. What do you want him to do? Score 36? I think the opportunities, the scoring chances, will go up. So I just think the numbers will probably go up as well.”

Siakam’s frontcourt-mate Marc Gasol agreed with Nurse that all the 25-year-old has to do to hit that next level as a player is be himself.

“Let him be Pascal Siakam, the best version that he can become, because I know he works and he’s really good at it, and he does a lot of things on the floor,” said Gasol of Siakam. “I don’t want him to try to be someone else. I think it’s great that he’ll have that. He has our confidence, our trust, and we’ll protect him at both ends and make it easy on him.”

Last season, Siakam averaged 16.9 points and 6.9 rebounds per game on 54.9 per-cent shooting, getting named the NBA’s Most Improved Player in the process.

So the base of a very good player is certainly in place, but even with that and the Raptors as a team looking to make it as easy as possible on him to succeed and go beyond this season, is Siakam actually going to make it easy on himself?

With a big contract come big expectations, and likely some internal pressure. And particularly in Siakam’s case, as Sportsnet’s Michael Grange reported, he has possibly $26 million more on the line to gun for should he make All-NBA first or second teams or win league MVP.

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That’s a lot of incentive on the table to have a monster year, and it’s also a lot to potentially over-exert oneself.

Nurse doesn’t see Siakam as a guy wired that way, however. He believes the forward won’t let the big contract on the horizon impact what he’s supposed to be doing.

“I don’t see him as a guy who is straining to do more, or putting more pressure on himself. He expects to play well, and when he doesn’t he’s in the gym working on things. He bounces right back,” said Nurse. “I think that’s what he does. He loses himself in the game and plays to win.”

Even if Siakam doesn’t feel the pressure of the contract, he’ll certainly feel the pressure of opposing teams who will now be narrowing in on him.

“I think people are done overlooking him,” said Nurse. “They’ve seen a year of consistent play and big minutes and all he can do. It’s not like they’re like, ‘Who is this guy? He’s kind of playing better than he used to.’ Those days are done. Rightly so, he’ll be a focal point for teams to scheme against, maybe more.”

Like everything Siakam’s done so far in his career, it will be a challenge he’ll have to rise to.

Quick Dribbles

• Within Nurse’s rotation, seven guys are locked in: Siakam, Gasol, Kyle Lowry, OG Anunoby, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell and Serge Ibaka. In the past, the Raptors have gone with a nine- or 10-man rotation and this season it looks like it’ll be a nine-man one, with a twist.

“I’d say those seven, plus [Patrick] McCaw [who will miss some time with a left-knee injury] is okay, and he’ll be back. Not sure he’ll make the opener but he’ll be back this week and he’ll be eight. Terence [Davis] looked pretty good out there as another eighth or ninth guy. Then it’s really a dead heat all over the place for the next guy.

“I don’t know if that guy is gonna emerge, or if it will be situational. Do we need a big and it’s Chris Boucher? Do we need some shooting and is it Matt Thomas or Malcolm [Miller]? Do we need some defence, and there’s a matchup and is it Stanley [Johnson]? Who is it gonna be on a given night? Maybe it will work itself out that it’s a guy, but maybe it will just be eight plus one plus one plus one for a while.”

• Among the notable sights from Toronto’s blowout pre-season finale of the Brooklyn Nets Friday night was a stretch that saw Nurse go with a dino-sized lineup that included Lowry, Anunoby, Siakam, Ibaka and Gasol.

This would appear to run counter to the small-ball pace-and-space lineups that are all the rage in the NBA these days, but Nurse apparently liked what he saw, especially as a means to keep his regular seven rotation guys in the flow of the game as a different look.

“For me it was fun to keep playing those seven and keep moving them. It didn’t matter who was in or who was where,” said Nurse. “They kept flowing and playing and they didn’t panic about any matchups at the other end. They were just figuring it out. I think it was good, because we capitalized. We were bigger and we got a bunch of offensive putbacks or extra possessions, things you would hope to do when you’re bigger. We didn’t get driven around for layups at the other end. We were in good position defensively too.”

• Nurse noted that Anunoby is looking “awesome” physically, saying “he’s slim and trim and strong and he’s active.”

Anunoby lost 15 pounds this summer and has looked strong in the pre-season, averaging 10.5 points per game and shooting a scorching 46.2 per cent from three-point range.

More importantly than his offence, however, will be his defence as Nurse will be looking to make use of the third-year forward as his go-to defender, covering guys who play point guard all the way up to power forward.

“I think we’ll probably test him a lot here early as a primary defender. And that will mean like the kind of a range,” said Nurse. “Can he go out and even guard some point guards and can he chase some twos off screens and obviously he’ll guard the threes and fours because that’s kind of his natural spot, but I think he’s certainly a candidate. He’s got a desire to go out and guard people and he’s got the physical tools to do it, too.”

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