NEW YORK — Before this season, Pascal Siakam’s career high for assists in a single game was two, which he managed three times in his rookie year.
On Sunday against the New York Knicks, the second-year forward from the Cameroon dished off six dimes in 23 minutes of work in the Toronto Raptors‘ blowout win, tying him for the team high with point guard Fred VanVleet and ahead of playmakers like DeMar DeRozan (five) and Kyle Lowry (three).
It tied his career high, which he’s matched three times this season and twice in two weeks. For the year, it was the 20th time Siakam has had at least three assists. He’s averaging 1.9 assists a game — put another way, he’s averaging his old career high every night.
He’ll get chance to add to his totals on Tuesday night when the Raptors try to push their winning streak to nine games against the Brooklyn Nets.
Siakam’s assists are in part a function of being on the floor more, naturally. But even controlling for minutes, Siakam’s playmaking ability has exploded this season – he’s assisting on 13.9 per cent of his teammate’s field goals in the minutes he plays. The only Raptors rotation players having a bigger impact as playmakers are the club’s four primary ball-handlers – DeRozan and point guards, Lowry, Delon Wright and VanVleet.
Siakam credits his growth to the benefits of playing more regularly and the game slowing down in his eyes – to an extent.
“I’ve been mostly working on reads,” Siakam said after the Raptors practised in midtown Manhattan. “Being able to pass; you have to have it a little bit. But now understanding the reads and what’s open whenever I attack.”
It’s an intriguing development for a team trying to push its assist totals to about 30 per game and is a contributing factor to the Raptors’ success in improving their assist totals from 18.5 last year – last in the NBA – to 23.9 this year, which is seventh.
On Sunday, the Raptors had 32 assists, their sixth-best total of the season. Toronto is 25-1 when they count at least 25 assists a game. Siakam has had four or more assists 12 times this year and nine of those games have corresponded with the 12 games the Raptors have had 30 or more assists.
When the tempo is up and the ball is moving, Siakam is at his best. And the Raptors are, too.
Siakam’s helpers Sunday often came on dribble drives when he found running mate Jakob Poeltl ducking to the basket as his man went to help on Siakam.
“I can mostly blow by a lot of people that guard me and so Jakob’s man, the five man is going to come over,” said Siakam. “And if the guard cracks down, the corner is going to be open and little things like that that I see most of the time.”
What’s most exciting about Siakam’s transition from a pure energizer, fully capable of changing the course of a game by sprinting ahead of the defence and finishing in transition, to a playmaker is how much it opens up his game and his role in the future.
“I’d give [his passing] a six or seven [right now],” said Raptors head coach Dwane Casey. “He’s got to give himself another speed to get to. He’s going at one speed, which is full speed, and it’s hard for him to be under control, slow down and make an on-target pass. I love the speed he’s playing with, but he’s got to slow down just a little bit before he can make a pass.”
Siakam turnover totals have remained constant – a respectable 1.4 per 36 minutes – which is impressive given his minutes and usage rates have increased year over year.
But being a good passer isn’t merely getting rid of the ball to an open man without throwing it away. It’s making passes that contribute to the play the receiver is trying to make. Siakam can occasionally struggle with longer passes under pressure when in motion – a higher level of difficulty than dropping off to Poeltl under the basket.
The likes of Lowry or Wright have mastered the art of penetrating and flinging laser-like passes to open shooters on the perimeter. Lowry can throw them left-handed and across his body while on the move. Wright can turn himself into a pretzel in mid-air and hit any target from any angle, it seems.
“It’s just basketball,” said Lowry. “You do have to work on it [but] some things just come instinctually. For us, it’s basketball. There are some things you just have to do instinctively.”
Siakam hit sharp-shooter C.J. Miles for an open three after twisting his body almost 180 degrees on one dribble-drive against the Pistons last week.
Passes like that make Miles’ job easier.
“It definitely helps,” said Miles. “Obviously, there is a rhythm to shooting and there are going to be nights you’re going to be able to make the ones off bad catches. But especially when you’re trying to find that rhythm when you’ve first checked in and or you haven’t made the last couple, having that ball hit your hands clean is definitely a big deal.”
Siakam wants to do more of it.
“That’s what I want get to, guys like Kyle, Delon, Fred, guys that can really pass the basketball,” he said. “I like to get people involved and really add that to my game.”
The ultimate standard for Siakam might be someone like Draymond Green of Golden State who opened the Warriors floor game because of his ability to rebound, handle the ball in transition and make plays on the fly. Like Siakam, Green averaged less than one assist a game as a rookie in limited playing time, 1.9 assists in his second year while coming off the bench and then emerged as perhaps the best playmaking big in basketball when he jumped to 7.4 assists a game in his fourth season, his first as a starter.
Being the Raptors’ version of Draymond Green is a tall order but a worthy goal. In the meantime, for Siakam it’s a matter of improving his ball-handling and letting his experience infuse his decision-making.
“I’m still a little too fast sometimes, those are things I’m looking at and want to correct in my game,” Siakam said. “But second year you definitely read a little bit more, you know a little bit more what to expect and things happen when you think about it. It hasn’t slowed down really, but it’s definitely better than last year.”
The possibilities – like more and more of his teammates as Siakam handles the ball – remain wide-open.