Raptors’ Pascal Siakam building his case for Most Improved Player award

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Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam (43). (Nathan Denette/CP)

The talent has always been there, but this year Pascal Siakam has honed it to award-winning levels.

From G-League Finals MVP to solid bench contributor to potential all-star, the Toronto Raptors forward has seen impressive jumps in basically every number on the stat sheet since joining the NBA – especially this season. As the league reaches its quarter mark, the 24-year-old has surfaced as a frontrunner for the Most Improved Player award.

The fact that he’s been averaging twice as many points and over nine more minutes compared to last season is just a scratch in the surface.

After earning the trust of Raptors coach Nick Nurse, Siakam has played in all 21 of Toronto’s games this season — 20 of them as a starter — and has scored less than 10 points in just four of them. His net rating of 15.2 is fifth in the league among players who’ve appeared in nine games or more with an average of at least 15 minutes per contest, an effort that earned him a Player of the Week nod in November. All of that while proving to be a Grade A ball handler and transition scorer with floor-spacing upside.

It might be early to speculate on next year’s award season, but, barring injury, there’s no reason to believe Siakam won’t continue to increase his development curve in the remainder of the season. His 21-point, plus-25 gem in the Raptors’ 125-115 win over the Miami Heat is evidence of that.

In order to analyze Siakam’s case for Most Improved Player, his campaign should be measured in three categories: His own numbers from last season, past winners’ stats, and the performance of other 2018-19 MIP candidates.

Siakam vs. Himself

PPG AST REB BLK STL FG% eFG% TO MPG G GS
2018-19 14.5 2.3 6.7 0.7 1.2 0.631 0.662 1.4 29.1 21 20
2017-18 7.3 2 4.5 0.5 0.8 0.508 0.537 0.8 20.7 81 5

The outburst in scoring, rebounds, field-goal percentage and minutes are the most notable developments in Siakam’s game, but the MIP contest is as much about perception as it is about stats.

The forward is no longer seen as a complementary piece, but rather as an effective and viable scoring option on a team that has Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard in its starting five. His 2.8 win shares in the season trail only Lowry’s 3.0 among Raptors players.

It’s also worth noting that even though Siakam is attempting virtually as many threes as last season (1.7 against 1.6), his three-point percentage has gone up (.333 against .220), which should give him the confidence to shoot more often. The same goes for his jump shot, as he’s been getting most of his buckets from the paint. For the purposes of nitpicking, this is an area that could potentially hurt him in the case for Most Improved Player.

He’s clearly better than last year. But how historically impressive is this start?

Siakam vs. Past MIPs

Indiana Pacers guard Victor Oladipo is the defending Most Improved Player, standing out as the number-one scoring option in 2017-18, his first season in Indiana, after being included in the deal that sent Paul George to the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Here are his stats from his winning season and the previous one:

PPG AST REB BLK STL FG% eFG% TO MPG G GS
2017-18 23.1 4.3 5.2 0.8 2.4 0.477 0.537 2.9 34 75 75
2016-17 15.9 2.6 4.3 0.3 1.2 0.442 0.51 1.8 33.2 67 67

Comparing these numbers to Siakam’s current breakthrough, the Raptors forward holds his own.

The biggest difference between the two players is that Siakam isn’t the focal point of the offence – as seen in the points-per-game totals. In fact, the last player to win the award with an average of less than 20 points per game was George, with the Pacers, in 2012-13.

The point production might hurt Siakam’s case, but the stat-sheet overview – especially field-goal percentage – should be enough to make up for it.

Before Oladipo, Milwaukee Bucks‘ forward Giannis Antetokounmpo held the MIP title.

Here are Antetokounmpo’s numbers from the 2016-17 season in comparison to the previous year:

PPG AST REB BLK STL FG% eFG% TO MPG G GS
2016-17 22.9 5.4 8.8 1.9 1.6 0.521 0.541 2.9 35.6 80 80
2015-16 16.9 4.3 7.7 1.4 1.2 0.506 0.52 2.6 35.3 80 79

Averaging virtually the same amount of minutes per game, Antetokounmpo had a better year in points, rebounds, assists and field-goal percentage when compared to 2015-16. However, he was already considered the Bucks’ No. 1 man on offence, and was just caught in the peak of a continuous development curve in his path as one of the most prolific scorers and defenders in the NBA. He was also selected to the All-Defensive team that year, thanks to his average of 1.6 steals and 1.9 blocks per game, and earned his first career all-star selection in the process.

No wonder he’s been in the MVP conversation for the past two seasons.

It’s less likely that we’ll be discussing Siakam’s MVP case two years from now. He’s hardly the No. 1 man in Toronto and he averages less minutes than Giannis has ever seen after his rookie season in 2013-14.

Still, an objective look at Siakam’s quarter-mark campaign shows he’s in a good place, with historically significant jumps in all of the main categories, despite displaying lower overall numbers than past winners.

Siakam vs. The Field

This is largely open to interpretation, but currently there are two players who are putting up numbers that could compete with Siakam’s MIP campaign: Sacramento Kings guard De’Aaron Fox and Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine.

While LaVine’s production has managed to turn heads so far this year, he missed a large chunk of last season with a torn ACL and was under a minutes restriction in the 24 games he did appear in.

Whether it’s fair or not, Fox seems to be the real competition, so we’ll focus on him.

Here are Fox’s numbers from last season and the current one:

PPG AST REB BLK STL FG% eFG% TO MPG G GS
2018-19 17.5 7.5 4 0.5 1.2 0.471 0.517 3.3 32.6 20 20
2017-18 11.6 4.4 2.8 0.3 1 0.412 0.441 2.4 27.8 73 60

Currently in his sophomore year, the 20-year-old was able to turn his game around after a somewhat disappointing rookie season as the fifth-overall pick in the 2017 draft. He leads the Kings in assists and trails only Buddy Hield in points per game, while showing off the athleticism and court awareness that make him one of the main reasons why Sacramento boasts an unexpected .500 winning percentage.

Fox is averaging higher numbers across the board and might have the upper-hand in perception after a subpar rookie season, but this is a case for an award given to the player that has shown the greatest development in his game when compared to seasons past. Siakam’s literal 100% increase in scoring and over-.600 in field-goal percentage and effective-field-goal percentage still put him ahead of the competition.

There’s a lot of basketball left in the regular season – and, considering past years, the all-star selections should be a good barometer – but, for now, the Most Improved Player award is Siakam’s to lose.

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