How Raptors’ Pascal Siakam’s improved shot is turning him into a superstar

Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam during the team's ring presentation ceremony on opening night. (Alex D'Addese/Sportsnet)

A lot can change in three years.

In 2017, the Golden State Warriors tore through the NBA with their newly acquired superstar in Kevin Durant, breakout sensation Giannis Antetokounmpo won the MIP award, and a 22-year-old Pascal Siakam led the just-conceived Raptors 905 to their first G League title.

Now, what remains of the Warriors dynasty is in shambles, Antetokounmpo is the reigning MVP, and Siakam has led a new-look Toronto Raptors team to an 8–4 record (fourth in the East) as arguably their best player.

Out of all of those developments, it’s the latter that’s perhaps the most surprising.

No one could have expected this from Siakam. Not to this degree. Even last season, when he burst onto the scene as a hyper-efficient semi-star who was able to thrive next to two solidified stars by evolving his game to complement theirs, seems now to have been an insufficient means of preparation for what he has accomplished so far in 2019–20.

Siakam is transforming himself into a true superstar, taking the keys to the Raptors machine from the departed Kawhi Leonard and keeping things rolling at such a steadfast rate that there’s almost an unnerving, unnatural quality to it — as if his minimization of losing a top-five player’s impact is by design.

Through the 12 games he’s played this season, he’s averaging career-highs in points per game (26.2), rebounds (8.7), assists (4.1), and minutes (37.1). Even more impressive is that he’s already recorded five contests in which he’s scored 30-plus points, something he accomplished the same number of times over the entire course of 2018–19.

Perhaps what’s most admirable, though, is that while his usage percentage has unsurprisingly skyrocketed from 20.8 per cent last season to 30.7 per cent this season (a result of his role shift to the team’s primary offensive option), he’s maintained a solid level of efficiency — no matter who he plays with.

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Those numbers shone brightest during Toronto’s first eight games of the season (prior to Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka’s injuries, which thrust Siakam into a role of, quite suddenly, being asked to do a lot more for the team), when Siakam’s true shooting percentage was a jaw-dropping 62.8 per cent.

Without Lowry and Ibaka in the lineup, however, Siakam’s efficiency has taken a predictable hit. Even so, he’s managing to maintain a significantly positive level of production, currently averaging a 56.0 true-shooting percentage.

It’s Siakam’s uncanny ability to sustain a reasonable degree of efficiency, no matter the situation, that has somehow been made even more staggering by the specific additions that he’s added to his already-potent game this season in order to reach elite status—namely, a reliable three-point and pull-up jumper.

While he only really needed to be a threat from the corners last season, thanks largely to sharing the floor with Leonard, it was a well-known fact that if Siakam wanted to take his game to the next level, he’d have to start knocking down threes from other areas of the floor — at a respectable rate, at least.

Siakam’s taken that challenge head-on. It’s still early enough in the season that opponents are giving him space at the arc (although that’s changing pretty quickly now) in an effort to force him to prove he can beat them from distance. Siakam’s responded by doing his best flamethrower impersonation, with exactly 4.6 of his whopping 6.4 three-point attempts this per game season (a career-high; he only took 2.7 last season) coming on above-the-break triples, a look that he’s shooting a lethal 38.2 per cent on.

It’s not as if Siakam’s merely been a recipient of well-timed passes from teammates, either. No, opponents have to do a lot more than just worry about Siakam catching the ball and firing away — now they have to concern themselves with him utilizing a screen or just simply getting himself into rhythm with a few comfort-creating dribbles before he’s liable to rise up and drill a triple in someone’s grill.

Out of those 6.4 three-point attempts Siakam’s taking from distance, 2.1 of them have come as pull-ups, a shot that he’s making a blazing 44.0 per cent of the time.

Siakam’s pull-up game extends beyond the perimeter, too. While he does love to use pick-and-roll opportunities to get a head of steam and charge downhill (he is shooting 51.5 per cent on 10.8 drives this season), Siakam has occasionally also managed to punish opponents who see this threat coming and sag off of him, leaving space in the midrange.

Overall, his stats as a pull-up jump shooter (34.5 per cent on 4.8 attempts) aren’t quite as impressive as the ones specifically from distance, but this is an area of Siakam’s game that he’s taken advantage of less to this point and should only continue to grow.

The indirect results of Siakam’s sudden shooting prowess have also opened new doorways for both himself and the team. Now that defenders have to be at least wary of Siakam at the arc, they have sometimes chosen to smother him completely, not allowing him any space to breathe or get a potential shot off.

Adroitly, the Cameroonian-native has countered by blowing right past them and barreling into the paint where he has a plethora of options, including kicking out to an open teammate, attacking the rim in single-coverage (where he often goes to his patented spin move), unleashing floaters, or stopping on a dime to pull-up.

As games have passed and teams have begun to take note of where and how Siakam does his damage, double teams have become more frequent, something Siakam has seen relatively few of in his young career.

Unless he’s simply en fuego (in which case doubles will come no matter where he is on the floor), opponents typically swarm Siakam in the post, a spot where he has always been dangerous thanks to his superb footwork.

In these moments, Siakam has been patient, rarely panicking and instead often waiting to discover which of his teammates have been left alone before locking on to them and firing a bullet in their direction for a good look.

It is still wonderfully bizarre to witness Siakam’s growth on a night-to-night basis. As it should be since there’s no historical precedent in the NBA for what he’s accomplished during his brief time in the league, proliferating from a lanky project to an on-court wrecking ball and developing a game to match.

Indeed, a lot can change in three years.

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