Raptors’ Siakam poised for even bigger leap after eye-opening summer

Pascal Siakam talks about what he worked on during the offseason and being prepared to take on more of an important role.

Pascal Siakam corrals a shot from Kyrie Irving and takes the ball up the court as he surveys his options.

It’s a hot August day in Los Angeles, and for the fourth year in a row Siakam is spending a good chunk of his summer on the campus of UCLA, at the famous scrimmages and practices hosted by Rico Hines.

This year’s UCLA training camp has been shorter than usual for Siakam — a byproduct of playing for an NBA championship through to June, cutting his off-season short. A long-awaited trip home to Cameroon pushed his arrival back even further. No matter. The 25-year-old reigning Most Improved Player is still putting in ample work.

He takes a screen from Chris Boucher, loses his primary defender Marvin Bagley with a crossover and posts up centre Javale McGee on the left block. Siakam spins right and fakes his way toward the hoop. He stops on a dime and reverses course, spinning left and in one motion soars off the ground for a fadeaway jumper over the seven-footer’s outstretched arms. Swish.

This time last year, Siakam was opening eyes at these UCLA runs. He drew rave reviews from the all-stars sharing the court with him — James Harden, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook — and for those that saw him dominate the scrimmages, his breakout campaign last season came as little surprise.

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Rico Hines has been a part of these scrimmages since the early ‘90s when the former UCLA player took part in legendary summer runs organized by Magic Johnson that featured the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon and Penny Hardaway.

As the scrimmages dried up over the years, Hines, who has coached in college and the NBA, committed to bringing them back, and has worked with a long list of some of the league’s best.

Hines says that Siakam is the hardest worker he’s seen. And this summer, despite every excuse to relax and catch a breath following an unbelievable — and draining — 2018-19 season, he says the Raptors’ rising star hasn’t skipped a beat. It’s a good sign for both the player and his team, as the Raptors are reportedly in the midst of negotiating what could be a max-level contract extension before the start of the season.

“He showed up very confident, very happy, very grateful — all of the things Pascal always is,” says Hines. “Nothing had really changed. He was still Pascal: ready to work and hungry as ever.”

Hines earned Siakam’s trust a long time ago. And after watching all of Siakam’s games, plus maintaining an ongoing dialogue with the Raptors coaching staff, they knew what to work on.

This summer Hines and Siakam focused on shooting — after all, it’s a shooters league these days — and playmaking, two areas in which the Raps are expecting Siakam take great strides in as he inherits a primary role on the offensive end after the departure of Kawhi Leonard.

“We shot a lot,” Hines says adding that Siakam’s “form is nice and compact, nice and tight, confident.”

They worked on comfortably extending his range — Siakam has gone from a 14 per cent shooter as a rookie (not a typo) to hitting 37 per cent of his threes last season, but he only wants to see that number climb. They also put in extensive work shooting from the high-post and mid-post (where Siakam torched McGee) with the goal of giving Siakam a new package of shots from the spots on the floor in which he’ll likely see most of his scoring opportunities initiate.

The biggest emphasis, however, has been playmaking. It’s an area where Siakam has a distinct advantage over other forwards. His speed, explosiveness, herky-jerky movement with the ball and advanced ballhandling skills for a player of his size make him a nightmare to defend, and it’s an area the Raptors look to exploit.

Head coach Nick Nurse has said that he intends to use Siakam as a primary playmaker a lot more this season, and so he and Hines placed an emphasis on making decisions as the ballhandler in pick-and-roll situations.

“He’s a willing passer, man. He really wants to make plays for other people because he’s so unselfish,” says Hines. “We really focused on that a lot.”

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Siakam wasn’t the only Raptor in Hines’ gym this summer. Fellow UCLA alum Norm Powell was a regular fixture, as was Finals hero Fred VanVleet and newcomer Stanley Johnson. Hines was impressed by what he saw from Powell, whose competitiveness, defensive intensity and ability to attack the rim were on full display.

“I think he’ll be ready to take that next step.”

As for Johnson, Hines says he’s about to surprise a lot of people with his defensive ability.

“The Raptors play such good defence already to add a guy like Stanley, who has something to prove, I think he’s a great addition,” says Hines. “He plays extremely hard, which I think everybody on the Raptors does.”

Count Fred VanVleet among that group.

Hines took particular delight in watching VanVleet go to work in his scrimmages.

“Fred VanVleet — I love everything about him. He’s a gamer. He’s ballsy, he’s tough, crafty. He’s a competitor,” said Hines.

Most impressive, however, is the fact that during scrimmages, VanVleet’s teams won virtually every time. It didn’t matter who Hines placed on VanVleet’s squad, or which collection of all-stars he was going up against.

VanVleet won.

“There’s something to be said for that,” says Hines. “Winning is a mindset, just like losing is a mindset. You have to really care about it. And he cares. He put on a great show, man.”

Hines has noticed over the years that the point guard has had a major influence on Siakam, as VanVleet’s abundance of confidence seems to have rubbed off on his teammate.

Although he’s 25, because Siakam arrived to basketball in his late teens he’s more akin to a typical 21- or 22-year-old prospect at this stage in his development. That alone should be a terrifying notion for the rest of the NBA, but as he’s added more elements to his skill-set this summer, there’s even more reason for opponents to dread facing the potential all-star.

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Watching the work he’s put in this summer, everything points to another monster campaign from Siakam, who will be Toronto’s go-to scorer for the first time in his career.

“These are the opportunities he’s worked hard for,” says Hines. “The proof is in the pudding, and he’s worked hard to become that (No. 1 option). I think he’s ready to take that next step. I’m confident he will — and so is he.”

But being “the guy” comes with different expectations. It’s an entirely different world when you’re atop the ladder.

No longer can Siakam sneak up on the competition. He’ll almost surely be the first Raps player listed on scouting reports as teams and coaches hone in on ways to temper the multi-talented forward.

It’s something Siakam and Hines discussed constantly this summer.

“He’s very aware of it. One thing about Pascal: He always makes the adjustments. Because he’s such a competitor, he always finds a way. It may not be gorgeous all the time, it may not look the best. But when it’s all over, he’ll win, and he’ll have what he’s supposed to have.”

“He’s a better person than he is a basketball player,” Hines continues.

“And I’m a big believer that good things happen to good people. For him to take off the way he’s taken off and to accomplish the things he’s accomplished, I’m very proud of him.”

Make no mistake, Siakam is hardly comfortable resting on his recent success.

“He still has that edge. He still plays with that chip from being a low draft pick, kind of unknown, and he wants to prove people wrong.”

Considering expectations couldn’t be higher, Siakam is being lauded as the Raptors’ next franchise player and pundits openly wonder if he’ll make an All-NBA team this season — he has certainly put in the work.

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