Coming into this season, there was a lot of pressure on Pascal Siakam to return to form and look more like the All-NBA player he was before the bubble, rather than the player who looked lost and out of sorts while in it.
He was, after all, officially entering the first year of the four-year, $136-million max contract extension he signed before the start of last season, and bigger expectations come along with bigger money.
So far, through the Toronto Raptors’ first 10 games, there’s been mixed results seen from Siakam, and he’s looked equal parts brilliant and awful at points in the season.
Putting up averages of 20.4 points, 8.8 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game, while shooting 46.3 per cent from the field and 31 per cent from three-point range, Siakam played very poorly to begin the season and even got benched by coach Nick Nurse — with the organization’s blessing — before turning the corner more recently and looking more like the player who dominated most of last season for the Raptors.
So, what’s changed in Siakam? We took a closer look to answer that very question.
Pascal, the bad
Before diving into anything else, it’s important to examine how Siakam fared during his first four games.
During that span, he averaged 16.5 points, 7.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists on dreadful shooting percentages of 39.4 from the floor and 28 from deep. His defence also looked unengaged, and Nurse mentioned how he was still searching for the “joy” he had apparently lost while playing in the isolating Disney World bubble.
The nadir of this stretch the Dec. 29 game against the Philadelphia 76ers, when he scored an empty-calories 20 points, needing 23 field-goal attempts to get it, and not even attempting a single free-throw attempt in the contest as he looked to force his way to the rim looking for call rather than looking to score. He also fouled out with 25 seconds remaining.
It was this game that sparked Nurse to bench Siakam the following game against the Knicks. Plays like this couldn't have helped:
Now, granted, there’s nothing inherently wrong with Siakam looking to drive to the basket, but as you may notice at the tail end of that clip you see him appealing to the official. It looked like Siakam wanted to have it both ways in that he was trying to avoid contact but was expecting a foul call. But, generally speaking, if he wanted to get the call, he’d have to force the action, get into Joel Embiid’s body and put the onus on the referee.
This is an isolated example, but it’s indicative of the kind of struggles Siakam was experiencing early in the season. Through his first four games, he attempted just eight free throws and looked to be settling for tough mid-range jumpers more often than he should have.
This wasn’t entirely his fault, however. Schematically, as we’ve since found out, the Raptors weren’t all right, and the looks Siakam was getting at the rim probably didn’t have enough space cleared out for him. One example:
As you can see, Siakam looks to have Tobias Harris in a post-up situation. Given his size and quickness, that should be a mismatch for him. But when he makes his move into the paint, he sees Embiid there waiting for him and is then forced to go to his counter move, spinning to the baseline and forcing up a difficult shot attempt.
Embiid was back there underneath the basket in support purposefully, but there’s a chance he could’ve been drawn out a little had Baynes spaced out to the corner three-point line as opposed to the dunker spot where he was situated, possibly giving Siakam more room to operate.
Baynes can hit the odd three, but that’s not his natural game. In general, his game (or Alex Len’s) doesn’t seem to mesh with the Raptors star.
But even though the scheme wasn’t working well for Siakam, he still needed to make smarter decisions with the ball — especially as a facilitator.
Against the New Orleans Pelicans and San Antonio Spurs, Siakam racked up 14 assists combined. But in his next two games, he recorded just one assist as it looked like he may have been overthinking things:
As this clip from Toronto’s second encounter with the Pelicans shows, Siakam gets himself into trouble and attracts a double team inside the paint. He knows he needs to pass out, but instead attempts to squeeze a pass to Baynes through two Pelican defenders, resulting in an ugly turnover.
Siakam is a player who’s at his best when he’s able to just catch the ball, make one read and go. But given the hesitancy he showed here on the initial post-up with Lonzo Ball trying to check him, it looked like he was trying to process too many possibilities all at once as opposed to just looking to take advantage of the mismatch.
Far too often in his first four games, Siakam was getting in his own way by just thinking the game too much rather than letting his instincts take over.
Pascal, the good
Siakam began to turn the corner in the Jan. 4 meeting with the Boston Celtics. Since that game he's put up 23.6 points, 9.6 rebounds, 6.2 assists and attempt 7.2 free throws per game, shooting 51.8 per cent from the field.
This has essentially been a complete turnaround for Siakam, and there are several adjustments fuelling it.
First, take a look at these two shot charts. The chart on the left is from Siakam’s first four games, and the one on the right is from his last five:
As you can see, there’s a stark difference between both the number of attempts and the rate at which Siakam makes shots on the inside.
In his first four games, he averaged only 7.0 points in the paint per game, but saw that number leap dramatically in his last five, with a 13.2 average.
It’s simple, really — when Siakam is attacking the basket and taking fewer threes, he’s a much better player.
During his season-high, 32-point explosion against the Phoenix Suns last Wednesday, all but four shots of his came either in the paint or at the rim, and you could tangibly see the confidence return to him as he effortlessly cooked just about every defender Phoenix threw at him.
Unlike before, when he looked like he was thinking about what move he wanted to make, in this game he was far more decisive, resulting in awesome-looking buckets like this:
Siakam’s brimming confidence has led to a great run of playmaking, as well.
In the Raptors’ record-setting win over the Sacramento Kings, Siakam racked up a career-best 12 assists. The threat he represented as a scorer saw double teams come his way, and turned them into decisive passes for good scoring opportunities for his teammates.
And, of course, Siakam’s game has benefited from Nurse’s new small-ball stratagem. On the whole, the move has opened up more space for Siakam to operate, resulting in better-looking offence for both him and the team. And on defence, it’s allowed Toronto to switch and scramble more, causing more turnovers and letting the Raptors get out in transition more — which plays to another of Siakam’s strength. In the past five games, he has averaged 3.0 fast-break points per game and 3.8 points off opponent turnovers after just 1.8 and 0.5, respectively, through his first four.
Overall, Siakam has looked much better and much more like himself while playing with a quicker, faster lineup.
Pascal, the work-in-progress closer
There’s no denying how much better Siakam has looked since that game with Boston, and while his team is still mired in a 2-8 quagmire, the hope is that his improved play will see the team add to the win column.
It’s true that in his last two games, he came up short on game-winning, buzzer-beating attempts, but take a look at these shots again. They weren’t bad looks:
In both cases, the ball is in the hands of the team’s best player, and the ball just lipped out. There’s not much more you can ask for.
Whether you like it or not, because of his contract and raw talent, Siakam is the Raptors’ cornerstone player. If he’s going to live up to that billing, he’s going to have to learn to finish in those clutch situations, meaning he’s going to need to ball in those moments.
It’s the only way he’s going to get the necessary experience.
So while he isn’t there yet, his apparent return to form as the team’s best player means he’s the guy you should want to take the final shot of a close game.
If you question whether or not he’s a true No. 1 or a legitimate star, then this is how he’s going to become one.