Raptors Notebook: Siakam slowly returning to all-NBA form

Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam discusses having to overcome multiple injuries over the last year and his desire to play at the top level now that he's had some time to get back into playing condition.

TORONTO – Over his last three games, Pascal Siakam has been very good.

Averaging 24.3 points, 13 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game while shooting 50 per cent from the floor, it’s not an exaggeration to say Siakam has looked more like the All-NBA player he once was.

And, as those gaudy numbers illustrate in full colour, he’s doing it by becoming a much better, well-rounded player.

“I’m feeling good, my body’s feeling good and I think I’m taking another step also just taking care of my body and making sure I do everything that’s right so I’m fresh,” said Siakam after he and his Toronto Raptors practised Monday. “And just a mentality shift in terms of being an all-around player, I feel like I have that ability and not a lot of players have that ability to be able to defend, be able to pass, be able to rebound and also score.”

And it isn’t just counting stats where Siakam has appeared to elevate his game, either. When Siakam says all-around, it truly appears to be exactly that.

“I'm seeing a lot of improvements. A lot of, maybe, things that don't show up in a stat sheet or, maybe, aren't even that noticeable until you go back and watch the film,” said Nurse of Siakam over the last three games. “He's really doing a good job of, defensively, guarding multiple positions, providing help, getting back out and keeping the ball in front. Rebounding as well, he's been pretty assertive on the glass. So, there's a lot of positives to other phases of the game other than the scoring and assisting.”

The particular mention of rebounding from Nurse is of noted interest because, more so than any other aspect of his game, the work Siakam’s been doing on the glass has stood out as of late.

On Sunday against the New York Knicks, Siakam grabbed 14 rebounds and during the Raptors’ New Year’s Eve victory over the Los Angeles Clippers, he matched his career high, pulling down 19.

Of course, two games is a small sample size, but these two big rebounding performances is indicative of a specific focus that Siakam’s been working on.

“They call me Pascal Rodman out there so I don't know,” Siakam said while laughing. “I was talking to Nate [Bjorkgren] and we watch a lot of film on rebounding and sometime being able to get extra possessions and I think it also comes with getting my legs under me and not being tired all the time and having the ability to make the effort to crash the glass and try to get extra possessions.”

In the words of Siakam’s former teammate Kawhi Leonard: “Board man gets paid.”

But in Siakam’s case, it’s more like “Jack-of-all-trades gets paid,” and that includes what appears to be fruit borne of work he’s put in over the past couple seasons as an improved playmaker that’s seen him very comfortably draw double and even triple teams, make the right reads and pass off to an open man, leading to assist numbers of eight, seven and seven over his past three contests.

“I have confidence in everyone out there on the floor to make the shots and, obviously, [if I’m] getting more attention, someone is going to be open,” said Siakam. “I’ve always felt like I’ve always been a willing passer. That’s just a part of my game and I feel like guys just have to be ready when I pass them the ball. Even when their men double team, because I know that I’m always going to get two or three people around me when I have the ball, just because I feel I can always attack whoever is guarding me. So, yeah, I’m willing to make those plays and the guys around know that I will make that pass and they’ve just got to be ready to let it go and either shoot or do whatever.”

The confidence Siakam has in teammates has never waned, but what may have shifted from before is, obviously, the team’s recent return to health, giving Siakam more adept options to kick out to, but even more than that there’s a comfort and familiarity there that wasn’t present between Siakam and his teammates and vice versa dating back to when he first made his debut coming back from shoulder surgery.

The chemistry has slowly been building, and the results now appear to be showing.

“It's all coming together and I feel like my body's feeling well,” said Siakam “Like, I'm able to do more things out there and the other guy's just kind of like watching me and also understanding what I'm capable of, that helps and also understanding how to play with it. …

“So I think all those things just put together, like more familiarity and just me understanding – I know what Gary likes to do, I know what OG likes to do, and I know what Fred likes to do – I think that just makes me even better and more comfortable out there on the floor. And just knowing that I'm a threat from scoring, passing, and now, just adding rebounding into that.”

Added Nurse: “This is a tough league to play in and it's a long time off and getting your legs underneath you, and then the lineups are changing, literally, every night. I think just a lot of combinations and I think that, obviously, he's feeling more confident and he must be feeling stronger, better conditioned, legs feel better and all of those things. I think he's just moving better, in general, and he's doing lots of things.”

Big rotation questions

With the Raptors finally back at, essentially, full strength, the question of the rotation becomes a much more interesting, and prevalent, matter.

Nurse has alluded to changing up his starting lineup depending on opponent and that was seen Sunday when he opted to go with a smaller starting five, playing OG Anunoby at centre.

This decision made it so Nurse two more traditional centres, Khem Birch and Precious Achiuwa, both came off the bench Sunday, something that seemed a little odd, but a look that Nurse has confidence in.

“It’ll work. It’ll work,” said Nurse. “We’re gonna have to talk through it and communicate through it and have some patience probably with it. I think we all spend a lot of time on the starting lineup and rotations and try to make a lot of decisions based on one game, and it’s just not the reality. Some nights some guys play good. Some nights some guys don’t play good. It’s part of the job to try to forget about the nights they don’t play so good and run them back out there and find the right combinations and keep trying and build it as it goes. It’ll work. I’m excited to have ‘em all back, that’s for sure. It’ll work. We’ll find a way to make it work.”

Part of the reason why Nurse believes having both Achiuwa and Birch play together will work is because, more often than not, a starter or two will likely be on the floor with the two of them. In particular, Nurse mentioned a good connection Birch has with Fred VanVleet, which appears to help the two players when they’re on the floor together.

“He’s a good pairing with Fred, especially if they want to blitz,” said Nurse. “I think Khem’s been involved with a lot of blitzing, especially from Terrence Ross [with the Orlando Magic], for sure, [and] probably someone else down there I can’t think of. He’s got a lot of reps playing out of the blitz.”

Said Birch of his connection with VanVleet: “It's just a natural thing. I know what he likes to do, so I just, if you get Fred going, then the team gets going because Fred's having a great year, he's a very good player. So, I just always look at it as like, ‘You gotta help Fred out first.’”

Ultimately, it sounds like the second unit, much as like Nurse has alluded to with his starting five, will be one in flux. On Sunday, the Raptors started small and had their bigs come off the bench because of what Nurse feels is a league-wide trend at the moment, but that may change as quickly as Tuesday when Toronto takes on the San Antonio Spurs.

“I think it's a little tough depending, again, on what the situation is,” said Nurse. “If we're starting the way we're starting then we've kinda got three bigs – well, two for sure – and it's kinda hard to play them both. You see the way we did it last night. We brought Khem fairly early, let him get a good run and then started Precious at the quarter break. I'm not quite sure how that's gonna work. I think teams are really playing a lot smaller right now, but I think it's more out of roster necessity. So, I think there's a lot to be seen and determined yet on how all that unfolds.

Freddy All-Star

Fred VanVleet has been the Raptors’ best all-around player this season and has the numbers to back it up putting up career-high averages in points (20.9), rebounds (5.0), assists (6.7) and field-goal percentage (43.8), and, by the way, he also happens to be shooting 40 per cent from three-point range on nearly nine attempts per game.

Given these big numbers, VanVleet has been garnering some attention as a possible all-star for the first time in his career this season. Something, according to Siakam, should be a lock.

“I think, obviously, seeing his journey from not being drafted and the famous ‘Bet on Yourself’ – I think he should royalties on everyone using ‘Bet on Yourself’ from now on – but just his story and he just got to the top and every day working hard and getting better. …

I feel like he definitely deserves it and he’s been putting in all the work and the numbers are showing it and, obviously, just as a brother, I want him to be out there. Raptors fans, do what you do and let’s get him out there.”

Added Nurse, who spoke to VanVleet’s leadership abilities: “It’s been really good. First and foremost, he’s a really good player. Winning and his competitive nature are way up there. This is one of the things I was thinking about yesterday. People say that a lot about him, and it comes off almost flippant, sometimes. It sure shouldn’t, because the competitive nature and desire to win, that’s really, really huge and really, really important. That part of it, to me, is the most important. He’s great to coach. He’s tough. He wants to win, wants to fight. Great for the culture.”

The 2021 NBA All-Star Game will be held on Feb. 20. Fans have until Jan. 22 to get their votes in.

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