How Raptors' Pascal Siakam can unlock game by returning to roots

Sportsnet's Eric Smith and Michael Grange discuss the Toronto Raptors loss to the Phoenix Suns and wonder if the Raptors did enough to give them some momentum going into the next game.

If this week marks a long-awaited turnaround in the play of Pascal Siakam there is a good chance that the words of Kyle Lowry will prove prophetic.

Asked to find some positive after an otherwise miserable loss to the Boston Celtics on Monday, Kyle Lowry glanced at the box score and settled on Siakam’s line: 22 points on 15 shots with a couple of made threes, seven trips to the free-throw line, a pair of offensive rebounds and three assists.

Nothing too spectacular or even worth remarking on, really, given that as an all-NBA player in the first year of a $137 million contract it’s a line Siakam should be able to deliver most games while half asleep.

But it was the way he did it. Siakam barely seemed to have the ball in his hands -- his usage rate was a fairly modest 23.8 per cent -- but he was able to find ways to score and be active.

After a terrible finish to last season and more shakiness in 2020-21, when Siakam seemed to be trying harder and getting less done, it was clear progress for those with a sharp eye, and few see things more clearly than Lowry.

“We can't worry about him too much,” said Lowry. “… We can't try to force P; we can't make him get 40 a night. The best thing about Pascal is he gets it other ways; like he got [his] another way tonight without going isolation basketball, and that's encouraging.”

In other words: The Raptors maybe don’t need Siakam to fill the shoes of the DeMar DeRozan or Kawhi Leonard, the team’s departed isolationists. Siakam became a star impacting games by dominating the margins. Maybe as he finds his equilibrium as one of the Raptors' cornerstones, returning to his roots could be a sign of the future. Two nights after Lowry’s comments, Siakam popped off for 32 points on 21 shots, again finding a way to the rim quickly against the Suns. It was one of his best games in nearly a year.

Small sample size caveats and all, but it is hard not to notice that over two games nearly half of his field goal attempts came at the rim and Siakam shot 65 per cent on them.

That was not how Siakam was playing when he struggled last year. During the restart Siakam took just 25 per cent of his field goals at the rim and only 26 per cent during the playoffs. If Siakam looked like a different player, it was because he was playing like one.

During his breakout third season in 2018-19, just 10 per cent of Siakam’s field goal attempts came after seven or more dribbles. The year before, his first season as a regular, Siakam took seven or more dribbles before a shot seven times for the entire season. As his game spiralled at the end of last season nearly 20 per cent of his shots required seven or more dribbles to get off. More than ever before, one of the league’s perpetual motion machines was at a standstill.

How Siakam was defended certainly had some say in that, but how Siakam chose to deal with the defences he was facing was a factor too.

A fully guaranteed, maximum contract in some ways sets you free -- financially you shouldn’t have to worry for the rest of your life. But it can weigh on some players and more than one has struggled to try to live up to a different set of expectations -- real or imagined; internal or external.

No one has ever come out and said that has been part of Siakam’s issue but it’s certainly shaped how his drop in performance at the end of last season and a string of poor play early this season has been perceived.

After a decent opening night, Siakam shot 36 per cent and averaged nearly six fouls a game while getting to the line only twice himself over the Raptors' next three games, divided by his benching for leaving the floor after fouling out against the Philadelphia 76ers

Poor play from a late first-round pick on a rookie contract is hardly worth mentioning. A long stretch of regression -- going back to his playoffs struggles -- from a supposed franchise building block can make things so noisy it’s deafening.

Perhaps that’s why Siakam chose to log off from social media recently, his commitment so total that he was genuinely unaware of the recent news that had inspired a pre-game joining of arms between the Raptors and the Suns: the storming of the Capitol Building in Washington and decision in Kenosha, Wisc. not to charge the officers in the shooting this past summer of Jakob Blake.

“I kind of [experiment] with it sometimes,” he said of his self-imposed blackout. “Sometimes you will get caught up too much into, like, what's going (on) and tend to forget about all the people you care about. You tend to forget about those people that you see every day that care about you and want what’s best for you and I think that's something that I try to focus on. Just getting away from everything, talking to my family every day, making sure that I stay grounded and talking to those guys; people that support me and are with me no matter what. It makes me feel good, [but] not feeling connected to the world or what's going on like today not knowing what's happening in the United States, that’s the downside of it, but at the same time it’s helping you stay fresh and having a good mindset.”

Maybe he’ll be able to see his game through fresh eyes as well.

An interesting development over the past 18 months has been Siakam moving away from a playing style that earned him his massive contract in the first place. When he signed his extension in the summer of 2019 [his four-year deal began this season] Siakam had been an NBA regular for three seasons.

In his first two seasons as a Raptors regular -- first as an energizer off the bench in the 2017-18 season and then as a Swiss Army knife forward in 2018-19 -- Siakam overwhelmed defences mostly by underwhelming them. He did more by doing less.

In 2017-18, he was a quick-hit monster; per nearly 62 of his field goal attempts didn’t require a dribble as he sprinted past defences in transition, finished at the rim off cuts or followed up misses with put backs. In all, 85 per cent of his field goals attempts required two dribbles or less.

In his first season as a starter in 2018-19, playing alongside Kawhi Leonard or filling in for him when the 2019 Finals MVP was load-managing his way through the regular season, Siakam’s role expanded but he remained one of the NBA’s great opportunists, finding offence where the game offered it. Siakam put the ball on the floor with purpose and got places in a hurry. More than 65 per cent of his shots came with two dribbles or less and he made 55 per cent. Since he was mixing in some three-point shots his effective field goal percentage took a big jump too.

But his role changed when Leonard and Danny Green left the championship team. It seemed to fall to Siakam to take over the offensive load -- his usage rate jumped from 18.8 per cent over the previous two seasons to 28.8 per cent last year. Coincidence or not, the more Siakam pounded it, the less efficient a scorer he became. He shot nearly 66 per cent of one dribble, 48 per when taking 3-6 dribbles and just 41 per cent at seven dribbles or more. Those efficiencies dropped again after the restart and once more during the playoffs.

Here’s a thought: Maybe that’s not his game?

A lot has been read into the comments Raptors head coach Nick Nurse made around the decision to bench Siakam: “It’s just something we’re trying to work out here a little bit and work it out early in the season and not let it prolong,” he said before Siakam returned to the lineup against New Orleans. “Just an expectation of how we want to play [and] not individually how anybody wants to play… there’s certain standards we want to set and he just needs to get on board with those.”

The message was delivered unconventionally, but maybe Siakam heard it? Against Boston and Phoenix 60 per cent of his shots came with two dribbles or less, which looked more familiar to those who have watched his game grow. He was energetic in transition and attacked the rim decisively.

“I think it's just trying to be active, trying to be active out there,” the 26-year-old said after the Suns game. “I just think for me, it's continuing to be active, you know, be engaged out there. Try to be a difference-maker. It could be on offence or on defence, getting a stop, or an offensive rebound. Whatever I can do to help get me going and also to help my team… you know, the little things, and the plays that give energy to the team.”

Fred VanVleet has played with Siakam every step of his career, from winning a G-League title as rookies to running roughshod as the bench mob during his breakout second season to sharing the floor as highly paid cogs in the Raptors wheel now. Seeing his friend let the game come to him more was a welcome sight.

“The way that we play and the way we have always played is we just got to stay in tune with the game and take what the defence gives you,” said VanVleet after the Suns game. “They weren’t doubling. They weren’t sending much help and he continued to get to the front of the rim and he continued to make plays. That’s what we need from him.

“There may be a game, I’m sure maybe the next game where they are going to send more help and show him a crowd and he’ll have to continue to kick it out and make the right play. But I think he started to do that the past few games, making the kick outs right away, the quick decisions and I think that just opened the floor for him.”

Maybe the key for Pascal Siakam’s future -- and the Raptors’ -- is to embrace the past.

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