Pascal Siakam Can Be the NBA's Next Two-Way Star
The Raptors' big man is a major breakout candidate this season and could become a legitimate X-factor for Toronto.
Photo by Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press
The indisputable best Harry Potter character is Neville Longbottom. Introduced as long-limbed but awkward, Longbottom eventually developed into one of the good guys' most useful big men, even inspiring fan rants placing him as the true 'chosen one.' Plus, actor Matthew Lewis grew up to be outrageously good looking. Without question, the Toronto Raptor most channeling his inner Longbottom is the increasingly talented Pascal Siakam.
The Raptors have dominated the news cycle recently. The departed DeMar DeRozan has had his every word and social media feed parsed for expressions of bitterness. The words of incoming players Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard have been analyzed as thoroughly as your text messages after last night's date. Meanwhile, Kyle Lowry has been criticized for his surly behavior with media. Even Serge Ibaka's popular cooking show has been greatly discussed, likely because he fed brains to teammates. Amidst the turmoil of media coverage surrounding one of the East's top teams, one of the least discussed players may have an outsized share in contributing to Toronto's on-court supremacy.
Though the usual caveats regarding offseason rumors apply, whispers from camp are that Siakam has improved dramatically over the offseason. He dominated during the summer at UCLA Rico Hines runs, where his pick-and-roll game with James Harden was hot fire. In preseason, he dropped 21 points, 11 rebounds, and 6 assists going head-to-head against MVP candidate Anthony Davis.
Siakam's raw statistical numbers hardly took a leap in his sophomore year, though a variety of advanced stats agreed that the plateauing of his raw numbers didn't speak to the significant improvement he made in his ability to win on the court. Siakam's contributions to winning will improve even more this year, as his impressive summer carries into the NBA season.
Virtually every aspect of his game is more refined, but his ball-handling and passing have been most visibly upgraded. Though Siakam can play some point-forward with bench lineups, his ability to pass and create alongside Toronto's stars will be of much more significance to the team's ceiling. Siakam's abilities fit perfectly alongside those of his more heralded teammates.
Lowry and Fred VanVleet are both terrific shooters, and their best skills may be showcased as they reposition around the arc when a teammate drives to the basket. Both set great screens for their size, and neither is ever still. They scoot around the court, losing defenders during the mayhem of an active play, freeing themselves for open jumpers. This skill can only be leveraged when Lowry or VanVleet do not have the ball in their hands; the Raptors need a variety of secondary or tertiary ball-handlers to unlock the off-ball movement of their point guards.
Leonard is a terrific option. He's one of the league's best pick-and-roll practitioners, having used the pick-and-roll more often and with higher efficiency than Steph Curry in 2016-17 (and during a limited nine-game sample last season). A team needs secondary options around even the best primary ball-handler, and that's where Siakam blends seamlessly. Leonard bends the defense before passing, and Siakam is great at using slight edges to probe further into the paint, then kicking the ball to his in-motion shooters.
Siakam's continued finishing will be especially important for his development this year. His first step is fast enough to blow past virtually any opposing bench big, and he became a monster finisher at the rim last year. After connecting on a poor 57 percent of shots at the rim in his rookie year, Siakam hit a ridiculous 71 percent last year, per Cleaning the Glass. His finishing can occasionally be awkward, but he has great touch around the rim. His helter-skelter layup attempts can freeze defenders, giving him a free beat to loft a floater toward an unprotected rim.
Siakam is not yet a positive contributor as a distance shooter, hitting 30 of 139 attempted triples across his two seasons in the league. Though the Raptors encourage his attempts, his jumper remains a work in progress. But if Siakam can get it to click, he'll be more than an X-factor, and closer to a legitimate star in his own right. Until then, his value on offense will be tied to his ability to exploit advantages with his passing and finishing—accurate shooting would be a cherry on top.
Though discussion of Siakam's offensive repertoire is fun, the defensive end is where he truly unlocks the power of the Raptors. Siakam's presence on the defensive end dramatically increases his team's chances of creating a steal. He boasted a high steal rate (1.6 percent) for his position, which rarely came at the cost of gambling out of position. When he was on the court last year, an extra 2.8 percent of opponents' offensive possessions ended in turnovers, which was 94th percentile league-wide.
The Raptors will be among the league's best in creating live-ball turnovers this year, as Leonard, Green, Lowry, VanVleet, and Delon Wright are all terrific at digging into driving lanes and creating deflections, with all averaging at least 2.6 deflections per 36 minutes last year (Leonard will just rudely take the ball from dribblers on occasion). When his teammates force turnovers, Siakam is one of the league's most electric at flying down the open court for a dunk.
Once out in the open court, Siakam is one of the best scorers in the league. In 2017-18, his 1.27 points per possession in transition were in the 83rd percentile league-wide, and he used nearly two possessions in transition per game. Only six players in the league last season used as many or more transition possessions while finishing more efficiently. He was able both to kickstart fastbreaks and finish them, all while maintaining solid defensive principles.
Even when Siakam doesn't force a turnover, his defense is impressive. He can feasibly switch from jitterbug point guards to larger wings, and back again, within the space of one possession. He can capably defend bruising bigs in the post. Siakam even proved last year that he is one of the Raptors' best options to defend monsters like LeBron James. He is faster than players six inches shorter; here he easily outruns Cory Joseph, nearly falling over the smaller player, before obliterating the layup attempt.
Siakam remains undersized to play the center position, as his rim protection and defensive rebounding have been subpar for a center (he does appear to have bulked up this offseason, though). But his 23.7-percent defensive rebounding rate in preseason led the Raptors, and it is a far cry from Siakam’s lackluster 16.8-percent mark in 2017-18. If he translated those preseason numbers to the regular season, it would match the 2017-18 rate of elite rebounder Rudy Gobert, and make Siakam playable as a small-ball center.
As is, Siakam is already a valuable player for Toronto, but adding a consistent 3-point shot and upping his rebound rate (both of which appear possible to happen this season) to stay on the floor more in small-ball lineups, would probably turn him into a two-way star.
The Raptors boast a bevy of sweet-shooting guards, defensive wings, and bruising centers. They seem to have all the pieces for a deep playoff run, including a top five (when healthy) superstar in Leonard. But, perhaps surprisingly, it is a bench player who unlocks so much of what Toronto does. Siakam's ball-handling and passing lift the offensive potential of his all-star teammates. His quick hands and feet, alongside his unmatched ability in transition, will thrive in a defense that is sure to create an avalanche of turnovers.
Without Siakam, the shooting of Lowry and the defense of Leonard would be less significant. Without Siakam, the Raptors would have a much lower ceiling (and they'd certainly be less fun to boot). The hyperactive big man has thus far had a quiet statistical career, but 2018-19 is shaping up to be his breakout season. Siakam already has the dashing good looks of his Harry Potter doppelgänger, Neville Longbottom. The next step is to chase down the same level of success.