Pascal Siakam Is Better Than You Think

Let’s start with this: only 186 players in NBA history have made an All-NBA team twice, as Pascal has. That’s as many nominations as Jayson Tatum, Karl Anthony-Towns and Klay Thompson have, and more than Devin Booker, Kyle Lowry, or Bradley Beal can claim. More than Chris Bosh or Kevin McHale earned in their entire careers. He is already, at just 28 years old, among the greatest players to ever play basketball. And yet, saying that sentence out loud on a subway would have people side-eyeing you as they discreetly shuffle a few steps away.

But why? Siakam ended the most recent season with career highs in made field goals, rebounds, assists, and steals per game. On the NBA leaderboards, he was 15th in points, 22nd in rebounds, and 25th in assists and steals. You know who was top-25 in all four of those categories? The reigning two-time MVP, Nikola Jokic, and Siakam. That’s it.

A superstar hiding in a role player’s clothing, Siakam is only getting better. But according to Google Trends, he’s likely the third-most talked about player on his own team. What does a man have to do to earn some respect?

Fortunately, Pascal isn’t one to concern himself too much with outside noise. He wasn’t one of those kids who knew he would be in the league someday. Spicy P didn’t start playing basketball until he was nearly 18 years old. It was a welcome break from his original career path — becoming a priest, as his father wished. But basketball was in his family’s blood, and Pascal became the fourth of four boys to play D1 collegiate basketball in the United States, largely thanks to the NBA’s efforts to reach more African players through player-run camps and Basketball Without Borders.

Pascal’s late start meant he was at a developmental deficit compared to his peers. Luckily, growing up with three older brothers kept Siakam humble, and he knew that his standout skills would have to be effort and defense.

“He has the best motor of any player I’ve seen,” former Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey told ESPN a few years ago, and it was his ability to rev up his engine that initially earned him playing time off the bench.

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Siakam came into the league as a relatively complete defensive player with raw offensive talent. He could lock down anyone from point guards to centers. But without reliable creation skills, if he wanted to start, he knew he’d have to eventually hit enough threes to make teams pay for leaving him open. So that’s exactly what he did.

Siakam shot 14% and 22% from deep during his rookie and sophomore campaigns, but he showed out in training camp before his third season and grabbed hold of the starting power forward spot. He’d always been a switchy, fast, long defender, but that third year he also hit 37% from deep and scored 16.9 points per game, a bonafide breakout.

That season, 2018-2019, also coincided with the franchise’s blockbuster trade of DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard. With Kawhi, Pascal, Serge Ibaka, and the midseason addition of quinoa-slurping grizzly bear Marc Gasol, the Raptors boasted one of the greatest defensive frontcourts the league had ever seen. Gasol and point guard Kyle Lowry were also heady players who excelled at hit-ahead passes to an always-sprinting Siakam, who averaged five points per game on transition plays alone, good for 14th in the league.

Pascal won the league’s Most Improved Player award as the Raptors shocked the injury-riddled Golden State Warriors to win the NBA Finals. Siakam was the Raptors’ second-leading scorer in that series and averaged 19.8 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 3.7 assists to help lead Toronto to its first championship.

More offensive opportunities opened up next season with Kawhi’s departure for Los Angeles, and Pascal was happy to fill the void. He realized that to move from starter to star, he’d now have to be able to create for himself, so he worked hard on his handle and shooting off the dribble.

It paid off. He increased his shot attempts per game from 12 to 18, and although his efficiency took a hit, he made All-NBA Second Team honors and earned his first (and only) All-Star game. The season ended on a sour note, however. The pandemic hit, putting the season on pause, and when it finally resumed months later in the Disney bubble, Siakam didn’t look the same. Was it bubble- or COVID-related? Or was it a young player struggling to cope with increased defensive attention?

2020-2021 seemed to point to the latter answer. The Toronto Raptors were forced to play all their home games in Tampa Bay, which would be 1,100 miles away for a particularly industrious crow. Siakam and the Raptors struggled like fish out of water. They finished 12th in the East.

But even then, you could see his game improving. He averaged a career-high 4.5 assists per game while cutting his turnover rate slightly as he shifted into a more ball-dominant role, often playing point forward. The Raptors were an astonishing 9.1 points per 100 possessions better when he was on the floor, one of the biggest positive differentials in the league. Although Pascal’s three-point shot abandoned him, he was still positively impacting the team until a shoulder surgery ended his season.

That injury carried over into the most recent year, and Pascal didn’t return until a few weeks into the season. A relatively slow start wilted his All-Star hopes before they even sprouted, but Pascal blossomed with the beginning of the new year. From January onwards, Siakam averaged 23.9 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 5.8 assists per game while shooting 37% from deep and playing his usual frenetic, swarming defense.

The first half of the season saw point guard Fred VanVleet playing at an All-Star level and rookie Scottie Barnes looking like a future superstar, but Siakam quickly reminded folks that this was his team en route to his second All-NBA nod. Siakam erased some of the bubble’s ghosts with a solid showing against the heavily favored Philly 76ers in the first round while looking decisive, aggressive, and active.

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So where does Siakam go from here? Pascal is the perfect fit for Toronto. The Raptors have constructed an entire team of jacks skilled at all trades, but Siakam has emerged as the first among equals. Rising stud Barnes can’t shoot enough (yet); quintessential 3-and-D wing OG Anunoby can’t handle the rock like Pascal; new addition Otto Porter is older and has lost a step; VanVleet has the attitude of a honey badger but might wear the same size jersey as one; Precious Achiuwa, well, he’s got plenty of things to work on. Siakam is a B+/A- player at every skill, a true five-tool player who adds up to more than the sum of his considerable parts.

It’s worth reiterating that nobody expected Siakam to develop like this offensively. BBall-Index, an analytics website, gives Siakam “A” grades all over the board for things like Scoring Gravity and Midrange Pull Up Talent. A player who could barely dribble his rookie year is now capable of leading defenders one way into a ball screen, rejecting the screen, and eurostepping to an easy layup:

Pascal doesn’t need a pick to get a bucket, either. He’s perfectly capable of cooking one-on-one, and he averaged the sixth-most isolation points per game in the league, more than guys like LeBron, Giannis, or Jayson Tatum:

Pascal can use his size, skill, strength, and length to get shots against both smaller players and bigger ones. He has enough of a pull-up game to make defenses pay for disrespecting him, and he’s not hesitant to shoot anymore if given enough space:

Siakam has an underrated bag of sidesteps, stepbacks, and turnarounds. You might not confuse him for Kevin Durant anytime soon, but he’s adept at mixing up his attacks to score from any area on the floor.

Compare his shot chart from his breakout third year, in 2018-2019, to now. He went from the typical role player layups-and-threes model to someone with one of the most well-rounded, symmetrical shot charts in the game (courtesy of Statmuse):

Siakam 2018-2019 Shot Chart

Siakam 2021-2022 Shot Chart

That is an epic evolution, a star being born before our eyes. Although his efficiency dropped a little, thanks to being the main billing instead of third-fiddle behind Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry, Siakam has developed a much more diverse game. The midrange and above-the-break three-point shots are the toughest to hit in the game, and Siakam’s improvement on those speaks volumes about his work ethic.

Returning to the present, it’s worth noting that Pascal lives in the floater range; over a third of his shots last season were from between four and 14 feet from the basket, in the 99th percentile for all forwards. He can hit runners and floaters, but he also uses his pterodactyl-like wingspan for sweeping hooks and Stretch Armstrong finger rolls. He has an unusual post-up game that he whips out a few times each night, too, limbs all akimbo and angles all awkward, that somehow gets the ball through the cylinder.

Add it all up, and you have a player who is equally comfortable attacking from either side of the floor and at any range. Siakam’s turned himself into a nightmare cover, and teams have responded by doubling him on over 30% of his possessions. His increased passing acumen has enabled him to pick those apart to the tune of 1.2 points per doubled possession, the third-best rate amongst the 20 most doubled players. There’s not much he can’t do.

That has always been true on the other end of the court, where Siakam is perfect for today’s schemes. Switching defenses are increasingly en vogue, and tall guys like Pascal have to be as adept on the perimeter shutting down darting guards as on the block against monolithic giants. Siakam has the right mix of smarts, size, and speed to help and recover to a corner shooter, stifle a guard on the perimeter, or bother a big at the rim.

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He’s not quite as airtight defensively as he once was — even Pascal’s over-caffeinated energy has a limit, and his increased offensive workload has been a slight detriment to his defense. But perhaps we should cut him a little slack. The man led the league in minutes per game during the regular season and was second in distance traveled per game in the playoffs — he ran over three miles every night, more than any qualifying player did in the regular season!

Interestingly, the Raptors use him differently on defense than they used to. In his early years, Siakam was frequently the defensive stopper assigned to the opposing team’s best players. Now, on a Toronto team with a plethora of plus defenders, Siakam often mans the free safety role, guarding another team’s worst shooter to provide help defense in the middle.

Since Pascal spends so much time in the paint, he often has to sprint out to shooters. He led the league in closeouts, and while the vast majority were solid, mistakes popped up here and there. But he’s still long and agile enough to recover with alacrity. Watch as he closes out just a tad late and off-balance against non-shooter Isaac Okoro but is able to recover and block the weak layup attempt:

Siakam is a fire hose, spraying water wherever coach Nick Nurse sees a blaze. He spent between 11% and 31% of his time guarding each position, a model of versatility, and he ranked in the 89th percentile for isolation defense — a locked-in Siakam is still marooning would-be scorers on an island, in other words. He even massively increased his defensive rebounding rate as Toronto moved away from traditional centers.

The NBA no longer favors the specialist, especially during the playoffs. To be on the floor against the best teams, a player must be able to do it all. Opposing teams won’t hesitate to ignore bad shooters and viciously attack weak defensive links.

Siakam is the perfect counter. His physical tools allow him to guard nearly anyone with ease. His skill development over the years has turned him into a true offensive centerpiece, a guy you can give the ball to and get out of the way to let him work. You don’t think of Siakam in the same vein as guys like Giannis Antetokounmpo, and he’s not at that Olympian level. Still, Toronto often uses him in similar ways — putting him in a position to maximize his advantages and complement his Renaissance man skillset.

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Siakam’s in his prime, and given his late start, there’s still lots of skill work that can be done. His three-pointer can always be better, his handle a little tighter, his midrange a touch wetter. He hasn’t been perfecting his jumper since childhood, like most of his peers, so there’s real reason to think he can continue to get better even at the age that most players start to plateau.

Siakam has worked hard over the years to sand away his rough edges. He’s not yet a true apex predator in the vein of LeBron, Giannis, Kawhi, or the other titanic mononyms, but he’s the ideal second piece already. His well-rounded game would make him a perfect fit next to almost anybody —but maybe there’s more in him. Perhaps Toronto should consider who would be the perfect fit next to Pascal. 

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Michael Shearer is an NBA obsessive who writes to answer the questions he has about the league. You can follow him @bballispoetry. He also is a contributing writer for Fansided at Hoops Habit and writes a free NBA analytical newsletter at basketballpoetry.com that goes out every Tuesday and Friday.

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