It was a bittersweet 2019-20 campaign for Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam.
On one hand, it was a banner year. Siakam posted career-highs across the board, was named to both the All-Star and the All-NBA teams, led the Raptors to the second-best record in the league, and signed a maximum extension worth over $130 million. Considering that Siakam was a bench player only two seasons ago, his rise to stardom is nothing short of historic.
But the Disney bubble also exposed the limitations of Siakam’s game, specifically in Toronto’s painful seven-game loss to the Boston Celtics. Siakam was a shell of himself, succumbing to Boston’s swarming defense, unable to make any impact from the perimeter, and was roughly the seventh-best player in the series. Siakam scored less than 15 points per game on below 40 percent shooting from the field, and although his defense remained resilient, his struggles played a major role in Toronto’s title defense coming to an end in the second round.
The sharp contrast between Siakam’s start and the finish to his season makes the evaluation of his progress difficult. The expectation heading into the year was for Siakam to emerge as a go-to scorer, the role vacated by Kawhi Leonard’s exit. And while it was unreasonable to expect Siakam to produce at a Finals MVP level, there is a lingering disappointment over just how badly he fell short of that standard. In totality, the 2019-20 season showed that Siakam did make improvements, but that many more are still needed for the Raptors to return to title contention.
A star in transition
The biggest difference between Siakam this season as compared to his role on the title team, was his position. Siakam shifted away from being a traditional power forward, to being a small forward creating more of his own offense. Any evaluation of his season must be done through this lens.
That’s reflected both in the share of his assisted baskets dropping from 57 percent in 2019 down to 50 percent this season, and in the share of his field-goal attempts within 10 feet dipping from 70.4 percent to 51.2 percent. Siakam created more of his own offense, and more of that offense came from the perimeter. He also took 46 percent of his shots after taking at least three dribbles, up from 34 percent the year prior.
Making such a drastic change in style is bound to come with growing pains. It’s fair to say that Siakam hasn’t mastered the position, and that it was his undoing in the Celtics series. But that doesn’t negate the strides that Siakam took over the course of the regular season. Siakam’s efficiency dipped, but he showed an expanded skillset, including more usage in the pick-and-roll, and the ability to hit jumpers off the dribble.
Siakam used 195 possessions in the pick-and-roll this season, up from 73 in 2019. He wasn’t particularly efficient, as he shot 37 percent and averaged 0.82 points per play, but it’s a vital step in his development. With Siakam being such a threat to drive and score in the paint, having an outside jumper is an absolute must as teams will aggressively collapse. Siakam was much more willing and eager top shoot this season, especially when defenders dropped back into the paint.
The pull-up three is the most crucial ingredient in his growth. All the best pick-and-roll operators have the three in their arsenal, and it has also become the most deadly isolation weapon in today’s league. Even if you exclude prolific guards like Stephen Curry, James Harden, and Damian Lillard, and focus strictly on the point forward types, this trend still holds. Kawhi Leonard is an elite pull-up shooter from three and in the midrange. The same goes for Luka Doncic or Jayson Tatum. Even Jimmy Butler can be lethal with the pull-up, although he prefers to get his shot within the arc. Mastering that shot will unlock elite status for Siakam. He made 34 percent on pull-up threes this season, which is a promising start.
“With Pascal, he shoots the ball pretty well. But he’s still 18 months or 24 months away from being really good,” Nick Nurse said in November. “There’s some years that go into it.”
However, there’s more to playing the pick-and-roll than simply scoring. There is also the element of breaking down the defense, forcing rotations, and leveraging that threat to create for others. On that front, Siakam is a long ways away. Among the top-20 scorers in the league, Siakam ranked fourth-last in assists, ahead of two bigs in Anthony Davis and Joel Embiid, and a wing in Tatum who showed an improved ability to pass in the playoffs. It’s not that Siakam isn’t a willing passer, or that he lacks vision, but it boils down to his skillset. He just doesn’t create enough problems for the defense to create for others. Until Siakam becomes deadly with the pull-up three, teams will live with sitting back and taking away the paint.
When Siakam gets into the paint, he is crafty with his passing. When he first broke out in 2018, Siakam formed a great chemistry with his fellow reserve center Jakob Poeltl, and the two shared a slick two-man game. That ability to make clever interior passes has remained a staple in Siakam’s game, and he is generally adept at spotting cutters, or in drawing a second defender on the drive and dropping it off to his fellow big. He is also a willing passer out of the post, particularly when facing double teams, and creates open looks for his teammates. Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Norman Powell and Terence Davis all shot 40 percent or better from three off passes from Siakam.
But again, it comes back to the pick-and-roll. In today’s game, the majority of assists in the halfcourt come from pick-and-roll sequences. The only exception is Nikola Jokic, who might be the best passing big man in NBA history. In order for Siakam to generate more offense for his teammates, he needs to diversify his skillset, become more of a consistent threat to shoot, hone his handle to get deeper into the paint, and then his assist averages will go up. Right now, defenses are just ducking behind the screen, and forcing Siakam to pull-up or drive into traffic, and Siakam generally plays right into their hands. Either way, it won’t move or compromise the defense to the point where there is a clear breakdown elsewhere.
Is Siakam right for the job?
The bigger question with Siakam is whether he can be an elite go-to scorer on a championship team, or if he is best suited to be the secondary scorer like he did in 2019. The Raptors hope it will be the former, but after how the Celtics series turned out, there is definitely room for reflection.
For one, that wasn’t the only time Siakam struggled. Even during the regular season, the Raptors were not particularly great on offense. Injuries took its toll, but it also came down to talent. Siakam was great in transition, but just average in the halfcourt setting, so it’s no surprise that the Raptors as a team mirrored the profile of their go-to player.
You can also dig back into last year’s playoffs, where Siakam started and finished strong versus the Magic and the Warriors, but he sandwiched in a 12-game stretch against Philadelphia and Milwaukee where he averaged 16 points on 39 percent shooting. That speaks to matchups, as both the Bucks and Sixers had their centers neutralizing the paint for Siakam to great effect, but the whole point of a leading scorer is to be impervious of the defense who can get you tough baskets.
There’s no real point in cherry-picking Siakam’s off nights, especially without context. Siakam was off for most of the bubble, and Nurse admitted Siakam’s conditioning wasn’t fully there after he was shut out from the gym for three months during the COVID-19 pandemic. As for the pedestrian regular season metrics, Siakam missed a month with a groin injury and was a step slow after returning. Even still, the Raptors managed the second-best record in the league, so how much did Siakam really limit their potential?
In any case, being the go-to scorer is as much a reflection of his teammates, as much as it’s a reflection of Siakam’s specific skill level. Without a significant acquisition, Siakam will remain the primary option because he is simply the most talented scorer on the roster. Lowry is in his mid-thirties, and operates best as a secondary option. VanVleet improves each year, but his success as a high-volume scorer will be limited by his lack of height. Powell is a great finisher, but he can’t get his own shot and rarely creates for others. That leaves Siakam to sink or swim in his current role.
The other question is whether Siakam should continue stretching his game out to the perimeter, or if he should double down on the post where he is most effective. Right now he is caught between both roles, as he isn’t quite polished enough to thrive as a wing, but his efficiency in the post dropped from the 82nd percentile in 2019 to the 50th this season. It might just be that Siakam is at his best as a power forward, but in today’s game it’s more valuable to have a playmaking wing instead, especially if the Raptors could somehow lure Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2021.
We might have already caught a peek at the fully actualized version of Siakam. When Lowry and Serge Ibaka went down in the same game in November, Siakam carried the team averaging 26 points, eight rebounds, four assists, with a steal and a block. He became the secondary point guard on the floor alongside VanVleet, and he reeled off games with 44 points, 36, 35, 34, and 31 over a 12-game stretch where the Raptors went 10-2 with wins over the Lakers, Blazers, Sixers, and Jazz. The key to his success there was his three-pointer, which he hit at a 39 percent clip with over seven attempts per game. That outside shot opened up the rest of the game for Siakam, which should guide his development moving forward.
More coverage on Yahoo Sports Canada