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Pascal Siakam's next step is becoming 'The Man'

·NBA reporter
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Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse isn’t coy about his expectations for Pascal Siakam, especially in the wake of Kawhi Leonard’s offseason departure.

“I just think his next step in progression is being ‘The Man,’” Nurse told Yahoo Sports Canada. “Instead of being a complementary guy next to ‘The Man,’ he’s gotta be ‘The Man’ — the primary scorer and the primary option and the late-game scorer.”

By his third season, Siakam was already an effective secondary option in the Raptors’ championship run. Despite running through the gauntlet of elite defenders — Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jonathan Issac and Draymond Green are probably the planet’s best bet against the Monstars — Siakam still averaged an efficient 19 points per game. Toronto went 7-1 when Siakam scored over 22 points as compared to 9-7 when he didn’t. In a snapshot, he was the bellwether.

Taking the next step, however, will be the hardest. It’s one thing to win Most Improved Player, it’s another to become All-NBA calibre. But if the Raptors have any hope of defending their title, Siakam must continue his exponential growth.

Reason for promise

The most fundamental skill for any go-to player is the ability to create an efficient shot, and Siakam has that down pat.

Siakam scored 0.97 points per isolation last season, which ties him with Blake Griffin and LeBron James in terms of efficiency. He didn’t do it often — Siakam totalled 121 isolations over 80 games — but that’s likely because most of his 1-on-1 opportunities are better categorized as post-ups. On that front, Siakam scored 1.08 points per possession across 148 post-ups, which ranked third among the most efficient post-up scorers last season.

Siakam is a walking mismatch in the post. He’s quick enough to drive past most bigs, and his 7-foot-4 wingspan allows him to shoot over top most wings. Siakam can finish with either hand, he creates separation through an assortment of creative and balletic post moves, and his soft touch around the rim allows him to connect on bankers and floaters from odd and unpredictable angles. Next to Leonard, Siakam attacking the basket was the Raptors’ best source of offense.

As his confidence grew, Siakam quietly began to test the limits of his game, which included more ball-handling responsibilities. Siakam finished 65 possessions out of pick-and-roll — a small but not insignificant number — and scored at a rate of 1.12 points per possession, which ranked ahead of even Leonard. Maintaining those results to a larger sample will be a monumental challenge, but the Raptors will be willing to live with the growing pains.

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Even without adding the pick-and-roll element to his game, Siakam is still an easy bet to top the 20-point plateau. Siakam scored 17 per game last season off an assortment of transition baskets, catch-and-shoot threes, and the occasional 1-on-1 moves, but his usage was generally low. Siakam only finished 20.8 percent of his team’s possessions while he was on the floor, which ranks as the second-lowest mark among all players who scored 16 or more points last season.

With Leonard gone, expect Siakam’s usage to skyrocket. Nurse runs an egalitarian offense predicated on crisp ball movement, but the ball tends to end up in the hands of the best scorer. Last season, Siakam’s usage jumped to 25 percent with Leonard off the floor from February onward. But despite more touches and a greater responsibility to create, Siakam wasn’t any less efficient as his true-shooting percentage remained elite at 59 percent.

More improvements needed

Having established himself as an interior scorer, Nurse says the next step in Siakam’s development will take place on the perimeter.

“He really can play anywhere,” Nurse said of Siakam. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we almost make him like a point forward, where he’ll handle the ball a lot up the floor.”

Nurse also suggested that Siakam could see extended run in supersized lineups alongside Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, a look that famously helped the Raptors overcome the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round of the playoffs.

But in order for Siakam to become an effective scorer on the perimeter, Siakam will need to make significant improvements in his jump-shooting and ball-handling.

On the surface, the 25-year-old had a breakout season in terms of his shooting. He hit 41.6 percent from the corners, and shot a career-high 37 percent overall from deep. But his three-point percentage dipped to 27.9 percent in the playoffs, as defenses keyed in on denying comfortable corner looks in favor of forcing him into longer looks at the top of the floor beyond Siakam’s reliable range.

How Pascal Siakam fared from different spots on the floor during the 2018-19 playoffs.
How Pascal Siakam fared from different spots on the floor during the 2018-19 playoffs.

Nurse adjusted by involving Siakam in more screen actions at the top of the floor, but defenses sagged back and denied the paint, which led to a spike in midrange attempts. In 80 regular season games, Siakam attempted a total of 48 shots from between the three-point line and outside the the paint, as compared to 41 attempts in just 24 playoff games. Granted, he sank a respectable 41 percent of his tries, but that’s still not a great outcome for the offense, as opponents were willing to live with an open look in favor of Siakam getting all the way to the hoop.

If a midrange shot is all Siakam can get out of a pick-and-roll, then the Raptors will have problems. Siakam would either have to refine his jumper and force the defense to play him tighter or improve his handle to get closer to the hoop. Either way, there needs to be a significant improvement on Siakam’s part, because it’s unrealistic to build an effective offense around the most inefficient shot in basketball.

An improved handle would unlock other aspects of his game. At the moment, Siakam can sometimes break down his man and get to most places on the floor, but he can’t exactly maneuver like a point guard. He’s not slithering through the cracks and forcing defenses into making tough decisions. That’s in part why Siakam doesn’t draw many fouls, and why his assists aren’t higher. Most successful point forwards — the LeBron James and Kevin Durants of the world — stuff every box in the stat sheet because they can manipulate the defense at will.

The Giannis model

The Raptors should have a development model in mind for Siakam, and who better to follow than the reigning MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Much like Antetokounmpo, Siakam is a positionless 6-foot-10 freak athlete that creates off the dribble, and thrives in the paint. There are even elements of Siakam’s game — namely the corner three and free-throw shooting— that are already more advanced. And while it’s extremely unlikely that Siakam will be the second coming of Antetokounmpo without the raw strength to manhandle defenders, there are lessons to be learned from Antetokounmpo’s development path.

As it happens, Siakam’s numbers in his third season bears a striking resemblance to that of Antetokounmpo. Granted, Siakam was three years older than Antetokounmpo at the time, but their physical builds were similar.

Comparing the third seasons in the NBA of Pascal Siakam and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Comparing the third seasons in the NBA of Pascal Siakam and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

For starters, it’s worth nothing that Antetokounmpo only started finding success once he was surrounded by shooters. The Bucks were a middling team — winning no more than 44 games over the first five years of Giannis’s career — before last season when the front office made a concerted effort to pair him at all times with shooters at every position. Milwaukee jumped from 25th to second in three-point attempts, which helped open the floor for Giannis to slash to the rim.

The ingredients are in place for the Raptors to crudely replicate the Bucks’ supporting cast. Marc Gasol can fill the role of Brook Lopez in stretching the floor, while Serge Ibaka is easily better than Ersan Ilyasova, and Kyle Lowry is certainly more accurate than Eric Bledsoe. Fred VanVleet operates similarly to Malcolm Brogdon as a point guard playing mostly off-ball, minus the ability to finish at the basket. Not having a consistent perimeter scorer like Khris Middleton is a major concern, but the Raptors can still trot out players like OG Anunoby and Norman Powell who can capitalize if left abandoned on the perimeter. The idea would be to trot out as many shooters as possible to create space for Siakam to attack.

Second, the growth of Antetokounmpo’s game is almost directly tied to his physical development. Antetokounmpo entered the league as a rail-thin 18-year-old, before bulking up dramatically each summer until he eventually became the most physically imposing player in the league. Growing in strength — while still maintaining his explosiveness and quickness — gave Antetokounmpo the ability to overwhelm defenders in the paint. That’s reflected in the quadrupling of his free-throw attempts, and a 50 percent increase in accuracy inside the restricted area from his rookie to MVP seasons.

In Siakam’s case, he must walk a careful line between improving strength versus maintaining his cat-like quickness. Siakam’s speed and fluidity make up core pillars of his game, and those elements should be preserved first and foremost. But if at all possible, putting on some weight will help Siakam cope with wear and tear, while also potentially allowing him to play through more contact and sharpen his already elite ability to finish in the paint.

MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - MAY 23:  Pascal Siakam #43 of the Toronto Raptors attempts a shot while being guarded by Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks in the third quarter during Game Five of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2019 NBA Playoffs at the Fiserv Forum on May 23, 2019 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Pascal Siakam #43 of the Toronto Raptors attempts a shot while being guarded by Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks at the Fiserv Forum on May 23, 2019 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Third, the Bucks established early in Antetokounmpo’s career that he was a point forward, and his coaches allowed him to play through mistakes. Siakam needs to be afforded the latitude to experiment and learn from his mistakes. The Raptors have largely played Siakam as a power forward up to this point, but he will be given a chance to redefine his own role moving forward.

Again, the goal isn’t to turn Siakam into the next Antetokounmpo, nor is it realistic to hold such expectations. But there are lessons to be learned from how the Bucks groomed Giannis into becoming the best player in the East, and many of the same strategies can be applied to Siakam. His ceiling won’t necessarily hit MVP levels, but Siakam does have a decent shot of challenging for an All-NBA team next year.

“There’s lots of little steps left to climb yet for him,” Nurse said of Siakam, “And I think the sky’s the limit.”

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