TORONTO — While Raptors fans are pleasantly surprised with Pascal Siakam’s vastly improved play in the early goings of the 2018-19 season, his former head coach certainly isn’t.
“The sky is the limit for him,” said former Raptors head coach Dwane Casey, who is bringing his Detroit Pistons to Scotiabank Arena on Wednesday night, in a conference call with the media. “I knew from the first day he worked out for us in Buffalo. He couldn’t throw rice in the ocean out of a rowboat at that time. But now to see him making shots and playing.
“The kid has an NBA motor, and I knew that, and his heart and spirit are in the right place.”
There’s a lot to unpack from Casey’s comments, including that hilarious “couldn’t throw rice in the ocean” bit, but my mind quickly went to the “NBA motor” comment. Not because it was any sort of a revelation, as anyone who’s familiar with Siakam’s rapid development knows it was built on a foundation of high energy and incredible open-court speed.
It’s just that he’s progressed so quickly that describing Siakam as a “high-energy” player doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface these days.
Heading into the 2018-19 season, Siakam’s scouting report had yet to catch up to the Cameroon native’s soaring confidence. He was still known around the league as an energetic player who excels in the open court and is developing a solid two-way game, but less than a month into the season, the NBA seems to have been put on notice.
Siakam, on the heels of being named the NBA’s Eastern Conference Player of the Week, may be quietly campaigning for some much bigger hardware: the Most Improved Player of the Year.
Averaging a team-high 20 points last week, the third-year Raptor was a big factor as Toronto picked up three-straight wins. He followed up a 16-point performance against the Jazz with 21 against the Kings, helping the Raptors sweep a four-game Western Conference road trip for the first time in franchise history. He then dropped a career-high 23 points on the visiting Knicks to seal the Eastern Conference honour.
All of this has helped Siakam average career highs across the board — 13.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2 assists and 1.1 steals per game on the season. Sure, it helps when you’re named the starting power forward early in the season and your minutes jump from 20.7 to 27.9 per game, but there’s more to it than that.
He’s earned the trust of his coaches and teammates, specifically when it comes to handling the ball. There was a time when Siakam wasn’t much of a focal point in the half-court offence, but the Raptors are now confident in his ability to make plays, even if his opponents aren’t.
“It’s a little bit like (Ben) Simmons, right?” said head coach Nick Nurse, insinuating that opponent’s don’t exactly respect Siakam’s perimeter shooting when the 76ers were in town two weeks ago. “People stay back and he’s absorbing all that space with some speed and some ball-handling skill. He’s almost getting a head of steam without anybody holding him up.”
Siakam himself is quick to reference the same two factors — space, and a burgeoning ability to handle the ball — when it comes to dissecting his early-season success.
“Just being able to move, you know?” he said after a 120-99 win over the 76ers. “And also having the ball in my hands and being able to handle it also helps. And the guys are trusting me to have the ball in my hands and do different things so I can find ways to score and ways to dish to anybody else for an assist. So just picking my spots and finding a way to have an impact.”
Siakam’s expedited development certainly isn’t lost on his teammates, and while he still brings the same energy that he’s known for, he’s progressed in a way that has impressed — if not confounded — his teammates.
“He’s playing with high energy and he’s playing with a lot of skills, you know?” said Jonas Valanciunas. “He’s P. Skills! He’s handling the ball. Sometimes, I don’t know. He’s trailing, he’s handling. You get confused because he’s all over the place, but it’s good.”
Good enough to help push the Raptors to the best start to a season in franchise history. And as Toronto returns to the top of the Eastern conference standings, a position the team held for much of last season, you could argue that no Raptor is enjoying the experience more than Siakam.
He’s enjoying a breakout season, and his team is taking notice. Whether it’s high praise from the locker room or a contract extension from the executive office, the Raptors are rewarding Siakam for his budding talent early in the season.
It took the NBA less than a month to do the same.
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