If you’ve been following the journey of Pascal Siakam, you’ve seen his uncommon ability to improve year after year – even game after game. It’s something special in sports to see someone elevate their game as quickly and seamlessly as Siakam has. With so much room to improve, his potential is intriguing for fans, and scary for opponents. Such feelings are only taken to extremes upon realizing that the 6’9 forward only began playing basketball 8 years ago.
Growing up in a family of 4 brothers and 2 sisters in Douala, Cameroon, making your way to the bright lights of America was inconceivable and preposterous – but not to Tchamo Siakam; Pascal’s father. He had always strived for more, and refused to dream within his limitations. As the mayor of Makenene, Tchamo had a dream that one of his sons would play in the NBA. Each of Siakam’s brothers were interested in basketball, but ironically, Pascal wasn’t. While James, Christian, and Boris Siakam were all on their way to earning NCAA Division 1 basketball scholarships to play in the states, Siakam wanted to be a priest.
In 2011 at a basketball without borders camp, Pascal’s fascinating athleticism at his size caught the eyes of fellow Cameroonian, Luc Mbah a Moute. Once Siakam recognized his own talent, he realized that he was the chosen one. Now, he fulfills his father’s legacy every time he steps on the court. In the words of Stuart Scott, Tchamo didn’t downgrade his dreams to match his reality, he upgraded his conviction to match his destiny.
Tragically, just after Siakam had left to go play at New Mexico State, his father was involved in a car accident. He was hospitalized for four days, before he eventually passed away. Pascal received the overwhelming news just as he was heading to class when his older sister, Raissa, called him.
Obviously, Pascal wanted to go home. He wanted to be with his family, and he wanted to attend his father’s funeral, but unfortunately he had recently submitted paperwork for a visa as he was a recent immigrant to the United States. Though it was gut-wrenching to hear, his brothers told him that he had to stay in North America. If he had flown back to Cameroon, he might’ve lost his scholarship, and his ability to get back into America.
Siakam’s early life and unique rise to NBA stardom has already been well-documented, however it’s important to understand the work ethic that he possesses. His motor is a major component of why the Raptors believed in him as a scrawny raw player, the reason why he’s come this far in his NBA career, and the reason why he will only continue to go further. After winning Most Improved Player honours this season in addition to receiving All-NBA votes, he is destined for stardom. The only question remains: how can he get better? Here are four key areas:
Though he has bulked up significantly in the past couple of years, and he already has a big frame at 6’9 and 229 pounds – only 8 pounds lighter than Serge Ibaka, who is regarded as one of the stronger players in the league, he still gets pushed off his ground by smaller players on his drives. Unlike how we saw Kawhi get his buckets in the paint last year; willing his way into the spot where he wants to be with his sheer strength before finishing overtop any defender in his way, Siakam doesn’t muscle his way through the defender. Rather, he often swerves around and finishes awkwardly on his layups, which he is capable of doing because of his length and quickness, however adding some more muscle would allow him to create easier shots for himself.
The situation is reminiscent of a young Giannis Antetokounmpo, who often finished around his defenders after being bounced around like a pinball in the paint. Last summer, he got in the gym and noticeably bulked up, allowing him to dominate like a force never-seen-before this past season, and came away as the NBA’s Most Valuable Player.
Obviously only few in the history of the game have been as devastating in transition as Antetokounmpo is, however Siakam has the potential to become something of the sort, as he has all the physical tools at his disposal. The first step for him to become the next Superman would be to get a little stronger.
Shot-creating ability ultimately comes down to intellect and court-awareness, which both come with experience, as well as ball-handling ability which allows one to be able to dribble through splits, by primary defenders, and take care of the rock in the paint as double-teams swipe at the ball.
Though his ability to find his own opportunities within half-court sets has improved from two seasons ago, when most of Siakam’s points came from cuts that left him wide-open under the basket, or in transition when he would outrun the other 9 guys on the floor, his game still seems predictable. He is a much stronger finisher on the right side of the basket, he loves to spin around defenders on his way to the cup, and often throws up a quick shot over his left shoulder when posting up on the block.
After the first few games last season, opposing scouts began to see Siakam’s prowess as an offensive threat, and started game-planning for how to stop him. Still, he managed to decimate defenses, most notably going 14-17 in Game 1 of The Finals, and having a career-high 44 point outing in a regular season game against the Washington Wizards.
Without Kawhi in the lineup this year, and Siakam as the clear-cut number one option on a championship caliber team, he will have a tough defensive matchup in every game. The other team’s best player will always be focused on Pascal, and their 5-man defense could be built around taking away his strengths. In all, it won’t be as easy for him to get buckets as it was last year. Specifically, he needs to improve his footwork so he can have a better post game, he needs to get better at getting out of double teams, and he needs to improve his jumper.
Last season, the Raptors struggled a bit with finding the open man. Among playoff teams, Toronto ranked 9th in assists per game. At times, it seemed like nobody outside of Lowry, VanVleet, Gasol, or Kawhi were capable of making the right pass, and that resulted in a lot of poor shots, and bottom-of-the-clock possessions. With Siakam jumping into the lead role on the team, and hoping to make another leap from star to superstar, he’ll have to round out his game. There’s one thing that all the best players in the league have in common; their ability to do it all, and that includes playmaking. Surely, Siakam will see a double team in almost every game next season, which means that one of his teammates will be open, or will have the opportunity to find the open guy. At the beginning of last season, Siakam struggled with finding his way out of double teams, often not recognizing it quickly enough and getting trapped. Towards the end of the year and into the playoffs as he became more accustomed to becoming a focal point of his opponents’ defensive schemes, he improved his ability to dribble out, or make the right pass. Rather than turning it over, he would find an easy bucket for a teammate.
Further than just getting easy buckets instead of giving up fastbreak points, Siakam’s ability to drive past his primary defender with his quick first step usually draws second defender. Even though he is pretty good at finishing overtop the help defense, if he can get better at kicking out to the guy in the corner, or finding his fellow big man inside for an easy 2, that will make him even more of a weapon.
Despite vastly improving his 3-point shooting last season from 22.0% to 36.9% from beyond the arc, he still has a long way to go before he’s a respectable 3-point shooter. Often, teams are still daring Siakam to shoot the ball, as fans will remember from the Philadelphia series when Joel Embiid stood 5 feet away from Siakam when he had the ball at the top of the paint.
According to NBA.com, 82.1% of Siakam’s shots came from within the restricted area, and from the corners last season. Again, this shows how his game is predictable. Only 4.1% of his shots came from the top of the arc, where he shot 26.9% – below league average. For teams to respect his shot, he will need to improve his ability to shoot from the top, which will force defenders to play up on him, and further ease his ability to drive downhill to the basket.
A couple of weeks ago, this video emerged of Siakam at a workout with basketball guru, Rico Hines, which shows some promise for his jump shot, and demonstrates that he understands the weaknesses in his game.
If Siakam is able to distribute his shot selection more evenly next season and force his defender to respect his shot, he should have no trouble killing defenses from all angles. Each of the aforementioned aspects develop naturally with in-game experience, thus if he can allocate his efforts over the next couple months to improving his jumper, he could be one of the top offensive weapons in the entire league.
Fear not, Raptors fans: our streak of having an All-Star doesn’t end here. Spicy P’s got us covered for the next decade.