Raptors Cage

Pascal Siakam is the Raptors’ biggest wildcard

Pascal Siakam looks like he was designed to play basketball. He’s a hard player to miss. The first thing everyone notices about him is his size. He is a legitimate NBA big man; his 6’10 frame and 7’3 wingspan combine to make an imposing player that nobody seeks to score against. With that already in mind, you’ll have to wait for a defensive rebound before his potential really begins to reveal itself to you. Because watching him outrace everyone down the length of the court in transition is absolutely breathtaking. Siakam’s combination of speed and athleticism is extremely rare and is often the kind of skillset that a player will center his career around. Entering his third year, however, it is clear that Siakam aspires to be more than just a high-end energy player.

To be a star in the NBA, you have to have a comprehensive understanding of all of basketball’s nuances. It’s the little details that separate the best from the rest, and Pascal Siakam’s understanding of those little details has seen astronomical growth.

Working his way to the top

When the Kawhi Leonard trade was first reported, there was a brief window of silence before anyone found out what the Raptors had given up to get him. It was assumed that one of OG Anunoby or Pascal Siakam would be included in the trade package. They are, after all, universally recognized as the most promising young prospects in the Raptors’ rotation.  As we all know now, neither of them were included in the deal.

With that said, it is a testament to Siakam’s growth that he was touted as the kind of “can’t-miss” prospect that you have to include when trading for a player of Kawhi Leonard’s caliber. Entering the 2017-2018 season, Siakam wasn’t even a part of the 10-man rotation. He played a combined 13 minutes of garbage-time in the first two games of the season. He didn’t even get to play against the Spurs in the third game of the season, even with Valanciunas out due to a sprained ankle. Then, while down 12 to the Golden State Warriors in the fourth game, Siakam came in and scored 10 unanswered points in under two minutes. The Raptors went on to lose the game, but Siakam would come away with a career-high 20 points. This performance earned him a spot in the starting lineup for the next game, where he finished with 18 points on 8/10 shooting. Those two performances became his ticket into the main rotation.

A defensive star

Siakam has not scored more than 17 points in a single game since those two break-out games last season. He carved out a role for himself in other ways. It started with his defense. He has shown flashes of being a true 1-5 defender; an invaluable player to have in today’s switch-happy NBA. Unlike most players his size, Siakam is too quick to be beaten off the dribble by a smaller guard. Intangibly, he has the fiery attitude that many great NBA defenders seem to have. Whether you’re an all-time great like Kevin Garnett, or just a solid guard like Pat Beverley, defending is as much about mindset as it is about talent. Siakam oozes confidence, and is not afraid of talking trash or getting into an opponent’s face. The only thing holding him back is strength. Adding some muscle would go a long way in improving his rebounding, and would also make him a viable small-ball center.

Gauging his offense

While Siakam’s defensive ceiling is clear, his offensive ceiling remains a mystery and is largely what makes him such a coveted asset. He began to earn more opportunities a playmaker last season, and he flourished. The 2.0 assists per game he averaged do not tell the whole story. He displayed great passing chemistry with former teammate Jakob Poeltl and showed routinely that he can create offense with his dribble. He was far more effective at the rim than he was in his rookie season, although he could still stand to improve. His understanding of how to use his speed in transition has greatly improved. A Lowry+Siakam-led fastbreak now feels like a guaranteed bucket. His shooting remains the worst aspect of his game, but it is clear that he is trying to improve it. He averaged 1.6 threes per game last year, even though he had a lowly 3PT% of 22%.

His offensive game needs more polish, but the potential is too evident to ignore. As it stands now, he is a 6’10 speed demon who can be your secondary ball handler. He’s already 24, but he didn’t even start playing basketball until he was nearly 17. He has made a big leap every single year. He went from averaging 12.8/7.7/1.3 (PTS/REB/AST) as a freshman at New Mexico State, to 20.3/11.6/1.7 as a sophomore. Then he went from averaging 4.2/3.4/0.3 as an NBA rookie, to 7.2/4.5/2.0 as a valuable asset on a #1 seed. It’s hard to put a limit on what he can become.

The future

Pascal Siakam was already one of the Raptors’ most versatile players last year. If he sees any sort of improvement, it’s not inconceivable that he could become a true sixth man. In fact, if he’s put on enough muscle, he could find himself getting heavy minutes with the starting lineup as a center. A Lowry-Green-Leonard-Anunoby-Siakam combo could be an outrageously good lineup at both ends, but it needs Siakam to become a better rebounder.

And for what it’s worth, he did grab 13 rebounds in our first preseason game against Portland. His career high before that was 10 rebounds, something he’d only accomplished twice. Pascal Siakam deserves your attention this year.

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