It says a lot about the improvement of the Raptors that a 10-5 start to the season has at least in part been viewed as a disappointment to some. For the majority of the franchise’s history a start such as this would have led to pride and disbelief, but these aren’t the same old Raptors.
The Raptors narrowly let wins go against Golden State, San Antonio, and Boston, while also being embarrassed by a Washington Wizards team without John Wall. A few bounces go the Raptors way and their record could look that much better.
But while failing to secure wins against some of the league’s top teams is a disappointment, it shouldn’t cast doubt on the Raptors’ position as one of the league’s top teams. After 15 games the Raptors find themselves tied for fourth best winning percentage, while also having had the second hardest strength of schedule (behind only Golden State) according to ESPN.
A big part of their early season success, and one of the primary reasons they have survived tough early season travel and schedule, has been the depth that Masai and company have stocked the roster with. While most teams generally run a nine man rotation each game, the Raptors have consistently reached 12 players on a nightly basis even when injury made key rotation pieces unavailable.
These deep lineups are not the result of garbage time minutes either, as it is common for Toronto to run 12 deep before half time even hits.
The Raptors’ depth was generally not thought to be a strength when the season started. Gone were steady veterans like Cory Joseph and Patrick Patterson, and in were young and unproven players. But while there were concerns about them failing, it is the previously unproven youth that has helped to carry the Raptors.
Chief among the youth movement is Pascal Siakam, a player who was out of the rotation just a few weeks ago. Siakam saw a total of 13 minutes of action through the first three games of the season, and it is now almost unthinkable for him to see less than 20 on any given night.
He has been one of the Raptors most consistent performers and provides an energy that helps to set the tone each night. He finished yesterday’s game against the Wizards with 31 minutes and his raw stats due not begin to show his impact, finishing with just 4 points, 9 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, and 2 blocks.
Despite the low-ish numbers across his statline, Siakam had two of the biggest plays of the entire game for Toronto. The first was catching up to Bradley Beal who looked destined for a breakaway dunk in the open court, only for Siakam to strip him of the ball and to force an out-of-bounds turnover.
The second was this…
— NBA G League (@nbagleague) November 19, 2017
Mike Scott never saw him coming, as Siakam came seemingly out nowhere to catch him from behind.
It’s shocking to consider how far Pascal has come since the start of his rookie year, when he was a largely out of place rookie in the starting lineup due to injury. In less than one season he went from looking a little lost in the NBA to winning the Finals MVP as the Raptors905 won the championship.
He then returned this year even better. His frenetic energy has been focused and refined, his ability to handle the ball has taken leaps and bounds from where it was, and he can capably switch on to almost anyone and make them work for anything.
All of this from a player taken 27th overall in the 2016 NBA Draft. It’s rare to get a consistent rotation player that late in the draft, but the Raptors currently look like they are walking away from the 2016 draft with one of its most impactful players
37 players from Siakam’s draft year have played at least 100 minutes in the NBA. According to Basketball Reference, Pascal currently has the fourth highest Win Shares from this group at 2.3. The only players ahead of him are Rookie of the Year winner Malcolm Brogdon (4.9), Jaylen Brown (3.2), and the Raptors very own Jakob Poeltl (2.5).
Siakam is actually somewhat hurt in the above Win Shares projections based on his limited minutes. If you look at Win Shares per 48 minutes Pascal remains fourth (.100), but this time behind Ben Simmons (.152), Poeltl (.142), and Juan Hernangomez (.102).
His emergence provides the Raptors with the type of flexibility that is needed in today’s NBA. Siakam can fit alongside any other big on the team, and can switch on both bigger and smaller players. He also has one of the highest +/- ratings on the entire team, as the Raptors have generally played better with him than without him.
As Ibaka has dealt with early season knee soreness, Siakam’s emergence has become even more important. His next step will be to refine his three point shot (currently shooting 23.3 percent), but even despite that he has already found enough ways to contribute positively.
I can’t help but picture a future of ultra-switchy lineups that feature Siakam and OG Anunoby, but at the rate they are improving the future may be closer than any of us as imagined.
Siakam is a difference maker for the Raptors already, and who would have thought 12 months ago that any of this could be said about his this early in his career.