2017-18 Player Review: Pascal Siakam

This is a guest post from Colin Connors. You can keep up with all of our player reviews here.

Whilst Fred VanVleet and OG Anunouby have seen their value rise exponentially in NBA circles as the Raptors most coveted young prospects due to their surprising improvement this past year, it seems hardly anyone is talking about Pascal Siakam. Most of the discussion surrounding Siakam usually pertains to his lovable personality (watch any episode of Open Gym and he’ll steal the show) or his top-three NBA bromance with Jakob Poeltl (trailing only PB&J and Tobias/Boban). Meanwhile, his vastly improved play is largely brushed over. In fact, some people have even gone as far as to call his growth a mere by-product of the Bench Mob’s system.

On the surface, Siakam’s improvement from his rookie year to his sophomore year seems typical of that of a first-round-pick turned role-player. It’s a tale as old as the modern NBA: A second-year player sees an uptick in productivity due to an increase in role and confidence that comes with a year of NBA experience. Fanbases attribute his inefficiency or lack of defensive awareness to youth and fall in love with their tantalizing new prospect. Wait a year or two. The inefficiency remains, the productivity plateaus, and, suddenly, fans are stuck with a depreciating asset once everyone realizes that second-year spark was just a flash in the pan (see: Ben McLemore). In fact, all of Siakam’s jumps in counting stats (7.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 2.0 apg) are relatively pedestrian, and looking at them, one wouldn’t be faulted for thinking he fit the bill of a second-year player that didn’t actually improve much. But look even a bit deeper and you can begin to see the absurdly underrated impact Siakam had for the Raptors this year.

Much like VanVleet, most of Siakam’s impact doesn’t show up in the counting stats, but in advanced stats and on/off splits. For example, according to Basketball Reference, the Raptors offensive rating was four points better with him on the floor this season (compared to seven points worse his rookie year), his VORP jumped from 0.2 in 16-17 to 1.7 in 17-18 (which was second highest of any second-year player), and he had the third-highest net rating of any sophomore player at +9.1 –trailing only VanVleet and Joel Embiid. In addition, if you look at the Raptors best lineups by net rating, you will see Siakam everywhere, regardless of if it’s a five-, four-, three-, or two-man lineup. That doesn’t happen by accident or as a by-product of a system. Siakam’s improving. Don’t expect that to change.

Just as his jump from year one to year two was far from typical, so was his path to the NBA. To keep a great story short, Siakam started playing basketball at 16 after being primarily a soccer player all his life (which is part of the reason for his unbelievable footwork and agility). To put that in perspective, Siakam is the same age as Giannis Antetokounmpo but didn’t start playing until three years after him. Remember how raw Giannis was three years ago? I am not saying Siakam is the next Giannis—no one is. However, I am saying that Siakam is not going to follow the prototypical NBA player improvement model where a player at 24 isn’t that different from that same player at 27. He is not your prototypical NBA player. His development arc will be shaped by his unrelenting desire to catch up.

Any NBA player will admit that one of the biggest challenges of staying in the NBA is manufacturing the motivation to improve now that you’ve “made it.” Siakam doesn’t have that problem. In an interview with Sportsnet earlier this year Siakam went in-depth about his ridiculous summer work ethic (5:30am mornings, 500-1000 3’s a day, etc) and how it’s all motivated by an internal voice that tells him he is years behind his peers due to his late introduction to the game and how he needs to outwork everyone to close the gap. Last summer, after taking the customary week or two off after the playoffs, Siakam supposedly took one day off the rest of the summer. That work ethic is what has driven one of basketball’s fastest improvement curves in recent memory.

Just four years ago, Siakam was a redshirt his freshman year at mid-major New Mexico State (NMSU). The following year, he was almost redshirted again as the coaching staff still wasn’t sure if was ready for the NCAA. Instead, they took a gamble and decided to add him to the roster. Six games in, Siakam stole the starting spot. A year later he was unanimous conference player of the year. Like I said, he is not typical.

However, tons of basketball players work like dogs in the summertime and don’t improve at the rate Siakam has. What makes him different? Well, unlike most players with his physical tools, Siakam didn’t grow up playing in the corrupt AAU circuit. He spent his first 16 years in Cameroon and thus was in many ways sheltered from the toxic environment of youth sports in the United States. He doesn’t hide behind an inflated ego telling him he is destined for greatness because he was able to dominate American amateur athletics throughout his formative years. He is a sponge. He leaves his ego aside and tries to learn as much about the game as he possibly can. At NMSU he developed a bond with a graduate assistant who saw how eager Siakam was to learn about the game. He began giving Siakam books about basketball to fill his appetite, but it was never enough, as every few days Siakam would go looking for his next meal and ask for another. Slowly but surely, Siakam began to learn the nuance of the game—he hasn’t stopped since.

So what is a role-player-star? Well, it doesn’t really have a set definition. There’s no statistical bar of “20 and 10” to hit to prove you are one. It often takes really knowing the game to even recognize one as the elite player they are. They affect the game in their own unique ways that often fail to bring recognition in archetypal box score stats. Their impact is usually a bit of a dog’s breakfast as they exert a massive influence over many seemingly unrelated aspects of the game, whilst taking care of the intangibles at an elite level. To be one, it takes an absurdly high basketball IQ and supreme internal confidence but still a checked-at-the-door ego that puts winning above all else. The best example (and best comparison for Siakam) would be Draymond Green.

Now, I am not saying Siakam is the next Draymond. Nobody is. That’s the catch with role-player-stars: Their games’ generally consist of such an unusual combination of elite skills that it is nearly impossible for two players to be the same (try to compare Green, Al Horford, and Andre Kirelinko, for example). However, there are definitely some major areas of overlap between how Green affects the game and how Siakam can.

**In the raspy words of Tom Thibodeau** First, and most importantly, is defense.

Siakam is not even near the level of defender Green is yet, but with the footwork of an agile guard and enough wingspan to make Jay Bilas salivate like one of Pavlov’s dogs, he has the tools to create a similar impact. In particular, Siakam has shown flashes of the all-too-rare ability to guard one through five, much like Green does when the Warriors play him at the five in the death (and coma – shout out to Zach Lowe) lineups. When given the right opportunity, this skill allows teams to lean heavier on small ball lineups as they don’t have to worry about possible mismatches. Unfortunately for Raptors fans, these kinds of opportunities are sparse for now, so they will have to settle for glimpses such as the ones we saw these playoffs. Although consistency was lacking, Siakam had Draymond-esque stretches in the Washington series. He would lock up Bradley Beal one possession, John Wall a few possessions later, and Marcin Gortat shortly after that.

However, as any coach will tell you (and as Jeff Green’s career has shown you), it takes a lot more than the physical tools to become an elite defender. You have to be a basketball savant, like Green, with an astronomically high basketball IQ (which takes more than the eight years Siakam has been playing to develop), and arguably an even higher motor. Luckily for Raptors fans, Siakam has the latter on lock.

While he doesn’t get the recognition of guys like Marcus Smart or Tony Allen, Siakam has one of the NBA’s highest motors. Watch any Raptors game and you’ll see him outrun almost every player on the court getting back on defense, dive on a loose ball, then beat everyone down the court again once the Raptors recover the ball. In fact, Siakam was top-three in just about every hustle stat for the Raptors this season despite getting only a shade over 20 minutes per game. Former head coach Dwane Casey once called Siakam’s motor an “NBA skill.” Having a high motor is crucial for being the big in small-ball lineups as each defensive possession requires multiple efforts to make up for the collective disadvantage that comes with playing small.

In addition, Siakam has a bit of Draymond in him in that he is a relentless competitor with no fear. Despite, for the most part getting rolled by Lebron in the second round, Siakam stayed competitive and refused to back down.

Apart from strength and basketball IQ, both of which should progress each year, the main area where Siakam needs to improve to be able to play a Draymond-type role defensively is rim protection. This past year, despite having very similar steal rates, Siakam had a much lower block percentage then Green (2% vs. 3% per Basketball Reference– that’s a lot bigger than it seems). Part of this discrepancy can be attributed to Siakam defending more perimeter players than Green due to the fact that Siakam generally plays with another big (Siakam played only one percnt of his minutes at center this year, per Basketball Reference). This causes him to spend less time defensively near the rim and, consequently, have fewer opportunities to protect it. Green experienced similar issues under Mark Jackson before finally being set free and blossoming as a defender under Steve Kerr’s small-ball-loving style. One can only hope that a similar transition will take place for Siakam with a new coaching regime.

The second major area of overlap between the two is their ability to play point forward and create for others. This is the skill that has made DeMar DeRozan call Siakam “Our Draymond Green,” and surprisingly, is not a skill most people were aware Siakam had prior to this year, as in his rookie year he only tallied a mere 17 total assists. In fact, his 2.0 assists per-game this year were higher than any season at NMSU, despite getting far fewer minutes and touches.

Although Siakam only averages two assists to Green’s 7.3, the comparison gets a little more interesting when you look at Green’s progression to get that point. For example, this past year Siakam’s assist percentage jumped to 13.5% from 2.9% his rookie year, a ridiculous jump similar to the jump Green made from his rookie year (7%) to his third year (16%) during which he saw a minutes increase akin to the one Siakam received this past year. Another particularly illuminating stat comes per Cleaning the Glass, as Siakam ranked in the 85th percentile for all power forward/center players in assist to usage ratio this past season, which is similar to the level Green was at in his second year (93rd percentile).

While Siakam will likely never be the post up or short roll passer Green has become, they both have a knack for being especially adept at finding shooters when they push the ball in transition. In fact, the veteran Raptors have become so comfortable with Siakam leading the break that Kyle Lowry told him that he (Lowry) wasn’t coming back to get the outlet anymore if Siakam got the rebound. Expect Siakam-led fast breaks with spread shooters to become a staple for the Raptors over the coming years as it has for the Warriors with Green.

Additionally, while Siakam does need to improve his ball security and decision-making quite a bit, his 1:1 assist-to-turnover ratio isn’t as disheartening as one might think once they consider that Green had a similar ratio early in his career as well. These things take time. This does mean that Siakam likely isn’t ready to be the fulcrum of the offence the way Green is. Not yet at least.

As is the case for countless NBA players throughout history, the main thing holding Siakam back is largely out of his control: opportunity.

Consider that this season Siakam played one percent of his minutes as the lone big on the floor (per Basketball Reference). Early in his career, Green experienced similar issues whilst playing for Mark Jackson. However, in Steve Kerr’s first year he began playing Green at centre 10 percent of the time, and this corresponded with a career high in assist percentage (16%). The following year, Kerr went all-in and doubled Green’s time at centre. Ever since that decision, Green’s assist percentage has hovered around a mind-blowing 28-29%. Unleashing Point Draymond is what was able to take Golden State’s offense from good to all-time great. Makes you think, doesn’t it?

However, as has been well documented, Green’s emergence as Golden State’s X-factor was not part ofKerr’s initial master plan when he took over. Like many of humanity’s greatest innovations, it was stumbled upon by accident when David Lee went down early in Kerr’s first year, forcing Kerr to try weird lineups he had never considered. Unfortunately for Siakam (and Raptors fans), much like Green was stuck behind the aging-a-lot-faster-than-expected Lee, Siakam is trapped behind the ghost of Serge Ibaka. Luckily for Green, he was afforded a unique opportunity before “his time” came. So unless Masai Ujiri decides to manufacture a way to cut ties with Ibaka early or the new coaching staff decides to reduce his role drastically (which seems unlikely as it would plummet his trade value even further), that same opportunity won’t be there for Siakam.

Conventional wisdom says that it will likely be a slow process for Siakam as he builds up equity with the new coaching staff until Ibaka’s expiring deal can be unloaded in 2019-20 before Siakam will truly get a chance to strut his stuff. But then again, Siakam isn’t typical.

So is Siakam the next Draymond? No. Probably not. Can he have a Draymond-esque impact? It’s in play. For now, much like Green was in 2014, he is waiting in the weeds. Waking up at 5:30 am, putting up his 1000 3’s a day, waiting to become the two-way terror no one knows he can be.

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