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Efficiency Epitomized: On the Rise of Pascal Siakam

Quality, not quantity.

(Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

Nine years ago, Pascal Siakam didn’t even play basketball.

Now, in just his third NBA season, he’s transformed himself into one of the league’s most dangerous weapons, the quintessence of the modern big man sans a lethal three-point shot. He’s a highly switchable, Swiss Army knife defender, boasts guard-esque vision and ball handling skills, and thrives in fast-paced environments.

Through the 22 games he’s played this season, he’s averaging career-highs in points per game (14.3), rebounds (6.7), assists (2.4), steals (1.2), true shooting percentage (68.8), and minutes (29.2). Even more incredible is that he’s already managed to record five contests in which he has scored 20+ points, a feat he only accomplished once in 2017–18.

It’s this outburst of development, pleasing to both statisticians and eye-test truthers alike, that has garnered Siakam significant attention to begin the 2018–19 campaign. He’s already been awarded Player of the Week honours (something only seven other Toronto Raptors have ever done) once, and his name has been vaulted into the early Most Improved Player conversation—a race, one could argue, he currently leads.

What’s most impressive about Siakam’s rise, however, is not just that he’s posting career numbers across the board—it’s how he’s doing it. Many expected the forward to take a leap this season, and talk about his supposedly jaw-dropping summer workouts last offseason were ubiquitous. But if one were to solely scan his traditional statistics, they may simply assume the Raptors are allowing Siakam to take more shots, to have the ball in his hands more. And while Siakam has taken a few more shots (about three more than last season), his usage percentage is actually a staggering 17.2—a career-high for him but only seventh-highest amongst his teammates who have played significant minutes.

No, Siakam’s explosion into semi-stardom has come courtesy of hyper-efficiency.

While it’s true that Siakam’s usage rate is only up slightly from the season prior, the way head coach Nick Nurse has unleashed his big man has allowed for Siakam’s expanded game to blossom. More than last season (in which it was occasional), Siakam now runs every fast break he can as the ball handler. If he snags the rebound, he’s off and running, whipping down the floor like a human-sized hurricane, looking for any openings he can find to either get all the way to the rim or to throw a swift kick-out to his teammates parked at the arc.

But the really impressive part comes from the fact that Nurse now has Siakam initiate fairly often in the half-court offense, his tighter handle and refined vision making for fatal additions to his finishing ability. A whopping 55.3 per cent of Siakam’s made two-point baskets have been unassisted this season, as opposed to just 31.3 per cent last season. Siakam isn’t just being efficient because Kyle Lowry or someone else is constantly setting him up—no, he’s creating the majority of his buckets on his own, and that should terrify opponents.

Despite, as aforementioned, Siakam’s three-point shot not being particularly deadly, defenses have still had plenty of difficulty keeping him from penetrating into the paint. In fact, Siakam is taking 76.5 per cent of his field goal attempts from 0–10 feet, an increase from last season’s percentage of 68.3. This is due to the fact that Siakam has actually taken fewer triples this year (18.5 of his shot attempts compared to 26.5), and has instead opted for more efficient shots in the 3–10 foot range (30.5 attempts compared to 22.7).

Try baiting Siakam to take a three by sagging way off of him on the perimeter and he’ll merely use the space to build up a head of steam as he goes downhill, rising for a layup or dunk if room allows or a floater if it doesn’t. Here, he decides on a smooth, one-handed banker after Otto Porter goes under the Jonas Valanciunas screen, giving him far too much space to work with. Siakam is shooting a blistering 55.7 per cent on those looks coming from 3–10 feet, up from 44.2 per cent last season.

Even though Siakam is a big man himself, matching up with him that way is often a mistake for opponents. The idea is that an opposing big man will be able to handle Siakam’s size and strength, but the latter is simply too expeditious. If his defender is foolish enough to guard him at the perimeter, Siakam will blow by him, and if he hangs back, that previously mentioned space gives Siakam the head start he needs to move seamlessly into a lightning-fast action that typically leaves his defender dizzy. Here, Nemanja Bjelica does just that, allowing Siakam to drive right into his trademark spin move. The Cameroonian native is making a ridiculous 72.5 per cent of his shots coming off of drives this season, easily a career-best.

Just as he’s too fleet-footed for big men trying to guard him at the arc, Siakam is too strong for guards or wings trying to defend him inside. Make that trade of size for quickness in hopes to stay with him, and Siakam will slip down to the post, ready to hit smaller players with an assortment of hooks, spin moves, and short jumpers. Here, poor Evan Fournier gets stuck on Siakam down low and is helpless as the big man simply rises over him to finish once he’s worked his way to a comfortable spot. Siakam is making 79.1 per cent of his shots from 0–3 feet, a mark that would make DeAndre Jordan or Clint Capela, two players who score almost all of their points off of dunks, blush.

Siakam hasn’t just been efficient shooting from the floor, either. He’s also been much improved at the free throw line, an indicator that he really is getting better at shooting the basketball, even if he won’t ever become a significant off-the-dribble pull-up threat. Currently, Siakam is making 77.3 per cent of his attempts at the line, up from 62.1 per cent last season. He’s taking them at a higher rate, too (30.8 free throw rate), a product of his increased number of drives.

The Raptors, unsurprisingly, have been much better with Siakam on the floor this season. To be more precise, they have a net rating of 15.3 when he’s out there versus a net rating of -2.2 when he sits. He’s become a one-man wrecking crew with the starters’ spacing around him, and with opponents’ primary concerns rightfully remaining Lowry and Kawhi Leonard.

Even so, the level of Siakam’s hyper-efficiency to begin the year has to be somewhat of a shock for everyone, even the Raptors (who evidently believed in him). He’s doing the absolute most with what he’s been given, and it’s becoming clearer and clearer that not only might his ceiling be the highest of Toronto’s lauded young guns, but that he might also be one of the more important pieces on a team seeking the 2019 title.

Nine years ago, Pascal Siakam didn’t even play basketball.

Whew.

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