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Pascal Siakam is already a star

Pascal Siakam was quietly confident that he would be included in the all-star game this year. He didn’t have the raw scoring numbers of a traditional all-star, but he had been playing like an all-star. When Siakam didn’t receive the call before the January 31 show announcing the all-star reserves, he was understandably frustrated. He has made that quite clear with his place since. In fact, since his non-inclusion in the all-star game, he has been a man on fire. In six games – all wins – Siakam has averaged 22.5 points on 49-37.5-76.2 splits. He hasn’t just been a scorer, adding 7.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1 steal, and 0.8 blocks per game. He has been the Raptors’ best and most consistent player over the same period, leading the team in usage rate (26.7 percent), scoring, and plus-minus (13.3). We haven’t been watching a role player outperforming his abilities; we’ve been watching a star reach his potential.

If you blinked and missed Siakam’s evolution, you can’t be blamed.

Before the season, we talked about Siakam’s finishing as off-beat, or helter-skelter. He would beat defenders with looping attacks that took them by surprise. Even earlier in the year, Siakam’s scoring was seen as a cherry on top of the Raptors’ offence. He beat opponents who gave him space, driving into defenders that dared him to shoot, and using his patented spin move to shock them.

Siakam isn’t taking anyone by surprise anymore. He’s attacking set defences that are gameplanning to stop him. After a hot start to the season, Siakam’s efficiency cooled off. Teams put him on the scouting report, and they were ready for his attacks. His scoring and efficiency fell in December, while his turnovers were the highest they’ve been all season. It took him some time to adjust to the increased defensive attention who were ready for his spin moves before they happened.

That didn’t last. Siakam has already grown enough to burst through that brief plateau. He’s become more confident and comfortable with the ball in conjunction with having the ball in his hands far more frequently. Only 57 percent of Siakam’s baskets have been assisted, which is comparable to first-option bigs like Joel Embiid (54 percent) and Nikola Jokic (51 percent), or even wing initiators like Jayson Tatum (58 percent). Siakam is no longer the cherry on top of the offence; recently, he has become Toronto’s offence.

 Usage rateTouchesAverage minutes of possession per gameAverage seconds per touchAverage dribbles per touch

Siakam’s time of possession and number of touches have increased monthly, until they plateaued from January to February. He’s been given an increasing share of the offence. However, he had been growing slightly less decisive as the season went gone on. He held the ball for longer and dribbled more. That changed in February. As his usage rate continued climbing, he’s now holding the ball for far less time and dribbling it less than at any other point in the season. He’s comfortable in his knowledge about how defences will react to him, where the rotations will come from, and how to stay a step ahead; he doesn’t need as much time to survey the floor. Siakam’s effective field goal percentage is dramatically higher if he attacks immediately after receiving the ball, rather than waiting for a few moments, so his rapid decision-making has helped boost his game.

His offensive game has developed rapidly. Excepting a handful of brilliant individual defenders, Siakam has become almost impossible to guard in single coverage. He belongs in the the classic category of too big for smalls and too quick for bigs. His post-up game is elite, if somewhat unorthodox.

His attack off the dribble is probably even better.

The problem for defenders is that Siakam often gets his touches against defences that are already rotating. He isn’t the first option on the team! (In a variety of possible futures, he soon will be.) The Raptors will leverage Siakam’s scoring ability by getting him the rock after an initial action that gets defenders on the move. Siakam often sets up as the screener in the pick-and-roll. He’ll often pop to maximize the distance between himself and his man, who is supposed to help contain the ball on the pick-and-roll. Those extra few feet mean the defence is moving when Siakam catches the ball. By that point, it’s over; Siakam has already won.

The most terrifying part is that there is still room to grow. Unlike many scorers who come into their own by smoothing out their sharp edges, it’s quite obvious where Siakam’s weaknesses still lie. Other than improving his shooting somewhat, he hasn’t really fixed his weaknesses. Before this year, his strengths were finishing, initiating, and passing. Those remain his strengths, but instead of being good, he’s become great at those skills. He is now an elite finisher, shooting 70 percent at the rim, comparable to elite scorers like Jimmy Butler (71 percent), Kevin Durant (75 percent), or Blake Griffin (71 percent). Siakam’s handle has become tighter, and his passing has become a greater weapon now that his scoring has improved.

However, Siakam’s weaknesses remain possible sources of improvement. He isn’t great at creating for himself in the midrange. He doesn’t draw enough fouls. His 3-point shooting is serviceable, instead of a weapon. He still can play too fast for his brain, his limbs not catching up to his plans.

He too frequently jumps to finish from too far out and attempts to finish over bigs who are set and vertical. Even though he is brilliant at those layups, his at-the-rim percentage would improve if he took easier shots.

The question, as it so frequently does in sports, revolves around consistency. When Siakam overcomes those weaknesses in individual games, he’s liable to break records. Take his career high 44-point showing against the Washington Wizards. He hit four 3s and attempted 12 free throws; when those limitations evaporate for brief 48-minute intervals, Siakam moonlights as one of the best scorers in the game.

It is a given that Siakam will occasionally reach the line and hit his triples, but it is far from decided whether that will become a constant in his future. If he consistently draws fouls, hits his jumpers, and plays under control, there’s no limit to the offensive scorer he can become. His 44-point career high (it was only 20 points before the season began) would likely fall either this season or next. Shooting, say, 38 percent from deep and attempting 6 free throws a game, he could be the first option on a playoff team.

As it is, Siakam is comfortably the second option on a championship hopeful. As recently as November or December of 2018, such a setup seemed like it would bode poorly for Toronto’s playoff hopes. Now Toronto can rest easy knowing that Siakam will probably take the team’s second-most shots. That’s development at an almost unprecedented rate. It’s understandable that Siakam would be frustrated at his exclusion from this year’s all-star festivities. He has developed so quickly that he wants some rewards. A Most Improved Player award could be in the cards this year, and he will soon be a lock to earn higher profile recognition, such as all-star berths. He was a year early in wanting to play in the all-star game. Those will come.

This piece hasn’t even mentioned Siakam’s defensive abilities. He is switchable 1-5, speedy and aggressive, and has brilliant hands and feet. He has the size to guard behemoths like LeBron James or Kevin Durant and the quickness to stay in front of them. He forces loads of turnovers. Jacob Goldstein’s Player Impact Plus-Minus ranks him as the best defender on the team this year. Siakam is a star because of his scoring, but he only got to this point because his defence is such a weapon.

Even for the most hopeful, Siakam’s growth this season has come as a shock. People don’t really start out a season as a borderline starter, putting up the seventh-most shots on the roster, and finish it as a team’s clear second option. Siakam may have hoped quietly to be named to the all-star team, but his case will soon be as thunderous as his open-court dunks. Pascal Siakam is already a star for the Toronto Raptors. All that’s left is to watch how high he rises.

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