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Pascal Siakam named NBA’s Most Improved Player

Pascal Siakam has never met an expectation he hasn’t been able to exceed.

When Siakam was drafted in 2016, he was lauded for his motor, effort, and athleticism, but little else. Hailing from New Mexico State, he had only begun playing organized basketball in 2012. He was the definition of a mystery pick. Scouts and pundits doubted him for his advanced age at the time of the draft – 22 years old – as well as his unrefined skills. He drew comparisons to players like Luc Mbah a Moute, and those were from the experts that were high on his upside. Within only a few years, Siakam has become far more than any evaluators could have dreamed.

This season, Siakam turned into an elite initiator and one of the best finishers in the NBA. He’s also a brilliant defender. And to top it off, he turned his corner shot into a reliable weapon. He averaged 16.9 points, 6.9 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.7 blocks, and only 1.9 turnovers per game. His shooting splits were 54.9/36.9/78.5. He defended opponents’ best forwards every game while switching onto guards and almost always winning those battle. He was a legitimate all-star candidate who improved dramatically in the back end of the season. Siakam spent the majority of the season as Toronto’s second option behind Kawhi Leonard, and he was one of the Raptors’ most consistent influences. On a team that valued its stars’ health, and made dramatic changes before and during the season, Siakam played 80 games for Toronto.

Siakam even received four votes for the all-NBA third team. His level of play was outrageous, and it was all the more impressive considering the jump he made from last season. Last season Siakam was a good reserve player, but the idea of him turning into this kind of player was not a reasonable one. Siakam’s 2018-19 season was remarkably similar, statistically, to Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 2015-16 and Paul George’s 2012-13, all three of which were each respective players’ third seasons. Siakam scored slightly more efficiently than either George or Antetokounmpo, with far fewer turnovers, but he was a worse passer. Call it a wash. Antetokounmpo won the NBA’s Most Improved Player in his fourth season, while George won it in his third.

The most impressive aspect of Siakam’s rise is the ridiculous level of improvement from his previous season. Last year, Siakam was the sixth or seventh option on the team. Last season, Siakam was the 181st-highest scorer in the NBA. This year, he was the 45th. Let’s compare Siakam’s improvement in each major statistical category this season to George’s and Antetokounmpo’s.  The first section of this graph is each players’ season before their MIP award, the second is their MIP seasons, and the third is the delta, or difference, between the two seasons.

In virtually every category, Siakam improved far more this season than Paul George or Giannis Antetokounmpo in their Most Improved seasons. Let that marinate.

Siakam’s career highs in every statistical category were set this season. Furthermore, he continued his ridiculous level of play into the post-season, where he helped Toronto win its first ever championship. Siakam saw each team’s best defenders in every series Toronto faced, from Jonathan Isaac to Joel Embiid to Antetokounmpo to Draymond Green. Siakam triumphed, averaging 19.0 points, 7.1 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.7 blocks, and only 1.4 turnovers per game. His shooting splits were 47.0/27.9/75.9. In other words, other than a downturn in his 3-point stroke, Siakam did not decline in any category in the playoffs. There are 82-game players and 16-game players, and Pascal Siakam is both.

The Most Improved Player Award is just a start for Siakam. He is far more than an energy player at this point in his career. In only his third season, he’s become a legitimate two-way star, unguardable in single coverage, and capable of eliminating almost any threat on the other end. The MIP award was made for players like Siakam. So adjust your expectations yet again, because Siakam continues to shatter them. Tonight he becomes 2018-19’s Most Improved Player, and who knows how high he’ll soar in the future.

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