Pascal Siakam’s in-game management will define his next step

Pascal Siakam took the ball from OG Anunoby and raced down the court with the oh so familiar head of steam that usually leads to a forceful drive towards the rim regardless of traffic accompanied by whatever finish will do. With no challenger in sight, there’s the trademark slam. Contest at the rim, and the alternative deft touch appears that belies the ferociousness of his approach.

This occasion was different.

With Giannis Antetokounmpo sizing him up near the charge circle and Brook Lopez trailing from behind, all Siakam saw was a giant roadblock closing off what’s usually his most preferred route. It was a strange sight. His side trailing by four points early in the third quarter and still looking a little woozy after being hit by a 16-1 haymaker on either side of halftime, this was a small moment for Siakam to show that he wasn’t intimidated by the prospect of taking on the league’s reigning MVP. All season, Toronto has rode the momentum of their title, the intangibles of championship grit and an unshakeable confidence elevating an elite core group and putting to rest any theories that the Raptors would wither away in the absence of Kawhi Leonard. But seeing Siakam back away from that opportunity showed there are still steps he needs to take as the focal point of this team to be the MVP-type player he aspires to be.

This may sound strange, but it took me back to when the Miami Heat first visited Toronto this season and head coach Erik Spoelstra was asked about the improved play of Duncan Robinson and reflected upon the importance of a player’s esteem needing to catch up to their talent. Siakam has shifted through the gears at such a rapid pace to get to this point in his career, but the mental challenge of being a superstar night in and night out is just as difficult, if not more so than acquiring the requisite skill.

And that’s fine, the Raptors weren’t supposed to be this good and Siakam wasn’t supposed to be leading a team that now looks a serious championship contender this quickly. That conversation this season was initially reserved for the Bucks, Sixers, Lakers and Clippers. Toronto was supposed to be in a year of transition, good but not great with three expiring contract situations to evaluate. As has been the case since the day Siakam arrived in the league, the script has flipped and so now we must look at the new page.

Some slippage against the better teams is expected at this stage, and for Siakam, the 3-point shot looks the biggest concern based on the table below. It is skewed a fair deal by the load he had to carry when the Raptors were on their early West coast trip without the services of Lowry and Ibaka. Take away three games against both L.A. teams and Dallas and he’s shooting a respectable 34.6% from beyond the arc, his 2-point percentage improves to 48.9% and even his free-throws improve to 86.9% (he was 9-for-17 at the line in those games).

One thing that may be worth fine-tuning to improve his efficiency is how Siakam goes about getting his. He looks to establish his jumper early against the plus-.500 teams, presumably to increase the space defenders have to guard against him and thereby open up driving lanes. On the flip side, keeping him on the perimeter is a win for the opponent, especially the Bucks. Perhaps looking to operate a bit more often out of the post in the first quarter to establish not just the shooting threats around him, but some cutting options as well could be a better process for how he gets his.

This first possession the Raptors ran below is a good example. Siakam has the ball up top, and then receives it on the left block after some screening action. If OG Anunoby makes the read to initially screen Eric Bledsoe with Ibaka ready with the stagger screen, Siakam’s got the easy pass to Lowry for a clean look at a three. Instead, the opportunity disappears and Siakam is left taking a tough fadeaway over Giannis.

Part of the criticism Siakam takes against the best teams may stem from not feeling the air of confidence Leonard provided or superstars generally provide when others get tight. Superstars come with their own aura as a result of the history they’ve created and it emits to those watching. The best players have the unique ability to control the tempo of the game, to bend both time and space to their will, they have an established body of work that shows they can do it time and again. If LeBron James is the master of it, Siakam is still a novice. Is that really fair to him? It isn’t, but that’s part of the parcel now. Part of becoming a superstar is also taking the hits along the way and knowing that the job description comes with the ups and downs of being cast as both hero and villain. We’ve seen firsthand how hitting The Shot can validate everything from sitting out 20-plus regular season games to the colour of an energy drink while missing it can raise doubts about attending one’s own graduation.

It is important to recognize that this season was always going to be a work in progress, though. Also, who’s doing for him what he did for Leonard last season? The Raptors offence at its best is a joy to watch because of its democracy, but the value of individual shot creation in the post-season and against the best defences in general gets elevated to another level. As a result, it makes a difference when you have a go-to scorer as a second option when the primary is taken away. Marc Gasol is an excellent facilitator and defensive hub and his value is immeasurable, but in a game like the one against the Bucks, you could feel the difference a Norman Powell could have made, both as a defensive wing option who could create and finish more transition opportunities, but also take defenders off the bounce to create his own shot.

But back to Siakam, his progress to this point has been defined by his unabashed embrace of failure. Getting assigned to the G League after opening his rookie season as a starter for the Toronto Raptors and missing every 3-pointer he attempted for what seemed like an eternity (it was 25 straight misses) during his time with the Bench Mob have become storied battle wounds. Based on what he’s shown thus far against teams that have best schemed for him, the next challenge for Siakam is striking that balance between maximizing his threat level and accentuating the skills of those around him.

When thinking of what this means for the 25-year-old, think of it as needing to come to a full understanding of something in between what Gregg Popovich said when Leonard was tackling the intricacies of being the focal point of an offence and the good old emptying of the clip. One of the greatest coaches of all-time explained that the two-time Finals MVP took his biggest step forward on the offensive side of the ball when he understood that when the Spurs ran a play for him, it was for the team to score, not necessarily for him to score. For a time, Leonard looked to score the ball every time the ball was put in his hands, but when he learned the way defences would attack him, he understood exactly when and where his teammates would be in a better position to succeed than him.

Siakam doesn’t have a selfish bone in his body, and so finds himself on the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of what Popovich is talking about. If he’s struggling, the defence can generally look to play him for the pass. Siakam has such a healthy respect for the capabilities of his teammates that it comes across as though he’s “OK” with lowering his usage because he believes the others can pick up the slack. And that’s where the theory of emptying the clip comes in. DeRozan said it after Game 7 against the Pacers, saying it was his way of leaving no stone unturned in a do-or-die game, and Leonard took it to another level against the Sixers in the conference semis. He needed 38 shots for 39 points until he hit the shot that bounced all around the world and in, but on a night when Serge Ibaka provided the only other source of dependable offence, that’s what was required.

Emptying the clip isn’t just about taking every shot in sight, it’s about those moments in games when you can feel your team’s grasp slipping away and so you refuse to relent, you try to hold the fort any way you can. What Leonard did in Game 6 against the Bucks also comes to mind. Milwaukee led by 15 late in the third quarter, and with a couple minutes remaining in the frame, Leonard could sense that he needed to pull his team back. He led the Raptors to a 10-0 run to close the quarter, scoring eight points and assisting on an Ibaka bucket. That gave Toronto the impetus they needed to close out the fourth quarter the way they did, and the rest is history.

This is Siakam’s first season as The Man, and Nurse already alluded to getting him more reps coming out of the All-Star break. He has full license to explore the bounds of his game as a No. 1 option and, over time, has to recognize that nights like Tuesday where Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka end up a combined 4-for-27 is one that he needs to take greater command of the proceedings. For better or worse, empty the clip.  The next step in his learning curve is to recognize that in order for him and the team to find another level, he must show opponents that he understands the ebbs and flows of the game and which moments are there for him to seize and which ones are for his teammates to step into the limelight.

What Nurse says about coaching applies to the players, too. There are a lot of times when you have to play for the moment, and others where you have to play for the future.

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