Pascal Siakam and Divergent Progression

Since his star turn, the growth of Pascal Siakam's game has been a plunge into the unknown.

Since his star turn, the growth of Pascal Siakam’s game has been a plunge into the unknown. A radically unique player who, at the behest of his team and himself, struck out to mimic the aesthetic of countless superstar wings that came before him. After fumbling around in the dark, Siakam seems to have surfaced with what he wants to takeaway from that experience – and he’s the best he’s ever been.

The moment Siakam inked his max deal is the moment he started pulling up from downtown. Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers had just moved mountains to get Paul George, and the Wing Agenda™ was in full force. The goal was to look like them, even if you didn’t. Siakam’s attempts from downtown skyrocketed north of six a game with nearly half of them coming off the bounce and he was hitting on 34-percent. That is miraculous. Fred VanVleet isn’t even that efficient on his pull-ups this year. This season the pull-up 3 occupies 1.6-percent of Siakam’s used possessions. It’s virtually gone from his arsenal. Over the course of basically an 80-game sample, he was hitting roughly 20-percent of them, so he dropped that and moved inside the cozy confines of the arc. A shrewd business decision to trade the shot that’s worth 1.5 times as much for the shot that he was hitting twice as often (41-percent on 2-point pull-ups).

Teams drop deep, or they pinch in to deter drives. The 3-point shot that’s only 1-pass away fuels a lot of droughts. Siakam keeps them afloat at times.

Why is this important stylistically? Well, a hallmark of the Raptors best team was the pick n’ pop for a mid-range jumper from Serge Ibaka. It’s a great way to keep the chains moving on offense without relying on the variance that often accompanies 3-point attempts. The Tampa Raptors were cursed by 3-point variance and lost countless leads because of it. VanVleet is taking and creating just as many threes this season, so Siakam has started to occupy a slightly different role. Yin and Yang, as it were. Would it be better if Siakam returned to being a 34-percent shooter on pull-up threes? Yes, of course. But, that burst of shooting was short (relative to his career) and right now he’s making an adjustment that still punishes teams that pack the paint.

Not to mention, the fact that he’s as good as he’s ever been from mid-range makes defenders more eager to bite on fakes, and Siakam has been turning that into free throws and lanes to the bucket where he’s shooting roughly 75-percent. Per Cleaning The Glass it’s just shy of 70-percent, but they measure rim attempts out to 4 feet, as opposed to basketball reference at 3 feet. Both are terrific. Moving things closer to the basket has actually been a boon for Siakam’s shooting everywhere except for downtown – and the catch and shoot stuff has been trending up. When volume and burden of creation is taken into consideration, this is far and away the most dangerous Siakam has been at the rim, the short mid-range, the long mid-range, wherever. He puts heaps of pressure on teams, and their natural adjustment is to gravitate towards him as a shell and send secondary defenders his way, opening up passes to his teammates. His gravity isn’t limited to passing either, with OG Anunoby, VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., and Scottie Barnes all shooting better on drives since Siakam’s return.

The Raptors have managed to spend the least amount of time in the halfcourt across the league, but 75-percent of their possessions still come there. They’re middle of the pack in points per possession (14th) – largely buoyed by their offensive rebounding – but the aggregate of any lineup that includes Siakam is well over the 80th-percentile in the halfcourt. He’s foundational to their most consistent style of play.

The Raptors still lean heavily on him to create from static isolations (he’s in the top-5 in isolation frequency), and like every year since he signed the max contract, he’s providing above-average return on those. Better than a handful of other stars who frequent the iso. They closed out the game against the Clippers using the threat of Siakam in isolation. Particularly with elbow touches, where his field goal-percentage climbs, his assist-percentage climbs, and his turnover-percentage drops. If you give Pascal the ball at the 45-extended with a triple threat and an eye towards the bucket, great things are happening.

Siakam also has the creation and playmaking chops to be considered one of the best frontcourt passers in the NBA. There are only 4 frontcourt players who average more assists and potential assists than Siakam. His passing chops play exceptionally well next to the shooting talents of VanVleet, Anunoby, and Trent Jr. You can even add in the funky wrinkle that Barnes shoots better than 50-percent from downtown on passes from Siakam (as does ‘GTJ’).

In the Tampa Raptors season, Siakam stretched his legs as a passer from a standstill; receiving more possessions in post-ups and playmaking from there to great effect. This season, and especially recently (5 assist per game over the last 13 games), he’s shown a tremendous mix of passing flair on the move and from a standstill. The aforementioned gravity, and the defenders who come with it, are something he’s been navigating with aplomb. This is his best playmaking stretch with a live dribble and it’s because he’s done a terrific job of manipulating the secondary level of the defense. Calmly making his way downhill in cross matches and surveying for cutters who might cut to the bucket, or dusting frontcourt players with a first step and deftly hitting the man in the dunker spot after a rotation to contest from the defense – Barnes and Anunoby are both very intuitive cutters, and Chris Boucher seems to have developed a great sense of where to be to support Siakam’s penetration.

Perhaps the most underrated aspect of Siakam’s season so far, though? Rebounding. It makes sense when you think about it. There’s no discernable size difference between Siakam and any of the Raptors centers, but there always is between the Raptors and the other team. Put simply, Siakam is grabbing a much higher percentage of contested rebounds than any other year of his career, and he’s grabbing them closer to the basket than he ever has. He’s been a much bigger part of closing out defensive possessions under fire, and creating secondary ones on offense. The Raptors defense calls out for a big man, and Siakam attempts to emulate it.

Few players cover more ground defensively than Siakam, and the fact that he’s getting back to the bucket to close out possessions with this consistency is fantastic – even after sticking some of the league’s premier guards on switches, or the best sharpshooters as they run through a maze of screens. Extra possessions are gold in the NBA, and Siakam is granting the Raptors more of them, while denying opposing teams that luxury. Not to mention, Siakam grabbing defensive rebounds might be the Raptors most preferred way to jumpstart offense. He gets the ball up the floor quickly, is the teams best driver by a significant margin, and he finds VanVleet often for 3 when teams sink toward him. And oh yeah, VanVleet is the NBA’s best catch and shoot operator right now at 2+ makes a game on 50-percent shooting.

Despite being the highest paid player on the roster, Siakam appears, overwhelmingly, to be the player who has changed the most to fit its needs. When the Raptors employed Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, they asked Siakam to play more like a wing. Now, when they’re thin on size, he’s playing bigger than he ever has. The list of things he’s succeeded at, at the NBA level continues to grow, and it’s up to him to toggle between everything in the most potent order. A tall task, but one he’s been attempting to master in the changing climate of the league and his team. Right now, it has him in All-Star form.

Most people filter their viewpoint of the game through stars of the past or present. Players who look different are often underrated or dismissed. Siakam has always looked different, despite his attempts to fit in. But, no matter what he looks like, wing or big, he’s going to be great.

Have a blessed day.