Pascal Siakam’s New Role, Explained

Pascal Siakam has been asked to do less of what he's good at, and more of what he struggles with.

The first play the Raptors ran this season was a pick n’ roll out of horns with Pascal Siakam in the corner. The second play they ran was a pick n’ roll with Siakam one pass away. Both plays resulted in missed threes, and after the second, the ball found Siakam who hit from downtown – the Raptors first basket of the season, and an indicator of things to come.

We’ll get into the film and the structure of the Raptors offense — the more in depth stuff — later, but let’s just quickly acknowledge that Siakam is getting less touches this season than Talen Horton-Tucker and Austin Reaves, and his closest comp in the NBA when it comes to touch time and dribbles per touch is Svi Mykhailiuk. His usage-percentage is lower than Malaki Branham, Ausar Thompson, Bobby Portis, and 120 other players. Siakam has had a cold stretch to start this season and hasn’t implemented himself as well as anyone would have hoped in his role, but the Raptors offense has had little interest in providing him advantages or opportunities.

30-percent of Siakam’s points this season have come in transition, where he’s shot 81-percent. He’s been terrific on defense, spending a lot of time guarding smaller players and containing dribble penetration in space — effectively swapping roles with Barnes from last season, a switch that has allowed Barnes to thrive defensively, and well done on Darko for making that call — and he’s still passing well, still receiving double teams, and he’s top 15 in the NBA in passes made. Questioning Siakam’s buy in, his effort, or anything like that, isn’t really fair. His touch around the rim has been quite cold to start this season, but more than anything the Raptors don’t allow Siakam the space or time a driver or player of his talents deserves.

Last season, Siakam had the 4th highest volume of drives among all wings/frontcourt players. He only ranked behind Zion Williamson (who played less than 30 games), Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Jimmy Butler. This season? He’s behind players like Jeremy Sochan, Mikal Bridges, RJ Barrett, Josh Giddey, and Talen Horton-Tucker. Almost half (44%) of Siakam’s shots in the halfcourt are 3-point attempts. Siakam is spending a lot more time on the weak-side (he’s setting 3 times as many off-ball screens this season) away from the ball, and the Raptors have taken one of the best non-guard drivers in the NBA and asked him to space out for Barnes to some degree (which is good), but more often for Dennis Schroder and Jakob Poeltl. The last time Siakam had this volume of drives was 2019-20, only he passed out of drives almost two times less that season than now, because the team had much better spacing. This season, help defenders are present on 83.6 percent of his drives, which is way up from 2022-23 where it was 65-percent, per second spectrum.

To hammer this point home again: Siakam can be better. Barnes is also hampered by some of the things that are affecting Siakam, and Barnes has been able to ascend over them with the help of a hot shooting start – he’s shooting an insane 67-percent on pull-up mid-range jumpers, which would probably be an NBA record, and he’s shooting 38-percent on pull-up threes. However, Barnes’ success and star power shouldn’t be used as a cudgel against Siakam. This offense has two absolutely elite driving wings, and it’s made them rely completely on jump shots in the halfcourt. Basically, considering the absolute lack of spacing the Raptors provide, the sheer amount of bodies that are in the paint, I’m even more impressed with Barnes and inclined to give Siakam a lot of slack.

Schroder has played better defense, and eaten up almost the exact same amount of usage as VanVleet did last season. Their amount of touches (team high), touch time (team high), dribbles per touch (team high), and usage-percentage are almost identical. Schroder is doing that while making way less money. The Raptors made the right decision going with Schroder instead of VanVleet, I’m not trying to make a point around that. However, that quiet, helpful gravity that VanVleet brought as a shooter, is not emulated by Schroder – who teams are eager to help off of despite his torrid shooting start. I’ve also long said that Poeltl’s presence on this roster is what made the Siakam/Barnes duo way harder to make work offensively. Poeltl’s arrival signaled a big drop in Siakam’s driving volume last season, as spacing shrunk even further. Schroder’s addition, while helpful in many areas, shrunk things to the point of basically no room whatsoever. Across six games the Raptors driving wings, Siakam and Barnes, have only made 13 layups in the halfcourt. There’s no room.

The good news? Some things are still working. Siakam is providing 1.4 points per chance on post-ups, which is huge. He’s also seen hard doubles fairly often, and the Raptors are shooting 55-percent on those plays, because Siakam is really great reading doubles. The tough part is that the Raptors are hardly putting the ball in his hands for those post ups. Siakam can get a post-up as a result of a crossmatch after setting a screen, or beating everyone down the floor for early position, but otherwise he won’t get a much of a look.

Siakam has also been more efficient in isolation this season, but also on significantly lower usage. It’s worth pointing out that isolations and post-ups are slower plays, but that slower pace helps players identify where help is coming from and gives them the option to manipulate that help with a live dribble. We can see Siakam shake off Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid when he has Maxey in a post up, only to initiate their help later in the paint as he opens up Precious Achiuwa for a dunk. Drives are quick, and are best to create three point shots and laydowns, but when the Raptors don’t have much shooting on the floor not only are they less efficient, but defenses have an easier time zoning up against those shooters, and laydowns aren’t as available in a crowded paint.

Some really fantastic plays in here.

You might think to put Siakam in handoffs to get him downhill then, right? The Raptors run Chicago action out of the corner all the time under Darko, it would fit in the flow of the offense. However, he’s actually receiving less handoffs this season.

The Raptors have some little designs like horns flare, angled pick n’ rolls, and more pick n’ pops for Siakam, but they all happen above the break, and teams are more than happy to sit and pack the paint against them. Even on nights where the Raptors shoot above 40% and 50% from three, teams are asking that they keep shooting. In doing so, almost every team is winning the scheme battle against the Raptors. When I asked Darko about his defensive principles during his introductory press conference, he said he wanted to make other teams shoot more above the break threes and protect the paint. Well, teams are transforming both Siakam and Barnes shot charts in that way – as they’re both shooting twice as many ATB threes as last year.

There’s some wisdom in asking Siakam (and Barnes to a lesser degree) to take some more above the break threes. But, Gary Trent Jr. is taking less threes this year. O.G. Anunoby is taking less threes this year. The Raptors offense is getting their best drivers fewer drives, their best shooters fewer threes. All of this has been in service of the league’s worst halfcourt offense, and by some measure. Darko’s offense, featuring its continuous screening, motion, and guiding ethos of ‘.5 basketball‘, will take time to implement. However, there’s been very little reckoning with the actual skillsets on the roster. Siakam serves as the perfect inflection point between these things, as his greatest weakness became what was asked of him most often, and his greatest strength has been devalued.

Siakam’s drives will definitely improve in the efficiency department. 26% on those isn’t something that sticks around. His offense won’t stay that weird forever. However, the change in shot diet and the even tighter spacing is probably here to stay. Most players who take a mammoth dip in usage, as Siakam has, get an easier shot diet as a result. For Siakam? His actually got more difficult. It’s going to take a lot of work to figure out how to navigate it.

All statistics are from synergy sports, second spectrum, and cleaning the glass and current as of Nov. 3rd.

Have a blessed day.