Pascal Siakam is making the leap at exactly the right time
Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam was once thought to be just a versatile defender with an inexhaustible motor, but now he's starting to score - a lot.
It looked to be a one-off when Siakam dropped what was then a career-high 22 points against the Milwaukee Bucks on Oct. 29, but he's not slowing down. That mark lasted just two weeks before Siakam poured in 23 points on just seven shots against the New York Knicks on Saturday to extend his double-digit scoring streak to eight games.
This isn't just a hot spell; this is a player making the leap in real time. Siakam had already established himself as a pesky transition threat and a defensive menace coming into the season, but now he's developed a devastating spin move to become one of the most efficient post scorers in the league.
"When you see the work, you have to believe in it," Siakam told theScore.
Siakam's signature spin
Every scorer needs a go-to move, and Raptors head coach Nick Nurse estimates that Siakam scores "eight times out of 10" when he spins.
Siakam is the Tasmanian Devil of the NBA. He thrives in chaos and torpedos through defenses with a mischievous streak. It doesn't matter if he's got a big or a small defender on him - Siakam will make a hard drive, force the defender to commit, and then spin over either shoulder into an open look. Defenders know it's coming at this point, but they still can't stop it.
Teams mostly try to match Siakam's length with a bigger defender to cut off his drives. However, that's when the spin move is most effective because Siakam can use it to freeze his man and get separation away from the shot-blocker, as seen below against JaVale McGee.
When that doesn't work, teams will combat Siakam's quickness with a smaller defender, as the Dallas Mavericks did with Dorian Finney-Smith. However, that just makes life easier for Siakam because he can turn his back and essentially have his way with the defender.
"I use my advantage. Against a small, I just want to shoot over him. If it's a big, I try to take him off the dribble. My first step is quick so you have to recover, and the spin is like you can't come back to it," Siakam said.
The coaching staff has been so impressed with Siakam's development that he's been given the green light to experiment for a few possessions in each game. Nurse is like everyone else in that regard - he's willing to live with some mistakes to see the full extent of Siakam's newfound scoring ability.
"We like to give him some freedom to explore just how good he can do with all the skills that he has. It would be really easy to say that he's a non-shooter and he can't play in the modern game, but he's got some speed, some ball skills, and a really unbelievable spin move," Nurse said.
Help from a mentor
Siakam's rise took him through cold winters in the G League and blistering summers at the UCLA runs, but he's quick to deflect credit for his progress, especially when there's a chance to show love to Kyle Lowry.
"That's my guy," Siakim said of Lowry. "He has a great mind for the game and I always try to learn from him ... He always rewards me for my running. And also he's just a great leader and someone you can always talk to."
Lowry recorded assists on all four of Siakam's baskets when he was just an overmatched rookie making his professional debut. Siakam's first two points came on a layup when he sprinted ahead of the pack in transition and Lowry found him with a 40-foot lob.
Their first connection was a sign of things to come, as the Lowry-Siakam partnership has blossomed into the Raptors' most effective two-man combo. Lowry is maniacal about playing up-tempo and Siakam never stops running, which makes them a natural pairing. Their connection on the fast break borders on telepathic.
Lowry has thrown more passes to Siakam (151) than any other Raptors player this season, he has recorded 21 assists to Siakam (second to only Serge Ibaka), and the Raptors are outscoring teams by 18.9 points per 100 possessions with both of players on the floor.
The two have developed some tricks over the last three years. One play the Raptors have found success with this season is when they reverse roles by having Lowry set screens for Siakam. Defenses are often confused by the play and end up conceding the switch, which allows Siakam to go to work.
"Having Pascal show off his skill set a little bit more changes things up for us. It gives the team different looks, it gives teams different things they have to scheme for and it's a really good thing for us," Lowry told reporters.
Postmodern power forward
What's unique about Siakam's emergence is that it's situational as much as anything else. For example, Siakam says that low-post scoring was always part of his game but he didn't get to showcase it previously.
"People see that now, but for me, it's normal. Coming into the NBA, I wasn't playing that role (of scoring inside), but now the team can use that for the good of the team. I'm good with it because I always played like that," he said.
Siakam was sent down to the G League to hone his jump shot as a rookie because the Raptors coveted stretch fours - similar to every other team in 2017. However, the league started switching to guard the 3-point line, and it became popular to play small ball with like-sized players at every position.
In turn, that created an opportunity for bigs like Siakam who can effectively bully smaller defenders. Siakam never quite perfected the outside shot (he's at a career-high 27 percent this year) but the Raptors are featuring him because the league has come full circle.
That makes Siakam something like the postmodern power forward. He's ahead of his time because he handles and moves similar to a guard, while also being versatile enough to guard perimeter players. But he's also a throwback player in the sense that he mostly operates through the post instead of shooting threes, and he thrives by punishing mismatches.
His closest comparable is something like a well-behaved Draymond Green, although it's not wise to put a ceiling on a player with so much upside, especially when Siakam shows occasional flashes of Greek Freak.
For now, the Raptors will settle for someone who can balance the offense. Lowry is the Raptors' best 3-point shooter, Kawhi Leonard mostly operates in the mid-range, and post scoring is covered by the center platoon of Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas. They need a Swiss Army knife to fill all the gaps, and Siakam is filling that role beautifully.
"They're game planning for Kyle, they're game planning for Kawhi ... they're game planning for Serge rolling and playing inside ... and now it's Pascal. It's tough to game plan for a whole bunch of people," Nurse said.
The results have been phenomenal on every level. Not only is Siakam averaging 13 points per game on 63 percent shooting, but the Raptors rank second in offensive efficiency and hold the league's best record at 12-1.
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