Is it time for Pascal Siakam to re-imagine the type of player he can be?

Seerat Sohi
·7 mins read

Watch Pascal Siakam’s stance on defense. The Toronto Raptors’ All-Star forward lurches out so far his back is nearly parallel with the ground. His knees barely bend. One foot is usually out ahead of the other. In Game 5 of the seven-game series the Toronto Raptors lost to the Boston Celtics, Siakam and his long, unruly limbs accidentally kicked Daniel Theis in the face, a move that recalled and amused WWE legend Shawn Michaels.

Siakam has the look of a defender off-balance, primed for a blow-by, yet it’s that very configuration — the ever-alert eyes bulging out of his perched out neck, the legs perpetually in runners position — that allowed him, in the regular season, to contest more threes than anyone in the NBA.

Nobody would ever accuse Siakam of being slow, but even when he runs, he doesn’t have the precise efficiency of movement of, say, Kawhi Leonard, the modern prototype for the typical perimeter star. In fact, Siakam is the opposite. He’s sui generis, the product of not playing organized basketball until he was 17.

As a result, it’s hard to distinguish the features from the bugs. A chunk of his success is rooted in the fact that he isn’t programmed like a perfect basketball robot.

When he’s playing well, Siakam brims with kinetic possibility — not only for himself or the Raptors but for the future of the game. But when he’s not, all that effort and inspiration teeters into desperation. He becomes hard to watch. You remember he’s far rawer than your average 26-year-old. Against the Celtics, he looked perpetually out of place. Siakam was rendered less efficient and less productive in nearly every statistical category.

Pascal Siakam's time in the bubble has ended, but the work won't stop. (Photo by Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images)
Pascal Siakam's time in the bubble has ended, but the work won't stop. (Photo by Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images)

Kyle Lowry, who has been where Siakam is, told him to read everything — internalize every doubt, use it as fuel. But Siakam’s been there too. He fails in perpetuity.

He was there when Raptors president Masai Ujiri first laid eyes on him, and he hardly looked like a prospect, when he sprained his knee in his first summer league, when he was relegated back and forth from the G League in his first two seasons.

According to ESPN’s Kirk Goldsberry, Siakam’s 12.5 percent clip from three was the worst in playoff history. Siakam’s been there too. In his second season, he missed 78 percent of his threes. But he never stopped shooting. Siakam would watch his long-balls rattle out of the rim, put his head down, and then perk up and smile his gleaming, toothy smile. He is a natural optimist. And he’s seen the misses slowly morph into makes enough times to believe the success is the natural byproduct of failure.

“A lot of people go through these moments,” Siakam said after Game 7. “I just feel like it’s about responding. What response are you gonna get from it? How are you gonna take it? Are you gonna take it as a learning experience or are you just gonna feel sorry for yourself? Because at the end of the day nobody’s gonna feel sorry for you. I come from a background of always working hard and fighting my way through everything that was thrown at me, and I just feel like this is another step. Obviously, losing sucks, but it’s an experience, and all the greats go through it and you have to learn from it.”

Even in the immediate face of loss, Siakam contextualized his performance as one part of a larger journey. The story he tells himself is about a setback, not a permanent failure because for him, failure has never been permanent. He also insisted the pressure hadn’t gotten to him, which makes sense since he was gangbusters in the Raptors’ NBA Finals run last year.

Back then, he was still racing against the scouting report. In Game 1 of the Finals, he had the chutzpah to take and make step-back mid-range jumpers over former Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green, despite shooting just two over the course of the playoffs. Siakam’s willing to try, which means he’s also willing to miss 11 threes in one high-stakes game, like he did in Game 4 against Boston.

“You have to continue to learn,” Siakam continued. “That’s something I take with my chin up, move forward, continue to work hard, go back, watch it, find ways to be better and learn from it. That’s all I can do.”

So much of a player’s development as a star comes down to how much he is willing to self-examine, how much he can endure staring at his mistakes. For Siakam, that’s doubly true. His uniqueness gives him very few frames of reference outside of himself.

When Jayson Tatum, for example, fizzled out last year, his offseason regimen was obvious: trade the long twos for threes and develop his passing game. He had precedents in Leonard and Paul George and Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady and so many others. But Siakam is like some cross between Shawn Marion, John Wall, Ben Simmons and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Siakam is a trailblazer, which means he must plow his own path.

Pascal Siakam catches a pass in front of Jaylen Brown during an NBA conference semifinal playoff basketball game Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Pascal Siakam catches a pass in front of Jaylen Brown during an NBA conference semifinal playoff basketball game Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Like those guys, Siakam struggled when the game grinded to a halt. The Celtics didn’t hunt offensive rebounds, nor did they often give in to the chaos of loose ball hunting. When they lost possession of the ball, they retreated on defense in unison, curtailing the Raptors’ deadly transition attack. When Siakam was younger, dashing to the other side of the court to catch quarterback passes at the rim courtesy of point guard Lowry was his only means of getting buckets. In seven games against the Celtics, he scored just four fast break points.

As the years have passed, Siakam’s development has become more perimeter-oriented. As the NBA becomes smaller and quicker, that’s understandable, but for Siakam, appropriating the stationary style of the average star leaves too many easy baskets on the cutting room floor.

Siakam rolled on picks just four times in the playoffs. It’s not something he tried a ton in the regular season either, despite being a 6-foot-9 forward with range, shiftiness and ball-handling skills that despite being flimsy for a perimeter player are tight for a big man.

Playing off picks more often would set Siakam up on the move, get him the ball closer to the rim against defenders who are more likely to be off-balance and thus primed for, say, his patent spin move.

The only place Siakam hit threes consistently from during the series was the left corner — the first place he started to develop his range — giving credence to the notion that his muscle memory atrophied in the four months the league was on hold.

Some takeaways will be simple. He certainly needs to work on his ball-handling, especially with his left hand. One can safely assume he can regain the skills he lost. But should he keep plowing in the same direction or re-imagine what he can be? When it comes to tackling Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown, whose strength gave him fits throughout the series, should he try to muscle up or outspeed them? How many of his looks should tend to new skills he hasn’t mastered. How many should be devoted to the staples that can reliably produce points and win games? Should the Raptors prize efficiency or expansion?

The questions that the Celtics posed of Siakam won’t be answered in the span of one offseason. When they are, the scouting report will once again catch up to his development. It’s likely he’ll run into a wall again. His trajectory, as ever, is sprawling with possibility. The only thing that’s inevitable is failure and its reckoning.

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