TORONTO — It will take a brave individual to tell Pascal Siakam there’s a peak he can’t reach.
When the Toronto Raptors first drafted the Cameroonian 27th overall in 2016, Dwane Casey compared him to Bo Outlaw, a player who completed a notable 12-year NBA career as a defensive specialist who could play all three frontcourt positions but never averaged double-digits in scoring for a season.
That was a favourable projection for the then 22-year-old.
“I knew he was gonna be a really good player, I didn’t know he was gonna be a star,” Casey said in his second return to Toronto since being dismissed by the franchise. “He’s made himself into a star ... Pascal has made himself into the player he is today and it’s shown. I didn’t know he was gonna be a star, though, for his sake he needs to be patted on the back because he’s made himself into that.”
The NBA has many star players, but Siakam is already rising to the cream of the crop at a rate that defies history. On Wednesday night, he put on a dominant show that only very few in This League™ are capable of. He finished with 30 points, five rebounds and five assists in just 30 minutes, and sitting out the entire fourth quarter was a favour to those who were still coming to grips with what he just did in the third.
He scored 19 points on 12 shots, but each 3-pointer left you shaking your head. Last year, making corner threes at a decent clip was considered a major step. Now, he’s draining them every which way. When Drummond was switched onto him and dared him to shoot, he said, “Sure,” and the net barely moved. When the Raptors needed a bail-out with the shot clock winding down, he took a pass near the logo, stepped right, crossed left, and then drained a triple over Markieff Morris. Siakam smiled on the way back, as if to say “you should know better,” but how could anyone? Frustrated after being beaten off the bounce twice, Thon Maker dared Siakam to shoot an above-the-break triple and he delivered once again.
If there was a 2-pointer to add to the list, it was the sweet make-something-out-of-nothing self-alley-oop finish in transition after it looked like he failed to corral a pass cleanly while on the run.
During Kawhi Leonard’s short-lived, yet thoroughly rewarding Raptors tenure, there was a wow factor whenever he played. Those jaw-dropping superstar plays that constantly left you shaking your head. With Siakam, though, it has been wow and how(?!) all at the same time. How did this kid become this dominant this quickly?
Nick Nurse was asked if he’s ever seen Siakam go off the way he did in the third, and the fact that the Raptors head coach didn’t have to think back too far is indicative of just where Siakam’s game is right now.
“Didn’t he just have one the other night where he banged in about five straight threes to start the game or something?” Nurse said. “He made a variety of shots, a bunch of different defenders ... and he’s good, man. Turning into like a prime time scorer, that 3-ball is really going to take him a long way.”
The more you do think back, you realize there was the 26-point night in the Finals-clinching Game 6, the near-perfect 32-point performance in his first Finals game, and then the 44-point career-high he dropped during a captivating duel with Washington’s Bradley Beal. You’re just constantly left wondering how it’s all possible.
“When he started for 38 games [in his rookie season], [he] did a great job of learning, picking up, the last thing I said was gonna come was shooting and it came because the young man worked,” Casey said. “If any young men out there [are] looking to use an example of making yourself a player, you’ve got him as an example. Because he worked on his shooting, worked on his shooting, now he’s one of the top 3-point shooting power forwards or whatever position you want to call it in the league.
“His motor, he had a supreme, elite motor that I knew was special. Guys like Gary Payton comes to mind, guys like that. But that motor, as soon as he walked on the floor, he didn’t have to stretch or anything, he was at a hundred miles an hour, put that with his work ethic and skill-set now and that’s why he’s the player that he is right now.”
What Siakam has done — going from confused rookie, to pivotal bench member, to Most Improved, to what is possibly an MVP candidate — is giving the Raptors an outstanding return that no one could have envisioned for a relatively low risk. Dejounte Murray and Malcolm Brogdon are the only notable contributors to their respective teams from the 2016 draft class that were selected after Siakam. Ivica Zubac is the one who comes closest after that. Four years and $130 million? Think about what the Raptors got for $1.55M last season and are getting for $2.35M this year.
Through five games, Siakam is averaging 28 points, 9.2 rebounds, and 3.8 assists while hitting 44.4 percent of his 27 three-point attempts, 53.4 percent of his twos and all but one of his 27 free-throw attempts. Per Basketball Reference’s MVP Tracker, he is sixth in the too-early-to-take-seriously race.
The more pertinent conversation is how — if this sustains — will change the Raptors’ landscape come playoff time? Giannis Antetokounmpo stands tall at the top of the mountain as the reigning NBA MVP but his inability to shoot outside the paint and at the free-throw line were exposed in the playoffs. Joel Embiid is at the Greek Freak’s heels with supreme talent to display on both ends but consistently remains a health concern. Who’s in Siakam’s way after that? Jimmy Butler has a track record with a larger sample size and a very capable Miami Heat team to boot, sure. Kyrie Irving has shown he can put up great numbers on the box score but not necessarily in the win column since seeking alpha status. Bradley Beal is tremendous, too, but doesn’t figure to be involved come the post-season. Victor Oladipo and Blake Griffin both face serious health questions.
There is no doubt that Siakam must improve his playmaking. He needs more experience handling double-teams and traps. His turnover rate was high through the first three games but he’s already made a dedicated effort to cut down on them. Seeing them in the playoffs will be another new experience, but in Siakam’s world, over five months to work on that seems like an eternity.
“I kind of hoped today was going to be my first no-turnover game of the year,” Siakam said after the game. “I was actually excited about it. I had my first turnover in the first half and in the second I had an offensive foul or something. I wish I didn’t have those two.
“I’ve got to be more engaged on defence and making sure I don’t get caught off guard with little fouls like that that can cost the game. I did a better job with the fouls. But turnovers, I wish I had no turnovers.”
In a league where superstar talent has mattered over and over again, the Raptors’ colossal loss of Leonard is almost immediately being mitigated by the emergence of Siakam. And then think about the other cliche: having the best defence, and look at the supporting cast. It is a championship-level one featuring Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet and another growth spurt disciple in OG Anunoby.
Every time Siakam looks to have found a new level, he raises the roof, but now on the cusp of superstardom, it is the Raptors’ ceiling that might have a new outlook.
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