While most of the Toronto Raptors’ core will return this season to defend the 2019 NBA crown, their clear-cut No. 1 option from 2018-19 is gone. Kawhi Leonard’s departure puts a huge damper on the club’s chances to win the East or the ring again.
Given the remaining contributors on the roster, the Raptors’ most valuable piece moving forward will likely be Pascal Siakam. Cameroon’s rising star was a crucial multidimensional asset for Nick Nurse during Toronto’s championship run, and all of Canada is hoping he’ll make even more progress this season.
The Raptors will need it.
No one’s expecting him to completely fill the void left by Leonard or to replicate his role. But the question is whether “Spicy P” can consistently serve as the featured weapon and keep the Raptors near the top of the Eastern Conference. Does he have the chops to be the alpha dog on an upper-echelon team?
The only reason we’re even asking this question is because he already has a bunch of the hard-to-find instincts, physical gifts and skills required to become a superstar. He already checks several boxes: He’s an aggressive driver, multiple-position defender, alert passer, improving shooter and a long, strong athlete.
But is he well-rounded enough to be Toronto’s 1-A? And with a max-contract situation looming this summer for the 25-year old, the answer must be definitively found this season.
Several of Siakam’s performances in the 2019 postseason suggest he has some lead-man DNA. He put up 20-plus points 10 different times, including 26 points and 10 rebounds during Toronto’s championship-clinching Game 6 triumph over the Golden State Warriors.
One of the most encouraging aspects of Siakam’s development is the assertive way he attacks the rim. Even though his jump shot has improved, he’s not the most polished ball-handler. Yet, he hunts driving opportunities and is particularly good at exploiting mismatches.
When Siakam smells one, he doesn’t settle for a contested jump shot. Rather, he besieges the rim using his shiftiness, explosiveness and lean strength. Once he gets into the paint, he’s proven he can deploy a soft floater over the trees or go all the way to the cup forcefully.
While Siakam’s shot-creation repertoire isn’t expansive, he has a sneaky-good crossover. He’s on his way to joining that group of tall, do-it-all players who can get to the rim even when opponents play them to drive (i.e. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ben Simmons).
Watch him exploit defenders in space, time after time:
Spicy P didn’t enter the league as a three-point shooting threat, but he became a confident threat from the arc last season. He went 79-of-214 (36.9) from deep, hitting more than double the treys he made during his first two campaigns combined.
He was a dangerous-enough catch-and-shoot threat for Nurse to utilize on the weak side and in transition, and he kept defenses honest when they collapsed too far.
Passing deftness and defensive versatility also enhance Siakam’s overall value. He willingly found the open cutters and shooters on drive-and-dish plays last season, chipping in 3.5 dimes per 36 minutes.
On defense, Siakam was one of Toronto’s greatest threats, checking every type of wing along with some bigs. He led the Raptors in defensive points saved (74.5) throughout 2018-19, according to NBAMath.com. His defensive effort, instincts and physical tools are all in the league’s upper tier. Pair that with Gasol’s instincts, Lowry’s motor and Leonard’s otherworldly skills—not to mention plus defenders like Serge Ibaka and Danny Green—and it’s no wonder Toronto could unleash defensive hell throughout the postseason.
However, now with Leonard a Los Angeles Clipper and the rest of the cast either a year older or also departed (Green), the Raptors are relying on a requisite leap from Siakam to coincide with the return of 22-year old defensive wing OG Anunoby from injury.
Siakam’s development through three years has been exciting and promising. But there’s a gargantuan difference between being a high-end role player or secondary weapon and being the man.
While Siakam fared pretty well during stints without Leonard, much of his breakout 2018-19 campaign was spent with the luxury of the latter drawing most of the opponents’ attention. Both Kawhi and Lowry afforded Siakam a bunch of open looks last season, and he won’t get as many spacious opportunities this year.
TBW’s Bryan Toporek noted for Forbes.com how Siakam will likely face tougher matchups throughout this season:
With Leonard and Danny Green having both left the Raptors in free agency this summer, Siakam will now command more attention as the No. 1 offensive option opponents must stymie. While he won’t face the likes of Embiid or reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo every night, he also won’t have Leonard to attract an opponent’s top wing defender anymore.
That raises the question: Can Siakam shoulder the lion’s share of Toronto’s offense and consistently score when called upon and be its main defensive lynchpin? Not only is Leonard gone, but Kyle Lowry is another year past his peak.
The Raptors may need Siakam to be productive and efficient at a significantly higher usage rate.
Last season, his usage rate (percentage of plays used by him while he was on the floor) was 20.8 percent, which was third-most among Toronto’s main rotation contributors. The Raps likely will need Siakam to jump to 25-28 percent, which will entail a slew of additional touches and late-game duties.
Nurse will undoubtedly do a nice job getting Spicy P some easy looks going downhill. He’ll run some pick-and-rolls and pick-and-pops with Lowry and Fred VanVleet, as well as some cuts from the corner via elbow series sets. But what about those tough situations when Toronto can’t get Siakam cooking within the flow of the offense?
He will need to raise his profile as a shot-creator and mid-range shooter, two areas he hasn’t quite mastered. Siakam isn’t as fluid and ambidextrous off the bounce as many other go-to scorers. Some of his movements are still a bit mechanical, so he struggles to get separation on certain shots. While he’s adept at one-maneuver drives or low-post footwork, he struggles to turn dribbling forays into jump shots.
Pull-up jumpers outside 10 feet were just 6.7 percent of Siakam’s offense in 2018-19, per NBA.com. That’s partly because he regularly found better opportunities elsewhere, but it’s also because he can’t depend on that skill yet.
Scott Rafferty of NBA.com says an uptick in mid-range proficiency would open up his scoring game. It would allow the Raptors offense to revolve around him more effectively:
The solution for Siakam is rather simple: expand his range to the top of the perimeter or become more comfortable creating his own shot from midrange. If he expands his range, it would allow the Raptors to use Siakam more creatively when he’s off-ball. If he becomes more comfortable scoring from midrange, it would make Siakam far less predictable when he has the ball in his hands.
Due to Siakam’s somewhat mechanical shooting delivery, improving his pull-up jumper won’t be a cinch. It may be tricky for him to fluidly coordinate his lower-body setup with his arm motion and release. Getting separation on stop-and-pop jumpers is a different hurdle than drilling open catch-and-shoot opportunities.
Given how much Siakam has improved across the board during his three years, however, I won’t be surprised if he continues to expand his game, especially a competent pull-up repertoire and mid-range accuracy.
It might not happen immediately, though, and that hangup would prevent him from flourishing as Toronto’s premier weapon in a contract and title-defense year.
Thus, Siakam making the leap to the cliched ‘Alpha Dog’ is not a foregone conclusion, and it will require substantial progress from the rising star in a short amount of time. His level of improvement will not only dictate whether he’s representing the Eastern Conference in February, but it will also heavily influence whether the Raptors are playing deep into the postseason.
Dan is a TBW staff writer. After playing college ball at Franciscan University, he covered the NBA and NBA Draft for Bleacher Report for four years and the FRS Network for three years. He now co-hosts the Unlimited Range podcast and continues to campaign for Doris Burke’s promotion to lead analyst at ESPN. Follow him on Twitter: @DanO_Bball