The Raptors’ defensive upside hinges on Pascal Siakam

The degree to which the Kawhi Leonard’s trade market had cooled was evident not in what the Raptors gave up to get him, but what they held onto in the deal. If the opportunity to acquire a transcendent player weren’t enough to jump at, the fact that Toronto managed to keep both OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam (not to mention coaxing Danny Green from the Spurs) made the deal a no-brainer.

Assuming full health and investment on Leonard’s part, the Raptors have a championship ceiling — the Raptors touted a top-five offense and defense last season, both of which could creep into the top three with Leonard in tow. Still, they will rely heavily on their supporting cast, particularly on defense.

Masai Ujiri has stocked his team with smart, rangy defenders at nearly every position. Leonard is already one of the greatest defensive players ever, while Anunoby showed immense promise as a rookie. Lowry and Green have long been smart, disciplined defenders. Every player off the bench competes at the very least. And while he may be the least known, Siakam is the most versatile piece in Toronto’s arsenal and may be the weapon that unlocks the unit’s terrorizing upside.

Though he’s primarily played power forward for most of his career, Siakam has the makings of a legitimate five-position defender, the likes of which only five or six truly exist in the NBA. He somehow manages to be everywhere at once, making opponents feel his presence at all times. His impressive lateral quickness defies his 6-foot-9, 230-pound frame, and his 7-foot-3 wingspan seems longer when it’s enveloping ball-handlers or smothering shooters. Toronto has used him as a primary defender on John Wall, LeBron James and everyone in between, and even when he starts possessions away from the ball, Siakam switches onto ball-handlers as well as almost any big man in the NBA:

Few second-year players can combine the discipline, awareness and commitment to defense Siakam displayed last year. He is relentless, and his long arms and quick hands make him a threat to swipe the ball from players who get too comfortable. He mirrors his man’s every movement, and can hold his own against the league’s best wings:

Among Raptors who defended at least 30 isolations last season, Siakam was the only big man who impeded them at an above-average level. On the rare instance he does get beat, his timing and reach allow for quick recovery. He has also mastered the art of poking the ball away from drivers as a help defender:

Away from the ball, Siakam can be just as imposing. He rotates on time and makes multiple efforts on single possessions. He closes out aggressively on shooters, yet doesn’t bite on pump fakes or get beat off the dribble. Few players in the NBA can cover this much ground at this speed without their man blowing right past them:

He’ll suddenly materialize in passing lanes for steals, and has the size, instincts and athleticism to function as a rim protector, theoretically making him a viable option at center in small lineups. It’s here that Siakam may serve his most useful purpose. In the playoffs, when switching becomes increasingly imperative, certain players are mercilessly targeted in isolations. Most teams can’t cobble together the personnel to patch every defensive hole. Even Toronto, with Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas or Greg Monroe on the floor, compromises its defensive versatility to varying degrees. If Siakam proves dependable in major minutes, he could tie together fast, switchable lineups in which there are no targetable weak spots.

For now, that possibility remains conjectural. Siakam rarely played without another big man on the floor last season, and it remains to be seen whether he can stand the physical toll of playing heavy minutes at center. He grades out as a good rim protector, but not a great one, and he should be challenged around the basket even more often next season. The Raptors may rely more on Ibaka and Valanciunas against opponents that feature giants in the post (but those teams are becoming fewer and farther between).

Siakam will also need to develop into a good enough offensive player to justify such a large role. A willing 3-point shooter, he isn’t a particularly dangerous one; his 22 percent from distance ranked dead last among qualified players who attempted at least one triple per game last season. He was far more effective inside the arc, where he shot over 61 percent and took more than half of his shots within five feet of the rim. Though seldom used as a lob threat, Siakam could fill that role in pick-and-roll actions with Lowry or Leonard. He even flashed a capacity for making plays as a roll man last season.

Commanding a defense’s attention in earnest will give Toronto’s stars maximum space to operate, a core tenant of an effective playoff offense. As teams run every primary action through their best players in the playoffs, the limitations of support players matter less, provided they can be passable offensively. Siakam may not be the Raptors’ best available offensive big man, but they may find the defensive reward well worth the tradeoff.