Pascal Siakam, deconstructed

by Ian Levy

The NBA’s uniform aesthetic has been moving towards a trimmer fit. Jerseys are tighter, shorts are shorter, everything accentuates the frame underneath. But not Pascal Siakam. Like a time-traveler from 2003, his everything about his uniform hangs loosely, with enough extra fabric to smuggle Patrick McCaw onto the court without anyone noticing. Every drive he makes is trailed by a billowy cloud of polyester. It’s always gym class and every day is parachute day.

What’s under all that fabric — a spindly, 6-foot-9, 230-pound construction of joints and kinetic energy — has become one of the NBA’s biggest surprises this season. After his selection in the 2016 NBA Draft, Siakam was graded as a project and a potential reach, a raw “energy big” who needed plenty of skill-polishing. Three years later, most of the rough edges have been sanded away, the skills polished and what emerged was not a big at all but a hybrid forward capable of defending all five positions and working as a secondary offensive creator.

After the iconic eyewear, what I remember most about Bo Outlaw is the shoulders — “cut” doesn’t do them justice. They were freaking pythons done in bas relief. And they weren’t exactly out of place on a frame that basically just looked like a sock full of quarters — excessive fast-twitch resources just piled on top of each other.

Outlaw’s NBA 15-year career was built on energy and effort, crashing the glass, running in transition, defending up with strength and down with quickness, deploying chaos as a strategic element. His career per 36-minute averages — 8.6 points, 7.7 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.5 steals, 2.1 blocks, 52.1 percent from the free throw line — paint a pretty complete picture of what he offered. If you were going to take the timeless “energy big” template and adapt it for a modern audience, Outlaw would be perfectly cast.

When Siakam was drafted, Outlaw would have been an extremely positive outcome for him — a relatively flat development curve on the skill front but the realization of his athletic talent, maximizing the things he did well, his energy and effort, and applying them to the scenario of positive outcomes and winning games. It turned out his ceiling was a bit higher than that.

Look at Siakam now, and the skill level is as striking as any physical attribute (other than that absurd length). As a rookie, his assist percentage was in the fourth percentile among forwards. This season, he was in the 81st. All that innate understanding of space and angles that players in the Outlaw template usually exploit off-the-ball with cuts, slips and surprise appearances on the offensive glass, Siakam is leveraging it for all that and to blow up a defense with the ball in his hands. He averaged about as many drives per game as Stephen Curry or Kevin Durant this season, finishing slightly better than Blake Griffin, drawing fouls about as often as Lou Williams and creating assists about as often as Donovan Mitchell or Spencer Dinwiddie. His jump shot is still a work in progress but his array of floaters and flip shots is continually stretching his range and it’s not difficult to imagine him quickly becoming a more-than-just-viable outside shooter.

At the other end of the floor, his defensive impact was in the range of players like Danny Green or Andre Iguodala. He spent more than 10 percent of his defensive possessions matched up against players at each of the five positions and his overall versatility was comparable to Paul George. Like Shawn Marion, you can see the way his size and athleticism scaffolds his incredible defensive impact and potential, but it’s not just raw. It’s craft. Marion’s career as a defensive stopper extended far longer than his quickness of vertical pop should have allowed, because they were wrapped around awareness and vision and anticipation. Siakam defends like a veteran of multiple All-Defensive Teams, accolades that are almost certainly in his future.

This rapid growth from project defined by potential, to a product defined by results is unusual because of the speed with which it happened and the void from which it appeared. Athletic bigs learn to defend down a position or two. They learn how to find the open man. They don’t normally undergo a spontaneous transformation into complimentary ball-handlers. Bigs who can beat their man off the dribble, see the floor and not just find open teammates but manipulate the action moves ahead to make sure those teammates become open, they are rare enough to be easy to spot. They get tagged as unicorns early. Their college recruitments and draft assessments are stamped with labels like “point forward.” Like Lamar Odom at Rhode Island, they are given the opportunity to lean into those skills early because the potential value of mining them is so high.

For a Bo Outlaw to become a Lamar Odom, at age 24, over the span of three NBA seasons and 5,000 minutes, while playing Shawn Marion defense, feels miraculous. And, if you watched Siakam put up 30 and 11 in Game 3 against the Magic, making every big play in a high leverage playoff game, you get the sense that there may be more miracles to come.

A few weeks ago, I noticed the similarities between Siakam’s numbers this season and Kawhi Leonard’s in 2013-14. Leonard was responsible for a few more defensive events and maybe had more of a track record as a spot-up shooter at that point, but Siakam seems to be well ahead as a finisher and creator in this comparison. If you’re wondering about the significance of that Leonard season, in particular, it was his third, just like Siakam. That season also ended with the Spurs winning a title, Leonard winning Finals MVP, taking the mantle of primacy from Duncan, Ginobili and Parker and fully transcending the complementary nature of his role on that team.

That was the year Kawhi Leonard became a star and it fit into a relatively familiar pattern, players like Paul George and Danny Granger who begin their careers as energy defenders on playoff teams, who show up unexpectedly in big playoff moments and suddenly burst into focus as the kind of offensive players who can lead a team.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll see Siakam being molded by circumstance and playoff pressure. And on every off-ball cut and transition leak-out, that jersey will swell with air, like the ghost of the player he was supposed to be. But he’ll just glide forward, knifing through the drag towards a new and brighter future.

Ian Levy is creative editorial director for FanSided.com and manager of the NBA verticals The Step Black and Nylon Calculus. He has previously written for FiveThirtyEight, VICE Sports, Sporting News, and The Cauldron at Sports Illustrated.