Nylon Calculus: Projecting Pascal Siakam as a No. 1 option

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 13: Pascal Siakam #43 of the Toronto Raptors reacts after defeating the Golden State Warriors in Game Six of the NBA Finals on June 13, 2019 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)
OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 13: Pascal Siakam #43 of the Toronto Raptors reacts after defeating the Golden State Warriors in Game Six of the NBA Finals on June 13, 2019 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images) /

After losing Kawhi Leonard to the Clippers, the defending champion Toronto Raptors will need Pascal Siakam to step up and lead the offense next season.

Family is the biggest thing in Pascal Siakam’s life. So, in 2012, when he had the opportunity to visit his sister in South Africa for the first time since she had moved away five years earlier, he gladly took it.

Siakam had been invited to the 2012 Basketball Without Borders camp after being noticed at Luc Mbah a Moute’s local event in Cameroon. At that time, he had scarcely played any sort of organized basketball. Unlike his three older brothers, who were obsessed with the game and followed the NBA as best they could, Pascal always favored soccer and, even by his mid-teens, his only real experiences playing the game came from shooting around during school recess. He didn’t know it at the time, but that decision to attend the BWB camp would change his life.

After being noticed at the camp by scouts from a Texas prep school named God’s Academy, Siakam abandoned his soccer aspirations and, instead, followed the footsteps of his brothers in coming to the United States to move forward with his basketball dreams. While he initially survived off his motor and athletic ability, Siakam soon started to sharpen his skills. He would go on to play at the collegiate level at New Mexico State, where he won WAC Conference Player of the Year during his sophomore year (after a redshirt freshman season) and was eventually taken 27th by the Toronto Raptors in the 2016 NBA Draft.

His recent ascension to stardom in the NBA has been nothing short of spectacular, but it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise given Siakam’s past history. The Cameroonian, who only really started taking the game seriously after that Basketball Without Borders camp in 2012, has improved immensely every year since. He went from averaging 12.8 points and 7.7 boards per game during his first full season at New Mexico State to dropping 20.3 points and nearly 12 rebounds a night by his second season. He has continued to improve every year in the NBA as well.

As shown by his PIPM (Player Impact Plus-Minus) chart below, while Siakam has been an above-average defender (marked in blue on the chart) throughout his time in the league, his offense (marked in red) has improved leaps and bounds since his rookie season.

After being the second-best player on the championship-winning Raptors last season, Siakam has established himself as a top player in the league — though he still has yet to make an All-Star appearance. As Warriors forward Draymond Green said following the first game of last year’s Finals, “[Siakam] has become a guy.”

Now, with Kawhi Leonard back home in L.A., Siakam will be asked to shoulder much more of the scoring load for the Raptors and will enter this season as the undisputed first option on offense for Nick Nurse. So what exactly will Pascal look like as a No. 1 option?

One of the biggest and most immediate, changes for Siakam will be that he will now command the opponents’ best defender every single night. Leonard drew that spotlight each time he stepped on the court last year, but Siakam will now be the primary focus of opposing teams’ game plans.

One way to understand how that might play out is to look back at the Raptors’ last season. With Kawhi’s now-famous load management system, Siakam ended up playing 20 games last season without his teammate, where we were able to see him as a No. 1 option. While Toronto went 17-5 in the games they played sans Kawhi (he and Siakam both sat in two games), many of those games were against poor teams — they were just 4-5 in games against playoff opponents during that stretch. Importantly though, in those games, many of Siakam’s offensive numbers — his usage rate, scoring, and field goal percentage — stayed very similar to his figures from the rest of the season.

For many players, a bigger role means a large drop in efficiency but Siakam’s play did not suffer with additional responsibility last season. In fact, his per 36 minutes numbers actually all improved while he enjoyed one of the biggest usage hikes in the league last season — an increase of five percentage points.

While playing a little under 12 minutes more per game during last season. Siakam shot better from the field overall during his third season — including a much improved 3-point shot. After making just 22.0 percent of his attempts on 1.6 3s a night in year two, Pascal connected on 36.9 percent of his triples on 2.7 tries a night during his third season.

The big jump for Pascal came with his ability to create his own shot. During his first two seasons in the league, approximately two-thirds of Siakam’s made two’s were assisted by his teammates, but in year three, that number dropped to under 50 percent. Rather than relying on cuts and rolls for his points, he became a guy the Raptors could rely on to get a bucket in one-on-one situations. His 1.08 points per possession mark for post-ups ranked in the top 10 for players who logged at least 1.5 plays on the block per game.

At 6-foot-9 and 230 pounds, Pascal has the perfect body for a prototypical modern power forward. He is too athletic and quick for opposing big men, and far too big and dominant in the post for guards. His athleticism makes him a menace in transition — in classic Draymond Green/Ben Simmons fashion, Siakam has developed the ability to grab down a rebound, immediately swivel, take the ball all the way downcourt and finish at the rim.

Pascal takes most of his attempts from the most analytically-sound locations: at the rim and in the corner. As of last season, Siakam was purely a spot-up shooter from behind the arc, with 97 percent of his made 3s coming off assists. He would often spend time in the corner during halfcourt sets for Toronto, cutting or nailing corner 3s when teams helped to cover drives by Leonard and Lowry.

While most of his numbers stayed the same when playing without Leonard, the one part of Siakam’s game that was negatively affected by Leonard’s departure was his long-range shooting. Without Kawhi’s ability to probe the defense, Siakam wasn’t able to camp in the corner and rely on kick-outs for open looks. In games where Kawhi played, Siakam actually shot a scorching 41.9 percent from downtown on over 2.5 attempts a night. Without him, that number dropped to under 24 percent. Rather than counting on his teammates to provide him with shots, Siakam will need to be much more of an initiator next season. Just as he learned to create his own shot in the paint, he will need to do the same from long distance.

Next year, Siakam will not only be without Leonard but also Danny Green, who was the Raptors’ best long-range shooter last season. Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster opted not to replace them with any shooters, and while the Raptors placed sixth in the league in 3-point percentage last year, a lot of it was down to the gravity of Leonard creating open looks for other players. Siakam will need the likes of Marc Gasol, Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell to continue their improved shooting so that he can have the requisite spacing to allow him to dominate on the interior.

The Raptors’ offense often struggled in the postseason when Leonard came off the court, as opposing teams would stick centers like Joel Embiid and Brook Lopez on Siakam to prevent him from driving to the basket and initiating any offense. For the most part, it worked. The big men were able to sag off him above the break and baited him into driving right at their bodies.

The simple counter to that, which Siakam must develop, is a reliable pull-up jump shot. If he can manage to convert a respectable percentage of his looks from the mid-range above the break, it will open a new avenue of options. Adding a mid-range game would require defenders to step out to him a little more, opening up space for him to blow by them with his athleticism.

With Leonard gone, Siakam will almost certainly be forced to spend more time above the break as a pick-and-roll ball-handler. Leonard led the team last year with 6.3 pick-and-roll plays per game as the ball-handler, and it’s a role that Nick Nurse will ask Siakam to play much more this season.

But Siakam’s unselfish style and highly underrated passing abilities make him more than ready for added pick-and-roll possessions. Last year, he ranked in the top five among players who played over 1,000 minutes in terms of points per possession as a pick-and-roll ball-handler – notching the same mark as Giannis Antetokounmpo. With his athleticism and ability to drive downhill, Siakam is a menace coming off a pick. His 20 percent free-throw frequency in such situations also ranked in the top five among qualified players.

Kawhi was able to draw defenders in off picks thanks to his ability to shoot or drive immediately after taking the screen. Admittedly, it’s a small sample size for Siakam (he only averaged around one possession a game as the pick-and-roll ball-handler) but he’s already an excellent finisher at the rim. If he is able to develop that pull-up mid-range game he, too, can become an elite player in the pick-and-roll. He wasn’t extremely efficient as a roller last season, but Siakam could also have the ability to run pick-and-pops with VanVleet or Kyle Lowry if he works on his jump shot a bit more.

NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo recently said that he believes he is currently only at 60 percent of his potential. On that same spectrum, it would be hard to say that Siakam is at anywhere more than 50 percent. While many of his counterparts have been playing the game their entire lives, Siakam only picked it up formally seven years ago. He didn’t even know who Serge Ibaka was when he saw him at the BWB camp back in 2012.

In fact, the similarities between Siakam and Antetokounmpo are somewhat striking. Both are foreign-born players. Both come from basketball-crazy families with multiple siblings. Both are long, athletic, versatile forwards who cause issues on both ends. Both were often overlooked for much of their careers. And just as Antetokounpo has improved each season in the league, so has Siakam. Their third seasons in the league were remarkably similar — Pascal was slightly more efficient. Both are the same age too, only Giannis will be entering his seventh in the league, and Siakam just his fourth.

Now, Siakam may never be quite as effective as the Greek Freak, but despite being 25, with his work ethic, there’s no reason why he can’t turn into a consistent All-Star in this league for the next few years.

According to the Raptors coach Nick Nurse, after a disappointing playoff series showing against a LeBron James-led Cavaliers team during his rookie season, Siakam was back in the gym the very next day and told the Raptors staff, “I need to learn how to shoot.” In two years, he’s gone from one of the worst shooters in the league to a dangerous stretch-4. As one of the teachers from his seminary in Cameroon told ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan, “When Pascal puts his mind to it, he [is] capable of most anything.”

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Seven years ago, Raptors GM Masai Ujiri was at that BWB camp in Africa but failed to notice Siakam as he did not stand out. Now, Ujiri is prepared to hand the reins of his franchise over to the Cameroonian. It’s a testament to Siakam’s work ethic and dedication, but he is not done yet.

With the Raptors reeling after losing their superstar to the Clippers, the once unheralded Siakam is now set to become the face of the Raptors organization. There are aspects of his game that he’ll need to work on, and quickly, to fill the void. But if the improvement in his game over the last few years is anything to go by, Siakam is more than capable of stepping up as the Raptors’ primary option on offense and cementing his status as one of the premier players in the league.