Pascal Siakam is off to a scorching-hot offensive start this season. But don’t expect Raptors coach Nick Nurse to lighten his defensive responsibilities to help save his energy for scoring.
The Raptors’ fast-rising young star from Cameroon will get one of the most challenging defensive assignments in the NBA on Saturday night, when Toronto is in Milwaukee to face the Bucks in a rematch of last season’s Eastern Conference final. He will be asked to slow Greek superstar Giannis Antetokoumpo. Nurse said Siakam is young and energetic enough to excel at both ends of the floor, and there’s no need to limit him.
“I think he can play defence, and he can score 25 to 30 a night,” Nurse said of Siakam.
The team’s expectations are clearly sky high for the Raps’ power forward, to whom they awarded a four-year, US$130-million max-contract extension the day before the season began.
His gaudy offensive numbers are hogging the spotlight at the moment. Through five games, Siakam is averaging 28.0 points, sixth among all scorers in the NBA. He’s adding 9.2 rebounds and 3.8 assists in 33.6 minutes, shooting 51 per cent from the field, and 44 per cent from three-point range.
His 30 points in Wednesday’s win over the Detroit Pistons included a remarkable 19-point third quarter.
His opening-night stat line of 34 points, 18 rebounds and five assists against the New Orleans Pelicans was so robust across three categories that only three other players in 35 NBA seasons have matched it in a season opener. Those were Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and Anthony Davis.
Siakam’s opening-night performance caused Portland Trailblazers star CJ McCollum to tweet “Pascal Siakam is a problem.”
The 6-foot-9 25-year-old has been leaving that impression with many around the NBA, since playing a key role in the Raptors’ championship run and hoisting the league’s most-improved-player award.
“I think he’s shooting the ball a lot better this year,” said Jonathan Isaac of the Orlando Magic, who defended him earlier this week. “He’s versatile, and he can use his speed and his quickness, and he has great body control. So I just try my best to stay in front and live with some of the stuff he does.”
Now in his fourth season with the Raps, Siakam has become the premier focus of opposing teams’ scouting reports. He used to be a player who could dazzle in one-on-one situations. Now, he must prepare to face double teams.
“Now I have to think about other people or make quick moves, split the defence, different ways. Something that’s new, but I’m always willing to learn and evolve and it’s just something about that, that’s fun for me and makes it exciting,” said Siakam, noting that the double teams he has seen this season haven’t been too complex. “I’m expecting Milwaukee to do something a little crazy because they always have – their defence and how they guard – so it’ll be exciting to see what happens.”
It’s been a big leap for Siakam, who averaged 16.9 points last season. He worked to add muscle and strength over the summer. He also added new scoring dimensions to his game, many at the advice of Nurse and Raptors assistant Jim Sann. As he has in each off-season during his pro career, Siakam also spent time working with Rico Hines, a popular development coach who runs summer sessions for NBA players at UCLA.
Evidence of that work is showing up. Siakam is handling the ball sometimes in the pick and roll. He’s shooting threes from beyond the break – not just predominantly from the corners as he did in the past. He is tinkering with a turnaround jumper – something to score over smaller players so he doesn’t have to spend so many possessions bullying opposing players.
“I’m trying, just trying to find ways to score,” Siakam said. “Using my length and things that I was gifted with.”
Caron Butler, who played 16 seasons in the NBA and is now a Turner Sports analyst, says Siakam really impressed him during a quick, casual conversation they shared at Las Vegas summer league shortly after the Raps won the title.
“I was like, ‘What’s you’re mindset right now?’ and he was like, ‘Man, getting better, getting better, always getting better,' ” Butler said in an interview. “That’s not the thing that you typically hear from reigning NBA champions right after they won in the summer. You usually hear, ‘I’m loving life right now, I’m partying’. He was already zoned in, getting better, like he really understood the importance of keeping that momentum going. This is just the first layer of the talent he’s going to show us in the next few years.”
Siakam’s finishing moves are keeping defenders guessing. Then there is the eye-popping improvisational ability, too. Siakam had the Scotiabank Arena crowd gasping when he salvaged a too-long pass from Fred VanVleet on Wednesday, tapped it to himself, and then took it to the hoop.
He will need to stay out of foul trouble and control his turnovers. Always choosing the right play is a process, too.
“His usage can be as high as we want it to be. But he’s got to improve on making the correct plays,” Nurse said. “Once you get two bodies on you, you’ve done your job. Your job isn’t necessarily to score anymore. It’s to find the right next play, and that should open things up for other people.”
At the other end of the floor, Siakam will be the primary defender on Antetokounmpo on Saturday, but Nurse said OG Anunoby, Serge Ibaka and others will pitch in, too.
Facing the Bucks for the first time since the Raps beat them in the conference final brings back memories for Siakam of their bounce-back Game 3 victory after the Raps had fallen 0-2 in the series. Siakam had missed some pivotal late-game free throws that night, which led to the game going to overtime. Toronto’s eventual dramatic OT win that night was a signature moment in the Raps run to the NBA Finals.
“I remember Kawhi blamed me for having to play an extra hour of basketball,” Siakam recalled. “You know, after I missed those free throws, I could have just went back and not wanted to play anymore, just feeling I’d lost. But my teammates around me kept me motivated. It was definitely a great win.”
So did he have big, athletic NBA stars such as Antetokounmpo on his mind as he worked to add weight and improve his skill over the summer?
“I don’t know if that’s what I was thinking when I was working out, but I was trying to get better overall,” Siakam said. “I’m still skinny but I think I’m a little stronger than I was last year.”