In the regular season, Pascal Siakam made himself a frontrunner for the Most Improved Player award due to his bursting speed, quick-twitch momentum, nimbleness, skinny-strength and sheer length. “Spicy P” was NBA Twitter’s favorite rising star because of the element of surprise. He was a tornado on drives; a curveball in the post; a shark-attack snuffing out opponents’ shots. And at 24, the Cameroonian native was an (unexpectedly) rising star if ever there was one.
While the aforementioned traits rendered him the second-most important player on a championship-bound Toronto Raptors team throughout the regular season and the first round, Siakam has been largely negated since then because of one glaring weakness: a passable jump-shot.
And the Bucks and 76ers did that negation by placing centers, Lopez and Embiid, respectively, on him. As a result, he was simply given the space to shoot. Wading into the specifics, Lopez and Embiid went under ball-screens and sagged beneath DHO’s. Off-ball, they took more advantage, transforming into an additional layer of rim-protection, able to help onto Kawhi’s isolations.
Anecdotally, he’s attempted more open and wide-open jump-shots than last series, specifically from the corner. While Siakam had success against the likes of Jonathan Isaac and Giannis, Lopez and Embiid stifled him. Though the Warriors and the Raptors have yet to match up, it’s not difficult to imagine Kevon Looney doing the same, considering he has switched onto guards and forwards with some success.
Driving Siakam’s improvement this season was a dramatic uptick in self-creation, especially having success on drives and an ability to draw contact in doing so. But when a big backpedals into his territory, it’s difficult to do anything but kick the ball-out:
Flanking Siakam with long-range snipers is the short-term solution. Sparking Toronto’s first lead since early in the first quarter last game was a lineup of Siakam-Lowry-VanVleet-Powell-Ibaka, of which went on a 9-4 run from the start of the fourth quarter to the 8:30 mark. How? The backcourt spaces the floor, giving Siakam and Ibaka room to operate at the high-elbows.
Though he recorded zero assists last game, Siakam is an elite drive-and-kick talent paired next to shooters. The drastic increase in assist rate (7.1 percent to 6.3 and then to 9.6) on drives is largely due to Siakam being paired next to shooters more often the last two rounds.
But when he has to force the issue, it doesn’t end well:
Given playoff basketball demands Toronto tether Kawhi to Siakam (plus Leonard has grown into more of a distributor anyway) Siakam is going to need to make catch-and-shoot shots. It is, however, a steep climb: Siakam has made only seven more catch-and-shoot jumpshots the last two series than the first round, despite 42 more attempts.
He’s gone from an elite corner 3-point shooter (41.6 percent) to a non-threat the last two series (25.6percent). He’s no longer a perimeter threat because he can’t shoot elsewhere (28.4 percent from other spots from beyond the arc).
Heat up from the corner and other parts of his game will unlock. In the first clip below, Ilyasova, Siakam’s defender “shows” on Lowry, but even when he recovers, Siakam crosses-over for the careening layup:
And Mirotic defends Siakam from 35-feet out, and, thus, is cremated by two shifty crossovers and Siakam’s patented twirl:
Rome wasn’t built in a day: Siakam isn’t going to start hitting off-balance pull-up jump-shots. But if he can hit open shots, which, to be clear, will be available, then Nick Nurse can be comfortable resting Kawhi in (much-needed) spurts while Siakam patrols the offense. Elite offensive players in the NBA counter whatever the defense throw at them. It is no different for Siakam: he needs to be able to score against bigs. If not, what made his game so fun in the first place will disappear: he won’t surprise anyone.
It won’t be easy; he already took a massive step in year three. He is on the cusp of stardom, though, and whether or not he can mesh into the ideal second-fiddle to Kawhi will determine the future of Eastern conference hierarchy.
And considering the Warriors have shown no signs of slowing down their 3-point output, Siakam will need to hit more than the occasional open three-point jumper for the Raptors to have a chance in the finals.