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Anything You Can Do, Pascal Siakam Can Do Better

The Toronto Raptors forward has the size to go toe-to-toe with NBA big men and the skill to function as a wing or a point guard. And even after developing from a curiosity to a championship role player to an All-NBA player in the span of six seasons, Siakam isn’t done exploring the limits of his versatility.

Cody Pearson

There are teams that earn their way to the playoffs through their commitment to a hard-and-fast system, thriving in the security it provides. And then there’s the Raptors’ amoebic collection of problem solvers, who spend their 48 minutes figuring out who, exactly, they’re supposed to be.

“I think the way that we play as a team, we play in the flow of the game,” says Pascal Siakam, who led Toronto in scoring this season. Some nights, the offense tilted toward Fred VanVleet winding around the floor; others, it was Scottie Barnes wedging himself into the gaps between defenders. And as the team changed shape and strategy, what was needed from Siakam changed, too.

By traditional basketball taxonomy, Siakam most closely resembles a power forward. Yet sometimes he operates more like a wing, and Toronto often relies on him as its point guard. Even Siakam doesn’t really know what his position would be called at this point. “I think that’s kind of where the NBA has been going,” he says. “It’s always positionless basketball, and I feel like I can do anything.”

Having the freedom to do anything, however, means that Siakam can never depend on the focus of doing any one thing in particular. The modern NBA is home to all kinds of multitalented players, but far fewer who actually explore the full limits of their versatility. Stars want specific kinds of shots. They want to be on the floor at certain times and with certain teammates. They want to play—and dominate—on their terms. Which means that the versatility of a do-it-all superstar, in most cases, extends only as far as their comfort zone.

Siakam lives in a world without those certainties, and his success in operating that way has turned the Raptors’ offense into its own living, breathing thing. It’s what gives them hope, even after losing Barnes to an ankle injury, of making their series against the Sixers interesting as it shifts to Toronto. You can’t deny a team that is constantly evolving—or a star willing to search for his place in a matchup rather than insist upon it. It’s been a long road for the former Most Improved Player, but Siakam has grounded his game to the point that he doesn’t need to know when or how he’ll get the ball to generate quality shots for himself and his teammates.

“I don’t think it’s hard,” he says. “I think it’s just something that you grow into and you learn.”

Leave it to the flow of the game to settle the details. Siakam is proving he can figure out the rest.

Pascal Siakam #43 of the Toronto Raptors looks on before the game against the Cleveland Cavaliers on March 24, 2022 at the Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  Photo by Vaughn Ridley/NBAE via Getty Images

In the fall of 2021, the Raptors organization made its long-awaited homecoming after a season abroad in Tampa, Florida, and turned the page on what had been the franchise’s worst campaign in nearly a decade. Siakam, however, couldn’t quite move on; a collision in one of the Raptors’ final, meaningless games in Tampa had resulted in a torn labrum in his left shoulder, requiring an offseason surgery that left him unable to fully participate in training camp and sidelined for the start of the regular season.

That time off the court allowed Toronto’s star forward to take a broader view of his game. Something had fallen out of alignment in Tampa, where Siakam took on a larger role in unfamiliar, undermanned lineups. Many of the core players from Toronto’s 2019 title run had already left the team, and those who remained were hampered by COVID and injury—Siakam included. Yet even when he was available to play, Siakam seemed off; his efforts to lead the offense—an ongoing project since the departure of Kawhi Leonard in the 2019 offseason—ran aground. Teammates and coaches noted his flagging defensive effort. The production was still there for Siakam, but the spirit in his game had faded. A new season was a chance to recenter—to interrogate the differences between the player Siakam was back in Florida and the player he wanted to be.

Siakam first made his mark on the league in 2016 by playing a 94-foot game, turning every long rebound and loose ball into a furious push toward the rim. But even as he ascended through the NBA ranks, his best efforts were sometimes bogged down by the coordination of set defenses. So last fall, newly hired Raptors assistant coach Earl Watson went through the film with Siakam to help him reframe the way he thinks about creating shots. It’s not really about the defense, they concluded, or even about what action you’re running. Generating quality looks on a consistent basis really comes down to whether you can get to your spot.

“I have those images in my head, of where I wanna get to,” Siakam says. “It doesn’t really matter where it starts; if I can get to where I wanna get to, I have a better chance to score.”

Watson, a former journeyman point guard and Suns head coach, had seen this approach work for other great scorers. Siakam had, too. “An example,” he says, “is Kawhi—someone I watched, and who was here during our championship run. That’s someone who can always get to his spot.” That’s the kind of command Siakam hopes to emulate. Every dribble Siakam takes these days leaps from the floor with purpose. Watch even a single Raptors game and you can see his endpoint: Every drive of fits and starts, feints and spins, seems to go directly to the middle of the floor.

Siakam has nearly torn a hole in his shot chart this season by piling up attempts, one on top of the other, between the restricted area and the free throw line. This is a patch of prime real estate, accessible from all angles. “It’s a good spot,” Siakam says. “I can stop in the paint, I can stop at the free throw line and shoot a jumper, or I can get all the way to the rim.” Defenders are often so concerned with that last possibility that they wind up giving up the jumper and everything else in between. It takes a rare opponent to counter the speed, length, and coordination that Siakam brings into every would-be drive. That’s why Philadelphia has opted so often to guard him with the enormous—and mystifyingly nimble—Joel Embiid.

“And,” Siakam adds, “I can also still pass out of it.” Siakam has proved that, over and over, with his most consistent and sophisticated playmaking to date. Nine of Siakam’s 12 highest-assist games have come this season as he’s methodically worked his way to the middle of the court, created enough of an advantage to scare opponents into a double- or triple-team, and picked out shooters waiting on the wings. “In that spot,” he says, “you can see everything on the floor.”

Changing that point of view has made Siakam a completely different player under pressure. “The speed or the tempo or the composure he’s playing with in traffic seems to have slowed down for him or changed in some way,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse told reporters earlier this season. “I think he’s just really much more patient.” Opponents, terrified of the alternative, still send doubles. “If I played me,” Siakam says, “I would do that, too.” Yet if he continues along this course, even that self-issued scouting report may require an update. What the Sixers and Toronto’s other Eastern Conference rivals should find most terrifying about Siakam’s handling of defenders this season isn’t how quickly he’s found the open man, but how calmly he’s played in response.

“Before, I would get super rattled when I saw the double-team—and either try to make a play out of it real quick or whatever,” he says. “I think for me now, I’ll probe a little bit. Sometimes you kind of go and come back, and teams usually leave. So I think that there’s little reads like that that I try to do and still be able to make the plays, knowing that the double is there.”

This is the confidence of a player who knows exactly where he wants to go on the floor and just how much damage he can do when he gets there. It’s the assurance in knowing that, for someone with his wide array of skills, how a possession begins doesn’t matter. A pick-and-roll can become an iso. An iso can become a post-up. All roads take him to a place where his touch and creativity have allowed him to become one of the most prolific paint scorers in the sport. The entire NBA knows where Siakam wants to operate at this point, but there are too many ways in for any defense to actually stop him from getting there.

“And the more I get comfortable,” he says, “I’m gonna have more spots I wanna get to.”

Pascal Siakam #43 of the Toronto Raptors shoots the ball against the Philadelphia 76ers during Round 1 Game 1 of the 2022 NBA Playoffs on April 16, 2022 at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Whatever the future is for the Raptors, it probably looks a lot like Pascal Siakam. Every executive or coach is partial to certain kinds of basketball talent, but the brain trust in Toronto has a type. Before Siakam there was the 6-foot-9 Bruno Caboclo, a loose outline of a forward prospect with a space-eating, 7-foot-7 wingspan. After Siakam came OG Anunoby (6-foot-7), a genius, cross-positional defender making his own considerable strides as a scorer; then the lanky Chris Boucher (6-foot-9), who has blocked more 3-point attempts in the past four seasons than all but one other NBA player; Dalano Banton (6-foot-7), a guard curiosity still working his way into the rotation; Barnes (6-foot-7), of course, with his guard-anyone mentality and off-the-charts instincts; and part-time starter Precious Achiuwa (6-foot-8), whose switch-friendly defense made Toronto only more adaptable.

At the center of it all is Siakam—the proof of concept that a mobile, athletic forward with the right tools and the right makeup can completely transform their game. “Pascal’s kind of our prototype of that,” Nurse told Tim Micallef of Sportsnet before the season. Barnes is the most promising iteration yet. Not only did the no. 4 pick arrive in the league fully capable of handling its speed and physicality, but Barnes seemed to understand how to slot into an NBA offense from the jump. Throughout the season, both Siakam and Barnes most frequently assisted each other—a bit of synergy that helps clarify what makes the formula so dangerous.

If most opponents don’t have the length to match up with both Siakam and Barnes (much less Anunoby or Achiuwa or Boucher), then either the passer or receiver typically has an automatic size advantage—and with it, an automatic passing lane. “Scottie is always a good target for me, because he’s long, athletic, and he can finish also,” Siakam says. “He knows how to play the game, and always cuts in the right spot.”

Toronto misses that kind of intuitive play. Traffic jams are inevitable when there are so many similarly sized forwards on the court and Embiid is looming in the middle of the defense. Toronto’s bigs have generally knocked down their open shots from the perimeter, but not with any punishing frequency. Philadelphia will shrink the floor—sagging off shooters to put more bodies between the ball and the rim—until it’s made to stop. VanVleet, who attempted 16 shots from beyond the arc in Game 2, will force some Sixers guards to think twice. But Barnes is the sort of natural freelancer who might have been able to cut through at the perfect time to help clear a path. Without him, the pressure falls on Siakam to create up to the level he has all season, and to bring Toronto’s injury-adjusted lineups some provisional direction.

Putting the ball in Siakam’s hands has been a clarifying experience for the larger project. Versatility can feel like an answer in the NBA game, but often it just creates another question. A player like Siakam could provide the unifying theory of an offense, connecting all of its otherwise disparate parts. Or, if they’re not careful, they could get lost in the action as they try to find how to best contribute. “For me, it’s just so hard to stand in the corner,” Siakam says. “Or you have one play coming in, and then that’s it.”

Siakam describes that kind of indirect role as just being out there, as if he might drift away. The ball, however, works as a tether. “Being more on the ball,” he says, “just gives you a better rhythm, and you have chances to make mistakes.”

It’s more than just a ball; it’s an expression of trust. Nurse and his staff rely on Siakam to the point that he’s been in control of the offense for more of this series than any other Raptor, according to NBA Advanced Stats. More broadly, Siakam is on the trigger for longer, on average, than even Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, or Kevin Durant. Siakam’s teammates trust him to pick out his matchups and go to work—to operate as the best players in the world do. “It means everything,” he says.

Even after six years in the league, Siakam’s game is still growing. He was already a champion and an All-Star, proven by any definition. Yet due to Toronto’s ever-changing circumstances, there was always something more for him to do. Fill in for one of the NBA’s most potent shot creators. Start at the point while his costar was out with injury. Take on more than he ever had before, all with the hope that it might fit. The best developmental stories don’t have endings. They just continue on, spinning forward until they become something new.

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