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Podium Guys: Can Pascal Siakam Help End Toronto’s Postseason Curse?

The Raptors forward has been a revelation this season, earning a starting role as a two-way contributor. Is it finally time for Toronto to reign over the Eastern Conference?

Pascal Siakam Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The podium is the NBA postseason’s version of a game ball. With more media members packing the locker rooms during the playoffs, the league will often pull certain players out of the fray and up on stage in the interview room. Most of the time, it’s a spot reserved for a team’s star. But occasionally, an unsung hero will swing a game and get their moment in the spotlight. That is what J.A. Adande would call a Podium Game. Here are the under-the-radar players most likely to get one as we barrel toward the big stage of the postseason.

Player: Pascal Siakam
Team: Toronto Raptors
Position: Forward
Numbers: 17 points, 6.9 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 58.8 eFG%, 10.5 net rating

How’d he get here?

Siakam is a Masai Ujiri O.G., though it took Toronto’s president a couple years to be sold on the forward: “I will tell you honestly,” Ujiri told ESPN in December, “when I saw Pascal in Basketball Without Borders [in 2012], I couldn’t even tell you if he was an NBA player.” Ujiri drafted Siakam 27th overall in 2016, just more than four years after the New Mexico State product began playing organized basketball. He was passed over for guys like Juan Hernangomez (Denver) and Malachi Richardson (Charlotte). In other words, Siakam was known by deep-dive internet draft guides, his mom, the Western Athletic Conference, and no one else.

Raptors fans became familiar with Siakam quickly; he started 38 games as a rookie because Jared Sullinger was injured. A D-League assignment followed before Siakam established his place as a bench contributor last season and showed potential as a possible deterrent to LeBron James on defense. Only after James left the Eastern Conference, however, did Siakam become known for his play on the other side of the court. Nick Nurse, who’s worked with Siakam since he was drafted, has periodically rested Kawhi Leonard all season, allowing Siakam room to emerge as a scorer and, to a lesser degree, a facilitator for the second-best team in the East. He’s Leonard Lite, which is enough to make Siakam the favorite for Most Improved Player.

What’s his game like?

In another year, or perhaps even after the playoffs, Siakam will no longer qualify as a “podium guy.” His star has progressed as quickly as his drives to the rim. The same fast footwork that makes Siakam an elite stopper carries him to the bucket as if gravity decided to temporarily go horizontal. From his first step to his soon-to-be signature spin move—which is confoundingly smooth, considering his 6-foot-9, 230-pound frame—and all the slashing in between, Siakam has proved to be an efficient finisher at the rim. He has a field goal percentage of 58.1 on drives (as of Thursday morning), second best among players with at least seven drives per game. (Though to be fair, Siakam’s lengthy frame sometimes causes him to lose control and turn the ball over when he gets overeager.)

At a rate of 35.6 percent, Siakam is an average and rather inconsistent 3-point shooter. But he’s improved significantly this season (last year he hit 22 percent on 1.6 attempts) under Nurse’s encouragement, and knows his spots (from the left corner, where he averages an attempt a game, Siakam is hitting 43.1 percent, and 38.1 percent from the right). His playmaking is on a similar trajectory, which Toronto needed after a couple unlucky injuries.

The most unignorable part of Siakam’s game is his energy. He plays like a phone left charged overnight and again throughout the day, cutting and driving on offense then breathlessly switching from a perimeter player to a big on defense moments later. Siakam, who’s started all season, averages 32 minutes a game and seems like he’s moving for every second of them; this season, he’s covered the fifth-most ground (184 miles) of all forwards.

What does his team say about him?

Nurse: “He’s made our level of talent rise. There’s a legitimate force to be reckoned with there that is at a super-high level. Probably the biggest things that have changed on the scouting report is it’s gone from disrespect, ‘Don’t guard this guy, he can’t hurt us offensively,’ to, well, we know that’s not the case anymore, they’re gonna have to start making the adjustments. I think it’s going to balance things out for everybody else. And I think it has. I think it’s made guys a lot more effective. It’s been pretty important. It’s almost like we added a whole new All-Star-type player.”

Jakob Poeltl: “So much confidence.”

Kyle Lowry: “One thing about P, when the shot wasn’t falling, he’s still doing things otherwise. It’s not just about scoring. I’m a big believer in that. Everybody says oh the numbers, scoring, this that and the other, but if you affect the game in all type of facets of the game, scoring don’t really matter.”

On a scale from Jokic to J.R. Smith, how irrational is his confidence?

In November, Siakam joined Danny Green on his show Inside the Green Room (forget L.A. and Hollywood—if a player wants a show, go to Toronto) to break down Siakam’s spin move. “Everyone can get it,” Siakam, whose nickname is Spicy P (!!!!!!!), told Green. “There’s not much you can do.” But that confidence is deserved. There isn’t much you can do against his spin move.

What’s his biggest moment so far?

Siakam’s “I’ve arrived” moment came when Leonard was out. In January against the Suns, Nurse drew up an ATO for Siakam with 13 seconds left and the game tied 109-109. What happened next I would describe as clutch, and Siakam would describe as spicy:

Siakam also went off for a career-high 44 points (and 10 rebounds and three blocks) last month to seal a win against the Wizards.

Why might he swing a playoff game?

The moment the clock strikes postseason, Toronto loses its luck—sometimes shooting luck, sometimes injury luck. It’s history and science and what some might even call a curse. And this year, there is plenty to worry about: Leonard, the team’s top scorer, has had to proceed cautiously all season to not aggravate the quad injury he suffered in the 2016-17 playoffs; Serge Ibaka, its third-highest scorer, has dealt with lingering knee soreness (and missed three games due to suspension); Lowry, the fourth-highest scorer, has missed 16 games this season because of back, thigh, and ankle injuries. There’s a good chance Siakam will have to carry more weight on offense the deeper the team goes into the playoffs. More importantly, he’s a star killer on defense who can guard (and actually stop) multiple positions. Those unfamiliar with Siakam will soon learn that, in his own words, everyone can get it.