Filling Kawhi’s shoes is a big ask, but Siakam is handling it just fine


Pascal Siakam has progressed so quickly and so seamlessly at everything he does on the basketball court, it’s sometimes easy to forget what is being asked of him this season.

Siakam is being asked to fill the offensive shoes of Kawhi Leonard this season. That is a tall task for any of the 400 or so members of the NBA.

It’s a bigger ask when you recall Siakam has only been playing the game since he was 16 or 17 years of age.

The reigning most-improved player in the NBA, coming off his first of what we expect will be many trips to come to the all-star game, receives nightly questions and — for the most part — nightly praise for his progress in terms of filling those very large shoes.

But as impressive as that has been to see develop, even more impressive is the maturity with which he’s taking those steps.

At the conclusion of just about every game, Siakam is asked by members of the media about his developing role. More often than not, it is after a game in which he has used his unique blend of skill, speed and athleticism to put up 20-35 points while handling more than his fair share of rebounding, defending and facilitating for teammates as well.

But there are nights when the opposition loads up on the 25-year-old power forward and finds a way to hold him to less impressive numbers.

It is on those nights, particularly in the post-game portion of those nights, when his maturity and professionalism shines brightest.

Siakam still fields the same questions about his game and where it’s at and politely and, if need be, repeatedly reminds his questioners that he’s learning on the fly and how the path isn’t as always as quick and easy as he and everyone else would like it to be.

Teams got a pretty good book on Siakam’s spin moves and his aggressive drives a year ago. And now with no Leonard in the lineup to focus on, they load up for him. In the first couple of months of the season, that approach was still very effective with Siakam averaging between 24 and 28 points a night through the first 2 1/2 months. But then a groin injury through late December and early January cost him 11 games and, when he came back, teams were throwing even more bodies at him more often.

His numbers sagged a little, dropping to 20 points a night. Again, rather than get frustrated with the attention, he adapted and continues to adapt with each and every game.

“I’m watching the double team and obviously that is part of growing and getting better as a player,” he said following a game on the Raptors recently completed 4-1 west coast trip. “Understanding that you command attention and making plays out of that. I think I am improving.”

It’s meant changing the very mindset at times that got him this opportunity to be the focal point of a team’s offence in the first place, but Siakam is doing it.

“It’s tough because your mentality is to score and you feel like you always have an advantage but a lot of teams aren’t letting you play that one-on-one game anymore,” he said. “So you have to find other ways to score and also other ways to affect the game.”
It’s not an accident that his assists for the month of March are at a season-high 5.2 a game.

But that doesn’t mean he’s not scoring. In addition to becoming a better passer, he’s still maintaining his spot on the Raptors and even among the league leaders in scoring.

His 23.6 points a night are 15th in the NBA and tied with Boston’s Jayson Tatum, only a few points behind the likes of Leonard, LeBron James, Anthony Davis and players of that ilk.

The difference between Siakam and Tatum and that group they are chasing is Siakam and Tatum are still reaching for their respective ceilings.

A favourite phrase of Siakam’s these days in describing his game is “taking what the defence gives me.”

Again that speaks to his maturity. Rather than put his head down and run into those double teams he’s picking his spots and when the defence is lined up to stop him understanding someone else is probably in a position to score easier and kicking it out to them.

“Just watching the guys that do that at the highest level and that’s something that Kawhi always would say last year — ‘You don’t look at the past quarter. Whatever happened before has no effect on the game whatsoever’  and for me I just try to have that approach. After I missed the last shot that one is over. Move on. That is what I am trying to do.

“I think it’s all mental, right?” Siakam continued. “One of the things I have always done early in my career is that every time I missed a shot it felt like the world ended type stuff. It’s something I try to work on every single day. Just understanding that the last shot don’t matter. It’s over. If you make it or miss it nothing is going to change. So just continue to do the things you do and you work on those things every day so there is no reason you should be worrying about those things.”