Pascal Siakam improvs and improves with a game that defies comparisons


Pascal Siakam is hard to catch, difficult to pin down. He slithers and slides, changes direction and spins, spins back and changes direction again. Every game is an experiment, or a series of experiments: Pascal Siakam, leading man for the Toronto Raptors. Five games in, it has been fascinating.

And what might be most fascinating is that Siakam doesn’t look like anybody else. Look at Steph Curry and you can see some Steve Nash, even some Isiah Thomas. Look at LeBron and you can see some Magic Johnson, and some Larry Bird. Look at Giannis Antetokounmpo and you can see some young LeBron, some elastic Shaq. Most players, however unique, have comps. The game is evolution.

So who is Pascal Siakam? It’s hard to say, because he’s still a shapeshifter. He is 6-9 with Giannis’s wingspan and strangely balletic feet. He gained 10 pounds of muscle this summer, but still scores by simply outrunning other players down the floor. He insists he is the fastest player in the league free-throw line to free-throw line, or close.

He is posting up more (scoring slightly fewer points per post-up than Kawhi Leonard) and handling the ball in pick-and-rolls more (scoring slightly fewer points per attempt than LeBron). He is now finishing 32.8 per cent of possessions with a field-goal attempt or free throws, versus 20.8 per cent last year. Star usage.

But then there’s the shooting. Through five games, watch Siakam and it is like he is improvising every night, while trying to hit familiar beats. Forget the “deflect a ball to himself and finish off the bounce” play that left even teammates in awe; that’s fun, but not reliable. But he appears to be working on a turnaround jumper off his right shoulder. And he has a one-legged Dirk Nowitzki-like pull-up jumper he’s trying out.

But suddenly he is hunting above-the-break threes, taking them in bulk, and is hitting a shocking 55 per cent of them. That will fall, sure. But he’s hitting them on catch-and-shoots, pulling up his dribble, even with defenders close, and taking them confidently. As one Raptors source said last year, “once he starts hitting those, it’s over.” A reliable three-point shot from everywhere can change everything, if he can keep doing it.

“It’s good, man,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse after Toronto’s win Wednesday night over Detroit, in which Siakam scored 30 for the third time in five games. “He’s turning into a prime-time scorer, right? That three ball really is going to take him a long way. If they have to press up on that, then he’s going to slither around them, probably.”

That’s the idea. Siakam exploded last year in a complementary role, and in the playoffs he hacked his way through the insane four-round assignment of Jonathan Issac, Joel Embiid, Antetokounmpo and Draymond Green. And now he’s dominating at times, even as he seems to still be putting things together, even as he misses a pile of layups in the early going.

So what is he? He is already not a mini-Giannis, because he is shooting the ball so much better than Antetokounmpo ever did: .369 from three-point range last season, an eye-popping .444 so far this season, on tougher shots. He’s not a new Grant Hill, or Scottie Pippen, two other long athletic wings, both of whom were so much more fully formed as playmakers at this stage.

There’s some early Tracy McGrady in there, maybe. Some people in the league say Antawn Jamison with better defence, but Siakam has a higher offensive ceiling. James Worthy for a new generation? Except Siakam is the focal point, without a Kareem or a Magic.

The trick with Siakam, really, is that he doesn’t really look like anybody.

“He’s a tough guy to comp historically, because he’s a modern power forward, and that role has changed a lot in the last 10 years,” said one front-office executive, not with the Raptors. “Last year he was in an easy role to grow into, and be good. This year, teams will game plan for him, but he’ll also have more freedom, and room to fail.”

And that is the exhilarating part of all this. Siakam is exploding despite clear room for improvement. He’s 25, and is only eight years into playing basketball at all. He can’t always create under extreme duress like Kawhi yet, but what if he learns? Siakam seems to inhale new things and then add them. He’s changing so fast, it’s hard to say what his ceiling is.

We’ll find out, though. By season’s end Siakam will have discovered how durable all this is, how well it stands up to the superstar situations. What can he do when the games are tight? When the defence is geared to him? When the easy baskets vanish? As one league source said, “he can get 20 points in his sleep, but it’s really about how impactful he can be in a game. It’s about choices, and toughness.”

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“Again, it’s good to give him some reps … and continue to find multiple ways to score,” said Nurse. “Because he’s going to need all those ways.”

Before last season, this franchise thought OG Anunoby was ahead of Siakam. By season’s end, Siakam was an all-star. Well, he has taken another leap, high into the air. And nobody knows what it will look like when he lands.

Bruce Arthur