TORONTO — Pascal Siakam loves to learn, and of all the things he put on his list this summer to grow his game, learning to avoid the referee’s whistle probably wasn’t one of them.
But over the course of the first two weeks of the NBA season, one of the few troubling aspects of Siakam’s game has been his foul trouble. Nick Nurse says he needs to be smarter and the Cameroonian himself has placed the blame on himself.
“I think I’ve gotta be ready a little more, just my readiness defensively and being ready to help,” Siakam said Tuesday. “I think it starts with that. If you’re standing straight up and down you’ve got a good chance when a guy makes a move to put your hands there or something. I think I’ve gotta be more ready to be on defence so that when the offensive player comes I’m not caught off guard and don’t have to put my hands on him.
“So just little things like that. And obviously there’s some fouls that I can avoid and not take because it’s definitely important for me to be in the game.”
As the latest occupant of the Toronto Raptors’ franchise player throne, it’s absolutely imperative that Siakam finds a way to keep himself on the court for long stretches of games. There was no greater example than when he fouled out against the Milwaukee Bucks with his team on the verge of a miraculous comeback, and while the trend isn’t troubling in the long term just yet, there’s been enough to suggest it’s time to stop the bleeding.
Just how bad is it?
This was one of the first things I asked myself with all the attention this topic of discussion has received, so I went back and looked at each foul he’s committed. Granted it’s very early in the season, but certain types of fouls are generally more “sustainable” than others.
What do I mean by that? Well, as Nurse alluded to during his extremely honest assessment of Siakam’s propensity to get whistled this season, there are those ticky tacky fouls 30 feet away from the basket that generally should be avoidable. There are others that can stem from someone generally being a lazy defender and then always being in recovery mode which can take time to figure out, as well as offensive fouls where a player is just consistently making bad reads or cursed with tunnel vision.
Context for all these fouls such as when and what led to certain plays matters, too, so let’s start with when.
Siakam has gotten himself the bingo card of foul trouble. In the Boston game, he gets in foul trouble early but avoids the whistle entirely for three quarters. The trends of the Bulls and Bucks games are very similar, except that one fourth quarter was actually of consequence and probably pushed Siakam over the edge as a result. The Pistons game wasn’t an issue, the New Orleans game became one after halftime. The Orlando meeting was a bizarre one in that he was sailing smooth until halfway through the fourth quarter, which was when he picked up three fouls in the span of 100 seconds.
Of the 26 fouls Siakam has committed thus far, six have come as a result of contesting a shot at the rim, another six have been offensive fouls, three have been over-the-back fouls while trying to rebound, another three have been very normal fouls where you credit the opposition for a good move/play, and there’s one genuinely bad call on a 3-point attempt by the Pelicans’ Nicolo Melli where the Italian clearly kicked his legs out and Nurse probably wished he still had his challenge.
That leaves seven more fouls that probably provide the biggest learning moments and should be avoidable based on what he’s said about watching film and trying to make sure this trend doesn’t continue. These were all situations where Siakam needs to better understand the time, score, situation or just have better defensive awareness but here are a few of the main ones:
Grabbing Jrue Holiday 30 feet away from the basket for your third foul? Probably not worth it. In the first minute against Boston, Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum initially look to engage in a dribble hand-off but Walker recognizes an opening, fakes the hand-off and now has a step on Siakam who’s forced to foul on the drive before he gets to the paint. The intensity’s got to be better to open up a road game, especially when you know the opposition is juiced up for their home opener.
His fourth foul against Orlando is one of those that Nurse will want him to learn from ASAP. After a terrific defensive stand for 21 seconds, Siakam’s got DJ Augustin dribbling to his left several feet from the basket and there’s really no way he’s going to get a quality shot off. The hard work’s been done, stay solid. Instead, Siakam is a little overzealous and bumps Augustin. The Orlando point guard certainly made a meal of it, but with 2.5 on the shot clock, there was certainly no reason for Siakam to put himself in that situation.
Finally, there are two more that come purely out of frustration for not getting the call on the offensive end: His third foul against the Bulls and then the fifth against the Bucks. While the two fall under the same umbrella, it’s the latter that really must be avoided considering the magnitude of the game and the situation the team was in.
After attacking Giannis Antetokounmpo on a right block post-up, Siakam spins but seems to get grabbed by the league’s MVP on the move and then struggles to finish as a result. He’s barking at the officials and then as he heads back on the other end, effectively dares the referee to blow the whistle by being ultra aggressive on Khris Middleton. After already dealing with foul trouble for much of the game, the last thing Siakam needed to do was hurt his team with a hack like that. Which brings us to our next point.
Figuring out the referees
Siakam isn’t a superstar yet and shouldn’t be expecting those types of calls. There is plenty of sense in having meaningful conversations with them to better understand their perspective, though, instead of yelling at them because he disagrees.
“Referees and all that are also part of the game so you have to be able to adjust and improve on those things too,” Siakam said. “It’s something that’s going on right now and I have to find a way to be better at it. It’s on me. It doesn’t matter what the ref does or what happens. It’s gotta be on me to make sure that I adjust properly to what’s being called out there and that I’m ready to help my team win, and that’s by being on the floor and not fouling out.”
Some of this may even just be Siakam doing exactly what the referees are looking to make a point of emphasis. Every season, the referees have certain areas of focus they are looking to establish early in the year so players know exactly what to expect. The cheap fouls where Siakam’s had both hands on his opponent or has used his off-hand to create space on a post-up or drive may just be something that the referees are focussing on early on. If you remember, last year was all about freedom of movement and eliminating the dark arts of holding and grabbing that defenders looked to use away from the ball.
Nurse for one would like for his star player to not get too caught up with the calls.
“We need a lot of energy for scoring, we need a lot of energy for guarding, we need a lot of energy for rebounding and we’re wasting energy on places where we’re not getting much return on so let’s try to conserve and save our energy and focus on what we need to focus on…
“I think it’s a lot of wasted energy if you’re going to be talking to them about every call and you’re leaving the floor slowly, etcetera.”
Nursing foul trouble
The head coach can take some ownership here, too, as Siakam should be better protected when going up against the elite teams that will likely look to game plan against him considering his importance.
“I guess you can say there’s attention on defence or whatever but I’ve always kind of went at it with whoever is playing against me,” Siakam said. “I don’t think it’s because I am who I am or whatever. Obviously they’re paying attention — you’ve got to do something. It’s important for them to do that. But I don’t look at it like that. Every night someone is coming for your job in the NBA. That’s just how it is every single night for me, wherever it is. Whether I was in this position or not, it would be the same thing.”
Nurse has a more than capable defender in OG Anunoby and so if it allows Siakam to stay on the court in the first quarter when the Raptors are looking to establish a tone, then that’s what he’s got to look to do.
Siakam’s two early fouls against the Bucks both came defending Giannis, and the MVP of the league has the strength to cause problems for the MIP.
All part of the learning curve
Ultimately, Siakam has proven to be one of the quickest learners in the game today. He has found an answer to every question that’s been asked of him and this seems to be a layup in terms of relative level of difficulty. The Raptors have handed him the keys, and there’s sure to be some bumps along the way.
The great thing about him is that he has acknowledged the problem, takes full ownership of it, and realizes it’s something he needs to get better at for the sake of his team.
“It’s all part of the game, all part of learning, it’s a part of growing and if you guys know me I’m always about improving and evolving,” Siakam said. “And I’m excited about it. I’m excited about the opportunity to learn and by the end of the season I can look at these games and say they prepared me for something bigger.”
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