The 2020-21 Toronto Raptors season has always been about getting Pascal Siakam back on track. For the first five months of last season, Pascal Siakam was a top 15 player in the NBA. He was averaging 23.6 points on 46% shooting to go with 7.5 rebounds and nearly four assists per game. It earned him second-team All-NBA honours.
Then, on March 11, 2020, the NBA stopped. The next time we saw Pascal Siakam he was not Pascal Siakam.
The once joyous, rim-running forward seemed to be pressing. He had flourished all season, but when the playoffs arrived he seemed to be pressing. He was trying to be someone he wasn’t.
Becoming an NBA star isn’t about fitting an archetype. There is no one way to be a star. You’re not going to ask Stephen Curry or Damien Lillard to post-up opposing teams and facilitate the offence like Nikola Jokic or Joel Embiid just as you’re not going to ask those big men to whiz around screens and take step-back 3-pointers from just over half court. The key to becoming a star is staying within yourself and taking your game to another level.
That’s what Siakam had to learn. For months it seemed as though he was trying to be someone he wasn’t. He was attacking tentatively and settling for mid-range and 3-point shots.
Those struggles carried over to the start of this season. Through the first five games of this year, Siakam was taking just 26% of his shots at the rim, per Cleaning the Glass. It was a drop off of 14% from where he was prior to the pandemic when he was taking 40% of his shots within four feet of the hoop, according to Cleaning the Glass.
Taking a look at his shot chart it’s easy to see where Siakam’s shots were coming from. Not only was he taking plenty of mid-range and 3-point shots, but when he was getting inside he wasn’t finishing.
Then the Raptors traveled across the country to start a four-game West Coast road trip and suddenly something changed. The once tentative Siakam appeared to reach a new level of Pascal Siakam-ness. Not only was he attacking the rim again, but he was doing it on over 55% of his shot attempts, per Cleaning the Glass, a much higher rate than his pre-pandemic All-NBA self.
“I just think he seemed so much more in tune,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said of Siakam following the team’s 123-115 loss to the Phoenix Suns to open the road trip. “He was assertive, his moves were sharp and crisp.”
On Monday, Siakam put it all together for one of the best games of his career. Not only did he score 22 points on 9-for-17 shooting, but he showed off improved playmaking, chipping in 10 assists to go with 13 rebounds to record his first career triple-double.
Here are his 10 assists against the Portland Trail Blazers:
“He’s back to playing sort of the way we used to see him play,” Nurse said following Monday night’s loss to the Trail Blazers. “And that is creation, you know, getting to the basket, getting other people involved on some cuts and some kick-outs, etc. But just an overall gait that looks better. There’s some speed up the floor, there’s much better movement and connectivity on defence. Just playing all around like he’s capable of or like we know him to have played prior. So it’s good to see, really a bright spot on this trip for sure.”
Siakam is never going to be Kawhi Leonard or LeBron James. If he was ever trying to, it was a decision that hurt his game. If he’s going to get back to his pre-pandemic form or even take another step in his development, it’s going to be by playing within himself.
He’s looked like his old self lately. Hopefully for the Raptors, he doesn’t try to do too much and this hot streak he’s on continues.