Pascal Pressure: All Eyes on Him

“Another small-ball center option.”

In an almost 1000 word preview of the Toronto Raptors (NBA.com) before the start of last season, those four words were the only descriptor of Pascal Siakam. Fast forward one year, and Siakam is a household name, an NBA champion, and the unquestioned captain of a team that has deep playoff aspirations. So, what changed last season for Siakam, and why did he struggle before his incredible breakout year?

Unlike many American prospects who are groomed for the NBA since they were born by picking up a basketball before they can even walk, Siakam didn’t play his first game of competitive basketball until he was sixteen years old. While many of his peers had been on college radars since middle school, Siakam was still learning the basics of the game, but his athleticism allowed him to begin to bridge the talent gap.

After being discovered by NBA veteran Luc Mbah a Moute in his native Cameroon, Siakam, who was originally planning on becoming a Catholic priest, immigrated to the United States to chase a career in professional basketball.

Leaving his family behind, Siakam moved to Lewisville, Texas, where Mbah a Moute had convinced a high school coach to give Siakam a roster spot. Although he initially struggled in his new environment, Siakam worked harder than his teammates, quickly developing a few on the court skills to complement his raw athleticism and relentless motor.

While Siakam played well, his late start kept him off the radar of most college programs, and while some showed interest in the Cameroonian, his college choice was made simple by the fact that only one school offered him a scholarship: New Mexico State.

Unfortunately, Siakam was forced to sit out his freshman year due to academic issues, but that didn’t stop him from improving on the basketball court. Skinny throughout his entire life, he slowly began to fill out his towering 6’9” frame in order to stop being pushed around by his stronger teammates. In addition, Siakam worked tirelessly on his jump shot, undoubtedly the weakest part of his developing game.

By the time he could finally play on the court, Siakam had already drastically improved, earning WAC Freshman of the Year honors while leading the Aggies to an NCAA tournament appearance. After a solid freshman campaign, Siakam had another breakthrough as a sophomore, averaging over 20 points per game and unanimously earning the WAC Player of the Year title.

After two successful years at New Mexico State, Siakam decided to take his chances and enter the NBA draft, even though he wasn’t regarded as a top prospect. While at a pre-draft workout with the Raptors, Siakam recalls being separated from top-tier prospects, such as Skal Labissiére, to play with the second-tier players.

On draft night, Siakam patiently sat as name after name was called by Commissioner Adam Silver. Finally, at pick number 27, Siakam learned he would be heading to Toronto to begin his professional journey.

While still a very raw prospect, Siakam was thrust into the spotlight early, starting on opening night for the injury-plagued Raptors. While Siakam wound up starting 38 games, he often failed to make an impact on the court. Siakam really only provided rebounding for the team, only topping 10 points twice on the season and shooting a horrendous 14% from behind the arc.

Late in the season, when the Raptors returned to full strength, the struggling power forward was demoted to the D-league, where he teamed up with another young prospect, Fred VanVleet, on the Raptors 905.

While Siakam was promoted back to the NBA squad for his second season, he only showed slight improvement from his rookie campaign. Relegated to the bench, Siakam continued to struggle with his jump shot, attempting significantly more threes than the previous season, but still shooting a disastrous 22% from deep.

Going into last season, the big storyline in Toronto was the arrival of superstar Kawhi Leonard. While Kawhi, rightfully so, received all of the hype, Siakam quietly won the starting power forward job and began developing into the team’s second best option. A virtual unknown at the beginning of the season, the young Cameroonian got off to a hot start and was touted as a potential All-Star by the beginning of February as the Raptors rolled through the regular season.

Siakam continued his momentum into the postseason, not shrinking under the pressure, something that had become all too common for other Raptors in the past, but instead filling the shoes of Kawhi’s right-hand man.

After fighting through the Eastern Conference, the Raptors overcame an injury-plagued Golden State in the Finals to win their first NBA title in franchise history. Kawhi, after a truly historic postseason run, won Finals MVP and received most of the media attention, but Siakam had quietly averaged almost 20 points per game during the Finals and was an indispensable part of their postseason run.

Now that Kawhi has moved across the continent, the Raptors are seen as an afterthought in an increasingly competitive Eastern conference. Last year’s roster compiled of a collection of veterans and a hodgepodge of previously rejected prospects wasn’t supposed to win the title with a superstar, and now that Kawhi is gone, the Raptors have been written off as even semi-serious contenders.

However, Siakam wants to prove the doubters wrong.

Coming off of a huge breakout season, Siakam already wants to take the next jump: becoming the main man for a competitive team. While he may not seem ready for another monumental breakthrough, he may already be closer than anticipated.

While Leonard was the undisputed leader of the team last year, he was also coming off of a serious injury, and therefore missed a significant chunk of last season due to load management. In total, Kawhi wound up missing 22 games throughout the course of the season, most of which were either on the road, the second half of a back-to-back, or both.

In these difficult games where the team was often tired, away from home, and without their superstar, it would be understandable if the Raptors slightly regressed. However, this was definitely not the case, as the Raptors went 17-5 without Leonard, garnering a significantly winning percentage than they had with him.

The sample size was small, and the Raptors still needed every bit of Leonard to even advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, but Siakam has at least shown flashes of being able to lead the team, including a 44 point performance in a win against the Wizards without Leonard in February.

The advanced statistics may be even more bullish about Siakam than traditional metrics. Last year, Siakam had the second highest total win shares for power forwards in the league, only trailing Giannis Antetokounmpo. In addition, Siakam had an exceptional 62.8 true shooting percentage, after never topping 55 in his first two seasons in the league.

A big reason for Siakam’s improved scoring efficiency last season was his ability to score from anywhere on the floor. In his third season in the league, Siakam hoisted 302 threes during the regular season after only shooting 119 total through his first two seasons. Siakam not only took more attempts from behind the arc, but he also showed an incredible increase in efficiency from deep, shooting almost 37% after only shooting 22% the previous year.

While Siakam continues to become a threat on the perimeter, he has also developed into one of the best post scorers in the league. Using his unique combination of size and strength, Siakam scored 1.08 points per post-up last year, making him the third most efficient post player last year.

Siakam’s numbers may have been impressive last year, but expect them to skyrocket without Leonard on the floor. Last season, Siakam’s usage rate was a mere 20%, placing him 88th in the league behind players like Eric Gordon and Marcus Morris.

This year, the offense should run primarily through Siakam, and most likely, his usage rate will wind up at around 30%, similar to Leonard’s rate for the Raptors last year. If Siakam even maintains the same offensive efficiency as he did last season while becoming the main focus of the offense, he will consistently put up huge numbers, but that’s arguably not even his biggest strength.

Since his youth, Siakam has been praised by his coaches at every level for his non-stop motor and persistent energy he brings on the court. Stepping into a leadership role this year, Siakam’s energy is likely to rub off on his teammates, who will try to play as hard as their dynamic leader.

With proven support around him in veterans like Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, and Marc Gasol, as well as improving young players like OG Anunoby and Norman Powell, this Raptors squad could still be one of the best in the East.

A solid regular season could see this team competing with Boston and Indiana for first round home court advantage, and if the Raptors come up against either of the Eastern Conference frontrunners (Philadelphia or Milwaukee) later in the postseason, they could give them some serious problems.

However, if the Raptors want to return to the later stages of the playoffs, almost all of the pressure will be on Siakam. After sitting back in the shadows, the young Cameroonian now has the chance to be the man. Is it too soon, or, will Siakam quickly rise to the occasion as he has done time and time again?