People used to laugh at Pascal Siakam when he said he didn’t want to be a prototypical NBA big. In 2014, a freshman at New Mexico State, the idea that he could be anything other than a traditional 6-foot-9 traditional big was scoffed at. The Aggies threw him the ball inside the old fashion way, insisting on two-point baskets, rebounds, and maybe a kick-out pass from time to time.
“I always knew him as a back-to-the-basket guy,” said Fred VanVleet reflecting on his days playing Siakam in college. “He was a really, really, really good post player on the block.”
Even when Siakam arrived in Toronto, the 27th pick in the 2016 draft, the Raptors wanted him to be a rim-runner, using his long strides to win in transition, and play a tertiary role on a very talented team. But then something changed.
“It just kind of happened,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. One day Siakam was a mostly typical power forward. The next day, as Nurse recalled, he was breaking free of traditional NBA archetypes, trying to bring the ball up himself and play make for others.
Today Siakam isn’t just bringing the ball up in transition, he’s become Toronto’s backup point guard when VanVleet rests and, frankly, sometimes the top ‘point guard’ when the two are on the court together. The change has meant more assist for Siakam than ever before, and it’s allowed the Raptors to get way more creative offensively.
For VanVleet, it’s meant more opportunities to create off the ball this year. He’s gone from taking nearly three catch-and-shoot three-pointers per game prior to Siakam’s return from offseason shoulder surgery to nearly five per game since Siakam returned. It’s also coincided with his points per game rising from 18.7 prior to Siakam’s return to 23.3 since Nov. 7.
“It’s helping my scoring right now, to be honest, to be able to play off the ball,” VanVleet said. “With the way that I’ve been shooting the ball and scoring, I think we’re helping each other, and him being a playmaker and handling the basketball, I think it’s helping my offense.”
This is the future the Raptors have been envisioning. In a league that’s so superstar-oriented, where players like Luka Doncic, Joel Embiid, and Trae Young are handling nearly 35% of their team’s offensive possessions, the Raptors don’t have a single player who ranks in the top 50 in usage rate. Instead, Siakam sits 57th in the league, with a usage rate nearly 10% below the NBA’s elite, leading the Raptors with a far more egalitarian approach.
“I feel like I’m always a threat out there and I’m getting better every day at making decisions with the basketball. Obviously, I have the ability to make big plays and I feel like the ball should be (in my hands), especially when we have the group out there with me,” Siakam said.
Now teams can’t key in on one Raptors player the way Toronto has done to opposing superstars over the past few years. If teams try to take Siakam out with double teams, his playmaking is good enough to spray the ball out to the surrounding shooters. If VanVleet is getting blitzed, as opposing teams have done lately, Siakam has more than enough skill to beat his defender one-on-one for a bucket at the rim.
“I feel like I should be able to make good decisions and make everyone better,” Siakam said. “If that’s scoring, that’s what it is, and if not, it’s just putting everyone in the right spots.”