The defending champion Raptors are counting on Pascal Siakam, the league’s Most Improved Player of the 2018-19 season, to become the centerpiece of the team for years to come. Siakam emerged as a star in the 2019 NBA playoffs, producing 19 points and 7.1 rebounds per game.
The time is now to hand the keys to the franchise to Siakam. The forward came up clutch against the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals—most notably during his 32-point, eight-rebound explosion in Game 1, before totaling 26 points and 10 rebounds in the title-clinching victory in Game 6.
Leonard was the face of the Raptors for one season. It was a historical year, but the superstar has packed his bags and isn’t coming back.
It doesn’t appear that Siakam is sweating Leonard’s departure, or the added expectations that will be placed on him moving forward.
“Hey man, we’re still champs right now, so I’m still enjoying that,” Pascal Siakam told TMZ Sports when asked about the Raptors defending their championship. “We’re going to figure out next season, next season.”
Before Leonard, Kyle Lowry and former Raptor DeMar DeRozan shared the limelight. Lowry has made five consecutive All-Star teams and shed his label as a ‘playoff choker’ with some clutch performances in the Raptors’ title run. But he is 33-years-old and a free agent after next season. His best days are probably behind him.
Siakam, on the other hand, is entering the prime of his carer. The 27th pick of the 2015 Draft, Siakam took a major step forward this past season. He averaged 16.9 points, 6.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists during the regular season—a year after posting 7.3 points per contest. The 6-foot-9 athletic big man is an All-Star caliber talent who has the chance to be a top-10 player in the Eastern Conference next season.
Pascal Siakam is, for all intents and purposes, already a star. But can he really become a superstar that the Raptors eventually lean on in their next championship run, whenever that might be? He’s a ways from superstar status for now, but has plenty of opportunity for growth having just completed his fourth season.
There are still noticeable holes in Siakam’s game. He was less effective when guarded by bigger players in the postseason. It’s why his scoring dipped in the series against the Philadelphia 76ers and the Milwaukee Bucks. Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid and Milwaukee’s Brook Lopez did well defending Siakam. In both instances, the aforementioned 7-foot centers switched onto Siakam (which tasked their team’s power forward to guard Raptors center Marc Gasol) and played off him to keep him from driving to the basket.
Embiid and Lopez used their size to contain Siakam. They backed off him and inserted themselves in the paint, forcing Siakam to shoot midrange and three-point shots. He failed to make these shots on a consistent basis. Siakam eventually became hesitant with his shot and was a less effective player as a result.
Siakam must improve as an outside shooter. Ideally, he develops into a knock-down midrange shooter with the ability to drain 3’s off the catch. As the team’s primary option moving forward, the opposing defense will hone their attention on him more than any other player and he won’t be able to mask his shooting deficiencies.
The athletic nature and nearly-unmatched effort of Siakam is something he uses to his advantage. He has herky-jerky moves and can drive to the paint better than most big men in the league. He excels at scoring in the fast break and finishing off putbacks.
Siakam will be pressed with becoming more of a playmaker. That is an aspect of his game he’ll have to be better at as Toronto’s top offensive option. Already a versatile defender who guards well on-the-ball and off it, adding playmaking to his offensive arsenal would be deadly.
Based off his year-to-year progression, Siakam should be an All-Star next year. That alone is a remarkable achievement for a late first-round pick.
Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri had no interest in dealing away Siakam this summer and rightfully so. Ujiri believes the Raptors can build around Siakam. The major question for Ujiri is if Siakam can be a true 1A or even 1B player on a team competing for a championship, or whether he remains a complimentary star and the clear second option.
The Siakam-era in Toronto began the moment Leonard signed with the Clippers. Pascal Siakam certainly has his work cut out for him to develop into the singular foundational piece of a championship contender. He is far from that talented at this current juncture. But he’s also unquestionably the most equipped Raptor to carry the torch for the foreseeable future.