DENVER, COLORADO – MARCH 01: Pascal Siakam #43 of the Toronto Raptors drives against Jamal Murray … [+]
Pascal Siakam had a statement game against the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday night. Well, sort of. The All-Star version was definitely back. But this performance did not come against an NBA powerhouse.
Siakam, the NBA’s Most Improved Player last year, who was signed to a max, four-year, $130 million extension at the beginning of the season, had a monster game, scoring a game-high 33 points in Toronto’s 123-114 victory to stop a three-game losing streak.
It was a statement game in many respects because Siakam has been under the critical glare in Toronto for his perceived disappearing act against the best NBA teams in the league.
The previous game was a case in point. The Cameroonian native was missing in action against a very good Denver Nuggets team, scoring only 16 points in perhaps his worst outing of the season. He shot only 28.6% from the floor and was 1-of-7 from three-point range.
The knives came out because Toronto expects more of Siakam at crunch time. Although he was named an All-Star for the first time in his NBA career, there’s no getting around the fact that he is the club’s No. 1 scoring option now that Kawhi Leonard isn’t here. He’s being paid to be that player.
Perhaps the stiffest criticism from the local media came from William Lou of Yahoo Sports Canada after the Denver game. “To beat a good team on the road you need your superstar to step up, and Siakam has rarely been a superstar against the top teams in the league,” Lou wrote.
The facts speak for themselves. Against the 10 best clubs that the Raptors have faced this season, Siakam has been averaging only 20.3 points in 16 of those contests. Overall, his season average is 23.7. In addition, his field-goal percentage against the elite has hovered around 40% — far below his season average of 46.1%.
Toronto radio broadcaster JD Bunkis even suggested that, based on these results, Siakam has been about as effective as Golden State’s Andrew Wiggins, who is averaging 22 points and 44.7% shooting.
“Basically, Siakam has been a less efficient offensive player than Andrew Wiggins on the whole. Those numbers are not good,” Bunkis said on the Sportsnet show Writers Bloc.
Here are the top 10 teams Siakam has faced this year, with his point total beside.
- MILWAUKEE (16, 22)
- LOS ANGELES LAKERS (24)
- MIAMI HEAT (15)
- PHILADELPHIA 76ers (25, 16, 18)
- INDIANA PACERS (25, 15, 21)
- DENVER NUGGETS (16)
- BOSTON CELTICS (33)
- LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS (16, 24)
- DALLAS MAVERICKS (15)
- HOUSTON ROCKETS (24)
On the other hand, Siakam’s best games have come against the worst teams that Toronto has faced. Of his top 10 point totals, only two (Utah and Boston) have come against an elite team, which feeds into the notion that Siakam likes to fatten his statistics against the bad teams.
- NEW ORLEANS PELICANS (44)
- PHOENIX SUNS (37)
- PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS (36)
- UTAH JAZZ (35)
- SAN ANTONIO SPURS (35)
- NEW ORLEANS PELICANS (34)
- ATLANTA HAWKS (34)
- MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES (34)
- BOSTON CELTICS (33)
- CLEVELAND CAVALIERS (33)
Amid the criticism of Siakam, it must be pointed out that Siakam is 25 and in his first year as a starter. This is also the first time in his life that he has been counted on to be the No. 1 scoring option.
But as the season goes into the final stretch, Siakam has plenty of work to do. His greatest area of growth must come with his playmaking.
Against the Suns on Tuesday, Siakam gave a good example of that when he threw the ball away on a poor pass early in the game.
Siakam also continues to struggle against double teams, and he makes bad decisions when the game gets tight. Siakam also has to add muscle to his 6’9”, 230-pound frame so those cuts and spins to the basket will be even more effective.
But the simple truth is that growth is not linear.
Come playoff time, however, the Raptors will be counting on Siakam to be the No. 1 scoring option. The ghost of Kawhi Leonard could haunt this team should the Raptors face a Game 7 like they did last year against the Sixers.
With no Kawhi to count on, who will be the guy to take the final shot, the buzzer-beater to get the club through to the next round? That’s a lot of pressure, but it’s safe to say, that clutch shooter may not be Siakam.
Which Toronto player would be charged with taking the final shot? Perhaps Kyle Lowry? Maybe Fred VanVleet? It takes a lot of confidence and ice in the veins be that player.
It should be Pascal Siakam, and Siakam can turn into that guy if he starts building his confidence.
There’s also a line of thinking that people are too quick to judge Siakam. Sportswriter Joshua Howe suggested on Twitter that basketball analysis can be reactionary. “Everything is either the best or the worst thing ever,” Howe said. “At the beginning of the season, Siakam was the greatest to ever play. Now, folks are calling him awful.”
Perhaps it’s too early to draw conclusions about Siakam until the Raptors get back to full health. They have been putting out a starting lineup without three of their top players in Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Fred VanVleet. When they return, the pressure will ease for Siakam and lanes will open up again.
But we can’t take our eyes off Siakam’s next biggest challenge.
Three straight games coming up early next month when the Raptors meet the Eastern Conference-leading Milwaukee Bucks in back-to-back games on April 1 on the road and on April 3 at home, and then a road trip to Houston to face the Rockets on April 5.
It will be interesting to see which version of Pascal Siakam shows up.