We’ll certainly remember Game 1 of the NBA Finals for many things — the first Finals game played outside the United States; the first Finals game in the 24-year history of the Toronto Raptors; the first Finals game without LeBron James since 2010. But we’ll also remember it as the Pascal Siakam game, the ultimate coming-out party in a season full of coming-out moments.
The spindly, 6-foot-9, 230-pound construction of joints and kinetic energy that is Siakam — a product of Douala, Cameroon and a one-time wannabe Catholic clergyman — has become one of the NBA’s biggest surprises this season. He’s come a heck of a long way from 2012, when Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri first laid eyes on him at a Basketball Without Borders camp and wondered if Siakam would ever truly be a worthy NBA prospect.
After his 27th overall selection in the 2016 NBA Draft, Siakam was largely considered a long-term project and a potential reach, an energy big who’d require years of skill polishing in G-League gyms and at the end of the Raptors bench. Three years later and most of those rough edges have been sanded away, the skills polished and what has emerged, thanks largely to a development-centric Raptors organization and Siakam’s own unmatched and unbridled resilience, is a dynamic, ultra-modern hybrid forward capable of defending all five positions and working as a secondary offensive creator. Three months ago he was the face of the future of the Raptors future. Today, he might just be its present.
When Siakam was drafted, there was certainly hope that he could turn into something special — yes, there was a relatively flat development curve on the skill front, but his God-given athletic talent, opponent-maddening energy and effort level emblematic of a guy who, by all accounts, has only been playing the game since 2011 created the recipe for a future standout.
Look at Siakam now, and the skill level is as striking as his sheer physical athleticism. As a rookie, his assist percentage was in the league’s fourth percentile for NBA forwards. This season, he was in the 81st. Siakam utilizes an innate understanding of space and angles that other like-minded modern stretch NBA big men usually exploit off-the-ball with cuts, slips and surprise appearances on the offensive boards, but leverages them all with point guard-esque ball handling skills that allow him to run an offense. Siakam averaged nearly as many drives per game during the regular season as Steph Curry or Kevin Durant, finished slightly better than Blake Griffin, drew as many fouls as Lou Williams and created assists about as often as Donovan Mitchell. While his jump shot is still a work in progress, his arsenal of floaters and flip shots stretches his range, and it’s not hard to imagine hours in the gym this off-season yielding a better jumper moving forward.
At the other end of the floor, his defense has been equally, if not more, impactful. He spent more than 10 percent of his defensive possessions matched up against players at each of the five positions, exhibiting his versatility at that end of the floor. His size and athleticism scaffold his incredible defensive impact and potential, but it’s not just raw; it’s calculated. Siakam already defends like an NBA All-Defensive team member, an accolade he’s sure to accomplish multiple times throughout his career.
Siakam has developed at a pace rarely seen in NBA history, from project to star in two seasons. Yes, we’ve seen modern big men learn to defend a couple of positions and find the open man at the top of the key; but they don’t turn into complementary ball-handlers as quickly as Siakam has… ever. Siakam can beat his man off the dribble, sees the floor like a point guard and foreshadows and manipulates his opponents’ moves to make sure covered teammates become open. And while the 2019 playoffs have been an up-and-down affair, his 32-point performance on Thursday night against the Warriors symbolizes his “unicorn” capabilities.
A number of writers and analysts have pointed to the similarities between 2018–19 Pascal Siakam and 2013–14 Kawhi Leonard, the third seasons for both Raptors. While Leonard was probably a superior defender and slightly better spot-up shooter, Siakam seems to be well ahead as a pure finisher and offensive creator in this comparison. Of course, Kawhi was the best player on the Spurs NBA title-winning team that year and won Finals MVP, establishing himself as one of the game’s elite players.
In the short term, a dominant Siakam series in these NBA Finals against Draymond Green may very well lead to a championship parade in downtown Toronto. But in the long term, much of the uncertainty surrounding the future of this Raptors core is quelled by Spicy P’s meteoric rise. If Kawhi decides to leave, and Kyle Lowry inevitably regresses with age, the Raptors have a unicorn star who’s already proven his greatness on some of the game’s biggest stages.