Paul Weir doesn’t have a good answer. What did NBA teams miss about Pascal Siakam? There is the obvious: In two seasons at New Mexico State, admits Weir, an assistant coach on the Aggies staff during Siakam’s college career, “Pascal was a limited offensive player.” Siakam averaged 20.3 points in his redshirt junior season. But he attempted just 15 shots from beyond the arc that year—making just three—while getting the bulk of his offense in the open floor.
What did teams miss about Siakam? Interviews with a half dozen team talent evaluators reveal similar answers. Small college center. Range that didn’t extend beyond 15-feet. Lacked playmaking skills. Siakam worked hard—coaches at the draft combine that year raved about his work ethic. Celtics coach Brad Stevens gushed about his interview.
“Great energy,” Stevens said.
That skill set, though, was something teams just couldn’t get over.
The shooting, many teams believed, would never come.
What did teams miss about Siakam? Lacing up his sneakers before a morning shootaround in Boston last week, Siakam said he didn’t have a good answer, either. “I think I always knew that the things that I was born with can definitely translate to the NBA,” Siakam told SI.com. “Energy and being able to run, rebound, those things will always translate. So doesn’t being able to guard different people.”
What did teams miss about Siakam? In short: Everything. Adam Silver called 26 names before calling Siakam’s on draft night in 2016. Siakam got a late start with basketball. He attended a camp run by former NBA forward Luc Mbah a Moute in 2011, while on a break from the seminary he was enrolled in his native Cameroon. Then came Basketball Without Borders, in 2012. Masai Ujiri, the Raptors president, was there. He left unimpressed. He crossed paths with Siakam again, in 2016, when Toronto brought Siakam in for a group workout. Siakam was there with Jakob Poeltl and Skal Labissiere, then projected high first round picks. Ujiri left very impressed.
Teams asked Siakam if he would be willing to play overseas, Siakam said, a common question when a team is looking to stash a draft pick for a couple of years before starting the contract clock.
Siakam? He wasn’t interested.
Nearly four years later, Siakam is the future of the Raptors. Last season was a breakout year for the 25-year old forward. Alongside Kawhi Leonard, Siakam’s game blossomed. A non-shooter his first two seasons, Siakam banged in 37% of his three’s in the last one. He averaged 19 points in the playoffs. Toronto doesn’t beat Golden State without Siakam’s 26-point, ten-rebound effort in Game 6 of the NBA Finals.
Leonard’s defection last summer was a body blow for the Raptors. But it has opened up an opportunity for Siakam, and in the first week of the season he has seized it. The Raptors are 3-1 to start the season; Siakam (28.7 points) is the team’s leading scorer. Against Boston, Siakam made five three-pointers. More significantly, all five came from above the break—an area Siakam rarely launched from last season. “It used to be if you can keep him out of the corners and take away the spin, force him left, you could contain him,” says a longtime NBA scout. “Now that [strategy] is totally out the window.”
Siakam doesn’t have any deep explanation for his improvement. He just works. “I had to shoot [three’s] in the NBA and I didn't have to shoot them in college,” Siakam said. “I think that's a big difference. Then just the hours, spending more hours doing it and I think as I continue to spend hours doing it, I continue to get better.”
Indeed. Weir isn’t shocked. He saw the potential in Siakam in college. The fast reflexes. The quick feet. The tireless work ethic. Once, Siakam went into Weir’s office looking for a basketball book. Weir gave him one, a 400-page missive with chapters on ex-Bulls boss Jerry Krause and former UNC coach Dean Smith. Days later, Siakam was back, asking for another one. Said Wier, “He was dying to soak up knowledge and develop and grow.”
For Nick Nurse, “there wasn’t an a-ha moment” with Siakam. The Raptors coach remembers in Siakam’s second year, the wiry forward started showing flashes. “There were several things he started doing that were interesting,” Nurse said. “Probably the most interesting thing was he started snapping rebounds down and taking it coast to coast and making plays. Not just scoring it but making plays and the right plays and that was putting a lot of pressure on defenses.” Last season, Nurse’s first as head coach, he emphasized Siakam as a point forward.
Said Siakam: “Having more freedom to bring the ball up and have the ball in my hands, just trusting me with the ball, that was one of the big things. My rookie year, I didn't have that. Just having that trust in me, just working and them seeing that I'm getting better at it, that I'm capable, that was kind of like a changing point for me.”
Siakam is expected to compete for an All-Star spot this season. If the Raptors—17-5 without Leonard last season—play well, he could be a darkhorse candidate for MVP. That’s everything Toronto could have hoped when they rewarded Siakam with a four-year, $130 million contract extension earlier this month. The Raptors are not a title contender, but that they are as good as they are is largely due to Siakam, an understudy to an All-NBA talent last season with a chance to become one in this one.
The Rise of Trae Young
A veteran NBA scout on Young, the second year guard who is averaged 38.5 points in his first three games this season
“It starts with the crazy shots. Last year he was taking a bunch of those crazy shots, he just wasn’t making them. Watch him now, he’s making all of them. He has got a little better feel for where to go to get his shots. He is clever with the ball. He changes speeds, changes directions, has that hesitation dribble. There’s a little John Stockton in him with that. You have to go over those pick and rolls, but if you don’t do it well, he goes by you. If you hesitate or come off of it tight, he will keep you on his back. They reward him when he gets contact. It’s sort of like Stephen Curry or James Harden. They get hit, they fall down, the refs call it. Young is starting to get that respect.”
“He’s not afraid to pull up from anywhere. You have to tell your team to really get into him from 30-feet on in. He is going to just jack it. You have to be afraid of that. Lloyd [Pierce] does a good job with their offense. He has made it challenging to guard that kid. They space the floor well. They run a lot of double drags. They set a lot of picks. You want to force him left but they run a lot of stuff that makes that tough. If you want to send him to his left, it’s really challenging.”
“The big question: Can he sustain the crazy shots? Don’t be surprised to see teams get physical with him. The league doesn’t knock guys down much anymore, but you are going to have to bang him around a little, see how he reacts. There are not many other ways to slow him down.”
Is David Fizdale in trouble in New York?
The Knicks salvaged what would have been a brutal, 0-4 start by rallying to beat the Bulls on Monday night, but this is looking like another rough season in New York. Point guard play is still a major problem: Dennis Smith Jr., Elfrid Payton and Frank Ntilikina have all struggled, with none of them looking like the long term answer. R.J. Barrett has been good, with a more polished perimeter game than most expected. But the Knicks defense has been dreadful and the overload at power forward has, predicatably, led to some funky lineups.
Worse: The Knicks appeared to flat out quit in the second half of the home opener against Boston.
Fizdale was a good soldier during last season’s 17-win tank-a-thon, but how hard this team plays in the next few weeks is worth watching. One name to consider if the season really starts to careen: Mark Jackson. The ex-Warriors coach (and ex-Knick) was a favorite of GM Scott Perry during the interview process in 2018, and Jackson has made no secret about his desire to coach again. Fizdale won’t be expected to perform miracles with this group but New York can’t let the season slip away quickly.
How far will the Warriors fall?
In a text exchange with one NBA player who has suited up against the Warriors this season, I asked how far the five-time NBA Finalist could fall this season. The response: Out of the playoffs. After getting pulverized by the Clippers and Thunder to open the season, Golden State got untracked on Monday with a win over New Orleans. Golden State did surrender 123 points in that game and have not given up fewer than 120-points—120—in any of the three games this season.
Is the defense fixable? The personnel is a problem. Klay Thompson is a sharpshooter but his value was equal as a sturdy perimeter defender. Andre Iguodala was a wing stopper. Kevin Durant could defend. Draymond Green is still a high level defender but his best days on that end are behind him. The Warriors have swapped out established defenders for inexperienced, untested replacements.
Golden State will still be able to outscore teams, as they did against the Pelicans. But the margin for error is paper thin, and Green and Stephen Curry figure to need rest at various points during the season. It’s wild to think of the Warriors as a non-playoff team, but in a conference that may require 48-50 wins just to make the postseason, Golden State may not have the defensive muscle to do it.
Here come the … ‘Wolves?
Pretty cool moment in Minnesota last weekend when Timberwolve players presented head coach Ryan Saunders with the game ball following the team’s win over Charlotte, a gift meant to commemorate the four-year anniversary of the passing of Saunders father, former ‘Wolves coach/executive Flip Saunders. Minnesota opened the season 3-0, propelled by a surging offense that is posting 121.3 points per game and the NBA’s second-highest point differential.
It’s a small sample size, of course, but this is how the ‘Wolves should be playing. Saunders, in his first full season, has emphasized shot selection, embracing the analytics-based basketball philosophies new top exec Gersson Rosas brought with him from Houston. Part of that philosophy has been pushing Andrew Wiggins out of the midrange and beyond the three-point line. Wiggins is attempting a career-high 5.7 three’s per game this season, and while he’s shooting a low percentage (23.5%) Minnesota will take it over the steady barrage of long two’s Wiggins fired up last season.
It’s not overstating it to say that the Timberwolves playoff chances—and perhaps more—hinge on Wiggins development. Karl-Anthony Towns has been a beast in the first few games—Towns was a strong supporter of Saunders getting the full time job in the offseason—Jeff Teague has been solid while Robert Covington has excelled as a small-ball power forward. If Wiggins can live up to, or come close to, his enormous potential, the Timberwolves will find themselves squarely in the playoff mix.