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Toronto Raptors

One Play: Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam showcases superstar growth in win over Minnesota Timberwolves

Welcome to "One Play!" Throughout the 2019-20 NBA season, our NBA.com Staff will break down certain possessions from certain games and peel back the curtains to reveal its bigger meaning.

Today, Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam takes the spotlight.

Context: Siakam had it rolling in Toronto's victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves, a game in which the Raptors extended their franchise-record to 15 consecutive wins. Siakam led the way with 34 points, doing so on 14-for-21 shooting from the field and 6-for-8 from 3-point range. The latter tied his career-high for 3s made in a game.

The possession: With less than two minutes remaining in the second quarter, Siakam hit a pull-up 3-pointer to cut Minnesota's lead to four points.

Breakdown: Siakam brings the ball up the court following a pair of free throws from Timberwolves guard Malik Beasley.

Shortly after he crosses halfcourt, Kyle Lowry motions to OG Anunoby to set a screen for Siakam at the top of the perimeter.

Anunoby does just that while Fred VanVleet joins Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Lowry on the other side of the court to clear the left side for Siakam and Anunoby.

The Raptors rarely use Anunoby as a screener - he's averaging 0.4 screen assists per game this season, which is the same amount as Lowry and VanVleet - but he's being defended by D'Angelo Russell. By involving Russell in the play, the Raptors are targeting the worst perimeter defender on the court for the Timberwolves.

Because Russell has neither the size nor strength to defend Siakam in isolation, the Timberwolves have him show on the pick-and-roll instead of switch, meaning Russell lunges towards the ball handler before recovering to his assignment. It's something a lot of teams do to avoid switching their point guard onto a forward like Siakam.

However, that puts a lot of pressure on James Johnson to fight through Anunoby's screen and recover in time to prevent Siakam from getting an open shot.

It helps to have Anunoby set the screen in that regard because being 6-foot-7 and 232 pounds makes him far better equipped than, say, VanVleet or Lowry to serve as a roadblock for Johnson, who stands at 6-foot-7 and 240 pounds.

Since Siakam generates the bulk of his scoring in the paint, Johnson goes underneath Anunoby's screen. That paves the way for Siakam to pull-up for a 3-pointer, a shot he's making at a 34.0 percent clip this season.

Why it matters: Siakam didn't have this in his bag of tricks last season.

According to NBA.com, Siakam scored 0.9 points per game as the ball handler in pick-and-rolls last season, making up 5.3 percent of his scoring. This season, Siakam has tripled that figure, scoring 2.8 points per game as the ball handler in pick-and-rolls, which represents 14.6 percent of his scoring.

Siakam hasn't been able to score on those plays with the same efficiency as he did last season - not a surprise given the jump in volume - but he still ranks around the league average.

Pascal Siakam as pick-and-roll ball handler
Season Possessions Frequency Points Per Game Points Per Possession Percentile
2017-18 0.1 1.7% 0.1 0.70 28.0
2018-19 0.8 5.3% 0.9 1.12 96.7
2019-20 3.4 14.6% 2.8 0.82 46.8

His growth as a shooter has allowed the Raptors to use him more as the ball handler in pick-and-rolls. Whereas Siakam was only really a threat to score in the paint and in the corners last season, he has evolved into a far more complete shooter. He's already made 34 pull-up 3-pointers this season after making only one last season. He's made 69 above-the-break 3-pointers as well, up from 17 last season.

The combination gives Siakam an answer to defenders who sag off of him, as Johnson did on this particular possession. If defenders have to respect that shot, it makes Siakam a completely different player.

MORE: Raptors are ahead of where they were at last year's All-Star break

Last year's Most Improved Player showed why down the stretch of the same game. The Raptors had whoever was guarding Russell set a screen for him on three consecutive possessions in the fourth quarter, each leading to a different shot for Siakam.

The first time, Siakam was able to get downhill before the Timberwolves could react to score an easy basket over Russell in the paint.

The second time, Siakam hit another pull-up 3 when Russell hedged and Johnson went underneath the screen.

The third time, Siakam punished Russell for switching onto him by taking him to the post, where he's among the league leaders in scoring this season.

That's superstar stuff from Siakam.

It's one thing doing it against the Timberwolves as opposed to the Milwaukee Bucks or Los Angeles Lakers, two teams that have players who can better match up with Siakam than Minnesota, but Monday's game was yet another reminder of how much Siakam has grown since last season.

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