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Toronto Raptors

The secrets behind the meteoric rise of Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam

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Pascal Siakam (NBA Getty Images)

Last season, Pascal Siakam was a key contributor on one of the best bench units in the NBA.

To the midpoint of this season, he's been the third-best player on a Toronto Raptors team that currently has the second-best record in the NBA.

It might not look like it based on the relatively pedestrian 15.0 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.9 assists he's averaging per game, but Siakam's rise has him as both a front-runner to win the Most Improved Player award and a legitimate candidate to be one of the 12 players who will represent the Eastern Conference in next month's All-Star Game.

He's played in all but one game for the Raptors this season and he's been a stabilizing force on both ends of the court, a big reason why the Raptors are currently one of four teams to have a top-10 offence and defence.

HEAT CHECK: Should Siakam be an All-Star?

To understand how the 27th pick in the 2016 NBA Draft has become such an important piece of a title contender, let's take a closer look at both sides of Siakam's game.

Sticking to his strengths

Siakam is mostly going to do one of two things on offence. Either he's going to shoot a corner 3 or he's going to attack the basket.

And yet, as simple as the scouting report might look on him on paper, he is anything but an easy cover.

For one, Siakam has developed into a capable outside shooter who is splashing 39.7 percent of his corner 3s this season. Basically all of those have been wide open - only one of his made triples has been tightly contested per NBA.com - but being a threat from the perimeter means defences can't help off of him as liberally as they have in the past.

Secondly, few players his size are as fluid and crafty with the ball in their hands. That matters because when defenders do close out on him on the 3-point line, Siakam can blow by them and finish strong in the restricted area, where he's scoring as efficiently as LeBron James this season.

Siakam's go-to on drives is a spin that has quickly become his signature move. It's usually too fast for big men to handle and his length makes it almost impossible for smaller defenders to contest his shot even when they keep up with him step-for-step.

There's no way of knowing who leads the league in points scored off of spin moves, but it wouldn't be surprising at all if Siakam's name was at the top of the list.

Making him more difficult for teams to game plan against is Siakam has more than just that spin move in his bag of tricks. When teams try to take it away, he always seems to have a counter. He is both nimble enough to euro-step his way around opponents and strong enough to finish through contact at the rim.

He's even flashed some potential scoring with his back to the basket this season:

Siakam is a savvy off-ball player, too.

Beyond his improvements as a 3-point shooter, he knows how and when to make himself available as a cutter. It comes especially in handy when he shares the court with Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard, Toronto's All-Star duo that has combined to set him up on more than half of his assisted baskets this season - though the way in which they do it is quite different.

Siakam's willingness to run the floor makes him an ideal fit with Lowry, who is always looking to push the pace. It's helped turn Siakam into one of the best transition scorers in the league, with him trailing only seven players in fast break scoring to this point of the season.

Whenever a team misses a shot or turns the ball over, Siakam can take off knowing full well that Lowry will find him.

As for Leonard, Siakam is a huge target for when teams double team him in the half court. It's something that happens often due to the volume and ease with which he scores.

Even though he isn't a big-time scorer or facilitator, the Raptors have been operating at a different level with Siakam in the lineup this season. According to NBA.com, they go from scoring 113.4 points per 100 possessions to 103.0 whenever he takes a seat on the bench.

That represents one of the bigger differentials in the entire league.

Lowry and Leonard have also been completely different players in the minutes they've shared with Siakam, with Lowry's offensive rating improving by 5.0 points per 100 possessions and Leonard's by 10.1.

There are other metrics to show how valuable Siakam has been to Toronto's success on offence this season, but none do it better than the on-off numbers.

An ideal frontcourt defender for the modern NBA

The splits on the other end of the court aren't as eye-popping, but the Raptors have still been a better defensive team with Siakam in the lineup this season.

With his size, speed and athleticism, Siakam is built perfectly for today's NBA because he can fill almost whatever gap that is needed defensively. When the Raptors go to a 3-2 zone, for example, his ability to keep up with perimeter players off the dribble means Raptors head coach Nick Nurse can plant him at the top (a spot usually occupied by a guard) to make the most of his 7-foot-3 wingspan.

Siakam fits in well with a switch-heavy scheme for the same reason. Whereas a lot of players his size aren't comfortable matching up with guards in isolation, Siakam handles himself pretty well when forced to defend someone on an island.

Siakam is even a solid rim protector. He's averaging only 0.7 blocks per game this season, but opponents are shooting 4.2 percent worse than what they normally would when he is in the paint.

A switchy defender who can come up with stops, Siakam is the ideal forward to pair with Lowry and Leonard defensively because he can take pressure off of both of them in a number of ways.

Siakam's versatility is only become more important the further the Raptors advance in the playoffs. He'll likely play his normal role against the likes of the Philadelphia 76ers and Indiana Pacers - teams that play more traditional lineups - but we could him play more centre against ones that go small.

If surrounded by Lowry, Leonard, Danny Green and OG Anunoby, it would give the Raptors five defenders who can switch one through five.

While it's not something the Raptors have gone to much - those five have played four forgettable minutes together this season - it goes to show how there's still much more to Siakam's game that we haven't yet seen.

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