Of all the players returning to the Toronto Raptors next season, nobody is impacted more by Kawhi Leonard's decision to join the LA Clippers this offseason than Pascal Siakam.
Siakam made tremendous strides last season, going from being a key component on Toronto's bench to its second-leading scorer, both in the regular season and during its championship run. He'll be expected to make another leap now that Leonard is no longer on the team, this time as a potential first-time All-Star.
Siakam's best path at becoming an All-Star is tapping further into his potential as a scorer, but the Raptors would also benefit from him growing as a passer.
Siakam averaged a career-best 3.1 assists per game last season, with most of his assists coming in one of two ways. As one of the league's best transition scorers - both in terms of points scored and efficiency - he rewarded the likes of Danny Green, Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry for running the floor with him by kicking the ball out to them when the defense collapsed. A lot of his assists otherwise came from making the extra pass, usually when teams closed out to him in the corners, where most of his 3-point attempts came from.
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While Siakam has proven that he has the vision to set up his teammates in other ways, he didn't do it consistently last season, particularly on the drives that have become such a big part of his game. According to NBA.com, he averaged the fourth-most drives (7.6) on the Raptors, trailing only Leonard (13.6), VanVleet (8.7) and Lowry (7.8). Siakam, however, passed on only 33.7 percent of his drives, ranking him 12th on the team behind the likes of Delon Wright (46.1 percent), OG Anunoby (40.4 percent) and Norman Powell (40.0 percent).
Put simply: Siakam drove a lot, only he was more of a scorer than a facilitator when he got downhill.
The Raptors didn't necessarily need Siakam to be a facilitator in those situations last season, but they might need him to diversify as a passer next season to make up for the loss of Leonard. That doesn't necessarily mean turning into a high volume playmaker. With Lowry still at the helm and Marc Gasol at times directing traffic from the top of the key in the halfcourt, those two are likely to still rack up more dimes than Siakam, even in an expanded role.
But there's no denying that he is only going to get more opportunities to create his own offence and teams are going to be more wary of his strengths now that he's Toronto's go-to scorer, which will lead to more aggressive help and more double teams, thereby opening up more opportunities for him to create for others.
One area in particular where it will be important for Siakam to show growth as a passer is in the post, where the bulk of his unassisted baskets in the halfcourt came from last season. He was incredibly efficient, too, ranking in the 82nd percentile with 1.08 points per post-up possession. Teams will be less hesitant about doubling him on those plays next season, especially when he's sharing the court with the likes of Stanley Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Patrick McCaw - perimeter players who haven't become reliable 3-point shooters - as opposed to Leonard and Green, who are two of the league's best 3-point shooters.
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Nick Nurse can at least surround Siakam with above average shooters at every other position, from Lowry and Powell in the backcourt to Gasol and Serge Ibaka in the frontcourt. Even if a limited shooter fills the fifth spot, the Raptors should have enough space for them to establish themselves as a scoring threat, whether it's as a cutter or by hanging out in the dunker spot.
Siakam might not even generate multiple assists per game out of the post next season, but making the right read once or twice should be all he needs to force opposing teams defend him more honestly. That's important because Siakam's post-ups could become an even greater source of offence for the Raptors following Leonard's departure. He's a matchup nightmare on the low block, having the speed to blow by most forwards and the strength to overpower most guards.
Something as simple as having him set a screen for Lowry is tough to defend due to Siakam's ability to make plays on the roll and pick mismatches apart in the post.
Moreso than anything, Siakam will have to be prepared for teams to defend him ways he didn't see often last season. He got a taste of what's to come in the 22 games Leonard sat out, but instead of being the focal point once every couple of weeks against mostly non-playoff teams, he's going to be at the top of the scouting report every night.
For the most part, Siakam has shown that he has the skills to take what the defence gives him. He's just going to have to do everything in far more volume for the Raptors to remain competitive in what should be a top-heavy Eastern Conference, including creating for his teammates.
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