Between now and the season reboot at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, I'll be taking a closer look at three Toronto Raptors stats to unpack their meaning and how they could impact the Raptors in their pursuit of another championship.
Last time, we looked at Pascal Siakam's usage in the clutch, Toronto's swarming isolation defence and OG Anunoby's improved driving. Today, Siakam takes the spotlight once again alongside Marc Gasol and Fred VanVleet.
Let's get to it.
32.1%: Pascal Siakam's shooting percentage from midrange
Siakam has grown tremendously as a shooter since entering the NBA. As a rookie, he didn't shoot much from outside of the paint. As a sophomore, he started to experiment with shooting 3-pointers. Last season, he proved to be an effective 3-point shooter from the corners. This season, he's extended his range out to the top of the perimeter and is even knocking down 3s off the dribble.
I can't help but wonder if the next step in Siakam's development as a shooter is to become a more prolific midrange scorer.
The midrange isn't nearly as popular as it once was, but it can still be a tremendous weapon for a go-to scorer like Siakam. Why? It gives him something else he can go to when teams run him off the 3-point line and wall off the paint.
A possession that sticks out to me is this one from Toronto's win over the Los Angeles Lakers in their Western Conference road trip near the start of the season:
There are very few defenders who have the foot speed to keep up with Siakam off the dribble and the length to keep him away from the basket, but Anthony Davis is one of them. Knowing that the bulk of Siakam's shot attempts this season have either come in the paint or from the perimeter - 86.0 percent of them to be exact - Davis defends him close enough to prevent him from getting a clean look at a 3-pointer but immediately retreats to the paint when he puts the ball on the floor knowing he isn't much of a threat to score from midrange.
If Siakam were more comfortable shooting from midrange, it's those situations where it would come in handy. What was a heavily contested turnaround in the paint could've been a step back jumper or a pull-up around the elbow. Are they easy shots? Not particularly. Are they efficient? For most players, no. But to be able to consistently score against the best of the best, they're the types of shots that can help keep defenders honest.
Right now, defenders only really have to worry about Siakam scoring at the 3-point line and in the paint. By becoming a legitimate in-between threat, it would add another layer of unpredictability to his game.
The encouraging sign is Siakam has shown that he is capable of scoring from midrange, ranging from simple pull-ups out of pick-and-rolls...
...and face-ups out of the post...
...to nifty little step backs in isolation...
...and Dirk-ian fadeaways from the block.
The efficiency just isn't there yet, as evidenced by him shooting 32.1 percent from midrange. He's at least proven this season that he has the tools to become a better midrange shooter. Now it's a matter of him becoming a more confident scorer from that distance and making it a bigger part of his game.
.538: Marc Gasol's 3-point attempt rate
Meaning, 53.8 percent of Gasol's field goal attempts this season have come from the 3-point line.
That's the highest mark of his career ... by a mile.
According to Basketball Reference, Gasol's previous career high was 31.4 percent, which he set last season. So he's gone from almost a third of his field goal attempts being 3-pointers to over half since last season.
It's quite the turnaround considering Gasol is only four seasons removed from not shooting 3s. Like, at all. (In 2015-16, he took a grand total of three 3-pointers, two of which were at the end of a shot clock). He's been incredibly effective as well, knocking down 40.2 percent of his 3-point attempts this season. Of all centres who have attempted at least 10 3-pointers - a low bar that spits out 53 names - only five have made them at a higher rate than Gasol.
Of course, Gasol taking the amount of 3s that he does comes at a cost. He's never been a big-time scorer, but he used to create a decent amount of his own offence, mostly in the post. Now, he spends most of his time on offence either camping out on the 3-point line or rolling to the basket for floaters and ground-bound layups.
Unless "Prime Marc" actually becomes a thing, the days of being able to dump the ball down to him as a reliable source of offence are long gone.
On the flip side, having a centre capable of making 40.2 percent of his 3-point attempts provides valuable spacing for the four players sharing the court with him. It's probably prolonged Gasol's career, as he's still a positive presence on offence. As I recently wrote, he might not be in line for a big payday as an unrestricted free agent this offseason, but there are several teams that would benefit greatly from having him on their team because of the spacing he provides on offence, not to mention his passing and defence.
1.9: How many steals per game Fred VanVleet is averaging
Only two players are averaging more: Chicago Bulls guard Kris Dunn (2.0) and Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons (2.1).
Additionally, VanVleet is averaging 4.2 deflections per game, which leads the league.
In other words: VanVleet is a menacing off-ball defender. He's a solid on-ball defender as well, but doesn't actually guard the opposing team's best player much. Based on data collected by Krishna Narsu of Nylon Calculus and Patrick Miller of The BBall Index, VanVleet has spent 71.2 percent of his minutes this season matched up with third options, the remaining 28.8 percent being split evenly between first and second options. That has allowed him to roam around on defence, functioning almost as a free safety.
Despite lacking in the height and wingspan department, VanVleet comes away with a remarkable amount of steals and deflections. I wrote earlier in the season about how well the Raptors rotate defensively, to the point where it seems like they're moving on a string. VanVleet is a fantastic example of that. He always seems to be in the right place at the right time, all while striking the perfect balance between providing an optimal amount of help but not so much that he can't recover to his own defender.
For example, he knows when to pounce on unsuspecting ball handlers...
...where to position himself as a help defender...
...and he's not afraid to put his body on the line, even on the game's opening possession.
He's also a pest. He flies around the court and uses his quick hands to wreak havoc.
Basically, VanVleet has graduated with full honours from the University of Kyle Lowry.
It's interesting, there's been a lot of talk lately about the All-Defensive Teams and which player on the Raptors - if any - should make either the First Team or Second Team. I honestly don't know what the answer should be - Anunoby, Siakam and Lowry seem to be the most popular choices and they each have a strong case - but what I do know is that VanVleet should be getting a lot more attention for the defence he has played this season and how it has helped the Raptors become the defensive juggernaut they are without two of the league's best perimeter defenders in Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.
The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.