Let's go back to opening night for a second.
In a 130-122 overtime win over the New Orleans Pelicans, Pascal Siakam was everywhere for the Toronto Raptors. Before fouling out in 34 minutes of play, he scored a game-high 34 points to go along with 18 rebounds and five assists. According to Basketball Reference's Game Score, which gives a "rough measure of a player's productivity for a single game," it was the sixth-best performance of his NBA career.
But Siakam's effort on the other end of the court was just as important as the contributions he made on offence. Even though he's a 6-foot-9 power forward, he drew the tough task of slowing down Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday for much of the game. He wasn't the only player to spend time on the one-time All-Star, but NBA.com credited Siakam with limiting Holiday to four points over the 20-plus possessions they were matched up together.
The fact that Raptors head coach Nick Nurse can even think about putting Siakam on someone who has alternated between playing point guard and shooting guard for his entire NBA career speaks to the 25-year-old's versatility as a defender. Not that it's a new phenomenon. A number of advanced stats - ESPN's Real Plus-Minus, to name one - made Siakam out to be one of the more impactful defenders in the league last season. That was reflected at the end of the season when he received 24 votes for the All-NBA Second Team, the second-most among forwards who didn't quite make the cut.
ESPN's Zach Lowe went as far as saying that Siakam could be one of the "10 or 15 best defensive players in the league" after he signed his four-year, $160 million extension with the Raptors before the season. The reason why? Siakam is tailor-made for today's NBA on that end of the floor.
The same tools that make Siakam a matchup nightmare on offence enable him to guard four positions on defence - even five depending on the matchup. The speed he uses to get out in transition, for example, allows him to go step-for-step with smaller players on the perimeter. He proved that last season by guarding Russell Westbrook more than anyone else on the Raptors in Toronto's two games against the Oklahoma City Thunder and holding the two-time scoring champion to a total of 21 points on 6-for-18 shooting from the field.
The 7-foot-3 wingspan Siakam uses to finish over defenders in the paint allows him to contest shots, both out on the 3-point line and at the rim. According to NBA.com, no forward or centre defended more 3-pointers last season than Siakam, who ranked fourth in that category overall behind only Kemba Walker, Bradley Beal and Holiday. Not only that, opponents combined to make only 31.0 percent of 3-point attempts Siakam attempted.
Siakam racked up the third-most blocks on the Raptors last season as well, all while holding opponents to 59.5 percent shooting at the rim, a similar rate as Clint Capela, Al Horford and Bam Adebayo to name a few.
And the wiry strength he uses to play through contact allows him to hold his own against some centres in the post. According to NBA.com, Siakam defended 76 post-ups last season and allowed only 56 points on those possessions, ranking him in the 84th percentile in post-up efficiency as a defender.
Those numbers have to be taken with a grain of salt - the player tracking data is far from perfect - but the point remains: Siakam can do things defensively that only a few other players in the league can.
The question now becomes whether or not Siakam can continue being that all-world defender in his new role.
Last season, Siakam benefited greatly from playing alongside Kawhi Leonard, as it allowed him to function as a secondary and sometimes tertiary option on the offensive end of the floor. That freed him to go all-out on D, knowing he could pick and choose his spots offensively because he didn't have to create much for himself.
This season is a different story.
Now that he's the No. 1 scoring option, the Raptors can't afford for Siakam to burn out by taking on the same defensive assignments as he did last season. The Raptors can't risk him getting in foul trouble either. The latter was a factor in Toronto's loss to the Milwaukee Bucks over the weekend, as Siakam started the game defending Giannis Antetokounmpo but had to be benched half way through the first quarter after picking up two fouls. Raptors head coach Nick Nurse is going to have to find the right balance between making the most of Siakam's defensive prowess and not overextending him when they play against the best teams in the league.
The Raptors are fortunate that they still have a versatile wing defender they can throw at players like Antetokounmpo to preserve Siakam. And yet, when push comes to shove, the Raptors will likely need Siakam to take on the toughest defensive matchups. One of the defining moments of Toronto's championship run last season came in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals, when Nurse switched Siakam off of Antetokounmpo and Leonard onto him. Siakam did a decent job against Antetokounmpo through the first two games of the series, but Leonard took it to another level, containing Antetokounmpo in a way we hadn't seen all season long.
Leonard also averaged 29.3 points and 5.5 assists from Game 3 onwards to punch Toronto's ticket to the NBA Finals.
Nobody is expecting Siakam to reach the exact same levels as Leonard - they shouldn't, anyway - but we've already gotten a taste of what he is capable of doing defensively. Based on how he's played offensively through the first couple of weeks this season, he's showing he has the potential to be a two-way force, similar to that of a Leonard or Antetokounmpo.
In which case, calling Siakam an All-Star would be selling him short. That's the stuff superstars are made of.
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