Pascal Siakam famously refuses to set goals for himself. As he explained in an interview with The Athletic last January: “Most of the time when I don’t set goals, I always exceed whatever goal people have.”
This mantra got him to the NBA despite only learning the game at 16, arriving in the United States two years later, and toiling off the grid at New Mexico State. It allowed him to rise from a (brief) G League assignment his second year to a max-contract player after his third. Now, it’s fueling his emergence as an all-NBA-caliber performer for a Raptors team hovering near the top of the East standings even after losing Kawhi Leonard in free agency.
Siakam’s outputs make him look like a completely different player this season. He’s averaging 26 points per game on above-average scoring efficiency while using more than 30 percent of his team’s possessions, an increase of nearly 10 percent over last season. He’s taking and making countless off-the-dribble shots from both two- and three-point range, which we barely saw last year. Less than half of his points are assisted, compared to more than 57 percent last year. He’d never try shots like these in years past, much less make them.
Indeed, the off-the-dribble jumper that every great perimeter player needs is starting to appear this season. Siakam certainly hasn’t mastered this shot yet — he’s making just 30 percent on pull-up shots as of Nov. 12 — but the ones he had made have come in bunches.
Better yet, Siakam willingness to take those tougher pull-up shots have allowed the Raptors to scale up two of his pet plays: a pick-and-roll with the point guard screening, and a dribble hand-offs with him attacking downhill from the top of the key. In the past, opponents neutralized Siakam’s inverted pick-and-roll by having the guard defender jump out for a quick hedge before running back to his man.
That no longer works as well because Siakam is willing to pull the trigger from downtown before his own man recovers.
Those speed dribble hand-offs have also become more dangerous because of Siakam’s willingness to shoot. It’s not enough anymore for Siakam’s defender to duck behind the handoff screen and meet him in the lane. He has to worry about this, too.
Siakam attempting these shot instead of driving is clearly a win for the defense. Adding them to his diet has made him less efficient overall than last year.
But taking them allows Siakam to absorb increased offensive responsibility without losing any fundamental elements of his crafty game. He’s still getting to the basket despite having to create more offense himself, and he still roasts like-sized and smaller defenders in the post despite not having Leonard and floor-spacer extraordinaire Danny Green around to suck the help away. (It’s telling that his turnover percentage is down this year despite his increased usage.)
Even beyond shooting, Siakam has added more elements to his diverse P-Skills set to throw defenders off-balanced. Last year, he was much more right-hand dominant on his drives. Smart teams could overplay him that way, catch his devastating spin move, and make him take tougher hooks. But this season, he’s as likely to attack hard to his left, whether to finish or set up a spin back to the right.
His post-up game, always a major strength, is even better this year. It’s hard to deny him the ball because he’ll always find a way to get back in front of his defender. (For a supposedly skinny guy, Siakam is really damn strong). Once there, he’s still as patient an operator as ever, leveraging the threat of his herky-jerky moves and rapid kickout passes to get the shot he wants.
And yet, the core ideas underpinning Siakam’s continued success haven’t changed at all. His game is still weird as shit, and he still uses those idiosyncratic tendencies to subvert defenders’ expectations and exploit them. The only difference now is that he has more tools at his disposal to throw opponents off, which makes him even more impossible to scout.
His success this year is a triumph of imagination, just as it was in the past. As long as he maintains that spirit, he’ll thrive in any role, no matter how big the target on his back is.
So let’s take a cue from his resistance to goal-setting and stop trying to define him by traditional means. The secret to his success is that he uses those faulty assumptions against his opponent.
PRESEASON QUESTIONS, ANSWERED
Before the season, I listed the 100 most interesting basketball-specific questions of the season. Each week, we’ll see if we have enough information to answer one of them.
QUESTION 64. Are the Magic putting too much faith in Jonathan Isaac?
In retrospect, I had this question all wrong. The more I watch Steve Clifford’s Magic, the more I wish they’d put more faith in Jonathan Isaac. There’s a rare, high-level player in there, but I fear they’re flattening him into a far more conventional one.
Perhaps I doth protest too much. Isaac’s getting more minutes, generating more shots around the basket, and continuing to improve his three-point proficiency. The Magic are 4.3 points better per 100 possessions better with him in the game and 10 points worse with him on the sidelines. He’s getting more of the tough defensive assignments and handling them brilliantly. Forget defensive potential. He’s one of the league’s best defenders today.
That clip is basketball porn. Not only did Isaac slide his feet through multiple Paul Millsap moves, but he somehow blocked Millsap’s shot after swinging and missing on a strip attempt. That reaction time seems utterly impossible.
And yet, I keep wanting to see the Magic fully unleash him, especially on offense. His usage rate is flat, and he’s actually been assisted on a higher percentage of his buckets this year than last. He has the athleticism and ball skills to embark on those full-court grab-and-go offensive runs, but rarely gets the chance to do so. Teammates miss him on cuts to the basket and still look away when he posts up a smaller defender.
Offensive rebounding and transition play are his biggest strengths, yet the Magic don’t take much advantage of either. Isaac’s offensive rebound rate has actually dropped this season, and it already was comically low given his skill set. (It’s hard to be a presence on the glass when spotted up along the three-point line). He nudges Orlando more into running territory than his even slower teammates, but the Magic still add the fourth fewest points via transition play in the league, according to Cleaning the Glass. When he tries to sprint the floor for something easy, it has the feel of a soldier going rogue.
I understand the reasons why Clifford and the Magic limit his role. His handle is still loose, and Clifford is famously averse to live-ball turnovers. Stretching Isaac’s responsibilities will come with short-term consequences, which is risky given all the other mouths Clifford has to feed. Plus, one could argue that Isaac has only improved to the degree he has because his role has been simplified.
But I’m also not here for a player with Isaac’s gifts and work ethic growing into a taller Marvin Williams. Whenever I see Isaac display brilliant playmaking chops like this on the secondary break, I want more.
Isaac might already be Orlando’s best player; if not, he’s certainly the best chance they have to develop a star. What would happen if Orlando really turned him loose, short-term results be damned? What if they developed him like Toronto developed Siakam from 2016 to 2019? What if they allowed him to make and play through mistakes, encouraged mad full-court dashes even if they ended in cringe-worthy fashion, and didn’t tie him down to a position — “conventional 2019 power forward,” in this case — even if it meant playing him more with reserves instead of other starters?
This isn’t to say Isaac will actually develop into a player of Siakam’s caliber. It’d be incredibly hypocritical to scold attempts to compare Siakam to anyone, yet also say Isaac will turn out just like him if given the chance.
But I’d love to at least find out what happens if the Magic nudge Isaac to be the best version of himself instead of the best version of the player Clifford’s rigid style requires him to be.
CLOSEOUT OF THE WEEK
Three-point shooting is essential, yet there’s no good stat that credits defenders for the essential act of preventing a three-pointer from being taken. We must reward these efforts.
This isn’t a single closeout per se, but it’s time to give Kemba Walker a shoutout for his defense. He’s small, so I understand why he has a poor defensive reputation. But he also has quick feet and terrific instincts, all of which he showed off in this play. Not only did he plug the middle brilliantly to stop dribble penetration, but he also stayed on balance to deflect Bryn Forbes’ kickout pass.
Boston’s defense has been an early-season surprise for me.
REBOUND JOUST OF THE WEEK
Last year, I wrote about the rising trend of teammates fighting each other for defensive rebounds. These moments usually end harmlessly, but occasionally, they can cost a team. Here’s to over-aggression!
Jaren Jackson Jr. has so much I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed energy here.