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TORONTO, ON - MARCH 30: Pascal Siakam #43 of the Toronto Raptors drives against Karl-Anthony Towns #32 of the Minnesota Timberwolves during the second half of their NBA game at Scotiabank Arena on March 30, 2022 in Toronto, Canada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images)

Levelled Up

Is it an anomaly or is it the new normal?

When gauging what the Toronto Raptors would be this season, that was a pivotal question that needed answering. Was Tampa a precursor of things to come? Well, that comes down to where you landed on either judging them by where they finished overall or understanding that this was a team that was playing good basketball and competing with the best teams in the East until getting completely decimated by covid and then making the best of the situation by changing course.

It also came down to what you made of Pascal Siakam and what he would bring to the table in 2021-22. Did people still even consider him the best player to lead the Raptors forward? There were plenty of sceptics over what he was capable of and that was reflected in the trade rumours that emerged over the course of the summer.

On the one hand, you could fall into the trap of overgeneralizing that Siakam was flat out bad, that his spin move had been taken away, and he’d been found out in general. On the other, you could use nuance to understand that this was a player who, in reality, struggled for 19 games in the Orlando bubble and yet was so good in the 52 games prior that he made an All-NBA Second Team, had some early growing pains as a leader in Tampa, found a groove after returning from a bout with covid — struggles in the clutch aside — with real signs of being a more complete player, then had his season cut short by a torn labrum in his left shoulder.

The last two years have certainly felt like five, and one can’t help but feel that this along with recency bias had some subliminal effect in exaggerating Siakam’s struggles when considering the larger context. Were 19 bubble games plus 56 games in Tampa (where he still averaged 21.4 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 4.5 assists) really enough to overshadow the 268 games prior where he had one of the most rapid ascensions in league history? With his play this season, Siakam has answered that with an emphatic no.

Through 63 games in 2021-22, Siakam is averaging 22.4 points, 8.3 rebounds, 5.2 assists, and 1.2 steals while shooting 52.2 percent on twos and 36.2 percent from three. Siakam is on course to become only the 15th player since the NBA-ABA merger to average 22-8-5 with an effective field goal percentage of at least 50, per Stathead. LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, and Luka Doncic are the only other players accomplishing the feat this season. Since March 3, Siakam has taken his scoring to another level while still maintaining his other facets, averaging 26.5 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 5.3 assists while shooting 55.2 percent inside the arc and 44.2 percent outside it.

“I think I’m continuing to get better,” Siakam said. “It’s been a good, long road for me and again, I just always believed all the work I have put in is going to pay off. No matter tough times or great times, I just want to stay focused on the grind and continue to get better as a player. I think there is a lot more to my game that can be unlocked and I just want to continue to do that.”

Offensively, it starts with his bread and butter: scoring at the rim. He has made 72.1 percent of his shots within three feet of the basket this season largely because the touch he showed in the championship season (72.2%) as well as most of 2019-20 (70.3%) has returned while the spin move to either side has been completely unguardable in single coverage. Siakam is posting defenders up and forcing them to lean one way, timing that last body blow to perfection before going the other way. When the double comes, he already knows where it’s coming from and makes the right pass virtually every time. The onus on Siakam to create from the edges of the paint or facing up from the top has been even greater since VanVleet’s offensive capabilities have been hampered by knee soreness, and yet he’s continued to make it work.

Siakam has been a fulcrum for the Raptors’ defence just as much as the engine of their offence. In screen-and-roll coverage, he will be ready to pounce onto a guard and disrupt their dribble. When operating in the back line, he wades across the paint perfectly waiting for his moment, either forcing a kick-out or contesting shots at the rim. Positioning himself to deter at the rim and then sprinting and flying out to the perimeter has become about as vintage as his spin move. On a team heavily reliant on its ability to be switchable, Siakam has made game-changing plays sticking with guards in space, too.

“You can’t get tired,” Siakam said of the biggest challenge that comes with being a high usage two-way player. “You can’t get tired because it’s a lot, right? You gotta guard players, it’s not like I can be out there and not guard anybody. You gotta guard and then also have the ball and try to make plays, but, I enjoy it, man. It’s fun, I’d rather do that than be sitting in the corner. I think the more I get in these positions the better I’m gonna get.”

Sometimes the numbers alone aren’t enough, sometimes it’s how a player makes you feel, too.

When a player takes and makes a big shot or blocks a decisive one, there’s a visceral feeling of a player stamping their authority on the game. Within the context of the NBA, the challenge of going from good to very good to great to transcendent is welcome for all comers to take on, but there’s only a select few who can ascend all the way to that rarified air.

The Raptors have had some massive games of late being in the thick of the playoff/play-in race, and Siakam has delivered superstar performances time after time. On the road against Philadelphia without Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby, Siakam poured in 26 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists to lead them to victory. In a must-win game against the Cleveland Cavaliers to keep hopes of avoiding the play-in alive, Siakam came through with 35 points, six assists and five rebounds while knocking down six of his seven 3-point attempts. There was an encore Monday night, when despite most of the team struggling to score and shooting 25.6 percent beyond the arc, Siakam dragged Toronto over the finish line with a season-high 40 points, 13 rebounds, three steals, and two pivotal blocks and a big-time mid-range fadeaway in overtime.

As if all that wasn’t enough, Siakam threw in a chef’s kiss performance Wednesday night against the Wolves, notching 12-point, 10-rebound, 13 assist triple-double and picking the Wolves defence apart every which way in a blowout victory.

Team success is what matters most to him and the Raptors have been 30-15 (55-win pace) since Dec. 31. It first looked as though Toronto may have been destined for the play-in after a middling start out of the all-star break, but Siakam has now led them to wins in 10 of the last 12 games with destiny in their own hands for the final seven games.

“He's just taken it to a whole 'nother level,” 15-year veteran Thad Young said. “40s? It's getting crazy. He's been phenomenal. He's been amazing. He's been a great teammate. Teaching me about all the offences that we're going through and all the defensive schemes while having to go out there and actually score 20, 30, 40 sometimes… He’s been great.”

Will that greatness be acknowledged with an end-of-season award? With the exception of the MVP award, making an All-NBA team is the highest individual accolade this league has to offer. At the forward position, Antetokounmpo, Durant, James, and Jayson Tatum will be automatic choices. Where voters land in terms of trying to squeeze both Jokic and Joel Embiid onto the first team will play a factor, as will where they land on DeMar DeRozan’s place as either a guard or a forward. Depending on that, there are either one or two spots for Siakam to claim. Jimmy Butler’s case, averaging 21.3 points, 5.9 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 1.7 steals for a Miami team that has been one of the best in the East, is strong and will likely present Siakam’s biggest competition if there is only one spot to fight for.

What’s Siakam’s case over him?

With both players at their best inside the arc, their efficiency and effectiveness is tied to the spacing around them and the Heat provide Butler with an advantage. Miami is the top three-point shooting team in the league while Toronto is 18th, per Cleaning the Glass. The Heat take the most corner threes in the league and convert them at the second-best rate in the league and they are also 10th in converting their above the break attempts while the Raptors are 23rd. Siakam isn’t blessed with a plethora of great lob threats or rim runners, either. As noted previously, while he converts an extremely healthy amount of his own shots around the basket, as a team, Toronto is 26th in scoring within four feet of the rim at 62.4 percent while Miami is 11th at 65.5 percent. Siakam’s scoring and playmaking has been transcendent despite the relative lack of efficiency around him.

Neither player is reliant on the three-point shot but Siakam has offered better spacing having knocked down 36.2 percent of his 199 attempts while Butler has converted 21.5 percent of his 107 attempts.

Both players have been individually excellent around the basket, but it is interesting to consider what’s happening in the mid-range, an area that one would generally expect Butler to have the advantage. Both are neck-and-neck at about 44 percent in the 10-16 foot range that would generally be considered the sweet spot but the difference lies both inside and outside that area. Approximately 30 percent of both Butler and Siakam’s field goal attempts are in the 3-10 foot range, and Siakam has shot nearly 10 percent better, per Basketball Reference. Siakam is also shooting five percent better from 16 feet to the three-point line. You can throw in availability, too, if you like. The Cameroonian has played nine games and nearly 550 minutes more over the course of this season. While the Raptors have been 30-15 since Dec. 31, the Heat have gone 27-15.

Siakam has been the better player in 2021-22. He deserves to be on the All-NBA Third Team. He is undoubtedly one of the best six forwards this season and the voting should reflect that.

Beyond what happens with these awards, the extent to which Siakam has levelled up adds another chapter to Siakam’s rapid improvement since coming to basketball later than most. He is a one of a kind talent and the Raptors are lucky to have him. Some let the anomaly that was the bubble and Tampa limit how they viewed Siakam’s ceiling, and now it appears that him being one of the best playmaking forwards in the NBA may well be the new normal.