If Kawhi Leonard taught the Toronto Raptors anything, it’s that a superstar can change everything.
Plan A to acquire such a player was to sign Giannis Antetokounmpo next off-season — that went out the window when the two-time MVP signed a five-year, $228 million US contract extension to remain with the Milwaukee Bucks last week.
There are other options in free agency, including high-level players like Jrue Holiday and Victor Oladipo. Neither of those guys will change your franchise, though.
And so the Raptors will use their salary cap space as best they can next off-season. But their best shot at adding a superstar may already be in Toronto. Or Tampa, as it were.
It’s Pascal Siakam.
Siakam is clearly not on Antetokounmpo or Leonard’s level yet. He probably never will be. But he’s the closest thing the Raptors have, and he’s taken notable leaps each of his four years in the NBA.
Those gradual improvements give Toronto reason to hope there’s even more growth to come.
For this season anyway, the Raptors’ success may lie in Siakam’s hands.
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A first-time all-star in 2020, the Cameroon native struggled in the NBA bubble and especially during the Raptors’ second-round series against the Boston Celtics.
Consider his playoff stats from the championship run to last season:
2019: 19 points, 7.1 rebounds, 2.8 assists per game; 47 per cent shooting, 28 per cent three-point shooting.
2020: 17 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.8 assists per game; 40 per cent shooting, 19 per cent three-point shooting.
While the averages are similar, it’s Siakam’s shooting percentage that took a hit with Leonard out of the mix last season. Against the Celtics, he failed to handle the extra defensive attention he received as a No. 1 option.
The ability to get a clean shot off in any situation, as Leonard showed, is one of the most important traits of superstardom. It’s what’s held Antetokounmpo back in playoff series in 2019 against the Raptors and 2020 against the Heat.
Last season, Siakam led the Raptors with four isolations (one-on-one offensive situations) per game in the regular season. He scored 0.88 points per isolation; Leonard, comparatively, was at 1.05, with Antetokounmpo in Siakam’s range at 0.90. Both Siakam and Antetokounmpo came in around the league average in those situations.
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Where Siakam lagged behind Antetokounmpo was in shooting percentage, roughly 10 points back of the Bucks star in the regular season with an even further divide in the playoffs.
Antetokounmpo’s Shaq-like qualities around the rim, where he’s able to finish nearly at will, make this comparison unfair. Not to mention the Bucks star is also the reigning defensive player of the year. He and Siakam are both 26 years old.
But what allows even a hint of legitimacy is Siakam’s year-over-year improvement. A clumsy rookie forward miscast as a starter turned into a sparkplug sophomore off the bench turned into a third-year starter on a championship team turned into an all-star and second-team All-NBA player in his fourth year.
4.2 points per game turned into 7.3 turned into 16.9 turned into 22.9. Antetokounmpo’s scoring average in his fourth year? Also 22.9. Leonard was at just 16.5 points per game at that stage.
All three players entered the league as non-lottery picks, but eventually used their uncommon size and athleticism combination to overperform their draft slot.
It is not crazy to believe Siakam has another leap left in him.
Some early signs to watch for: improved shot creation, tighter ball handle, mid-range shooting and production against tough opponents.
It takes a team to win an NBA championship. But look at the last 20 years of league history, and you’ll see a superstar leading each of those teams. With the exception of the ’04 Detroit Pistons, there was always a Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James, Stephen Curry or Leonard at the top.
With no clear path to acquiring such a generational player, the Raptors’ best bet is Siakam.
In the NBA, your ceiling is ultimately determined by your best player. We know that Siakam, paired with Kyle Lowry, can get a team to Game 7 of the second round.
Another step forward from Siakam could bring the Raptors into a whole other dimension.