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Siakam, Raptors looking to solve shooting woes

Pascal Siakam Patrick Williams Toronto Raptors Chicago Bulls Pascal Siakam Patrick Williams - The Canadian Press

TORONTO – Pascal Siakam knows what’s required to fight through a prolonged shooting slump; fortunately and unfortunately, he’s had to do it before.

Back in his sophomore season, the Raptors forward missed 27 straight three-point attempts over the span of 15 games between late November and the end of December.

At the time, Siakam was coming off the bench and known primarily as an energy player. He had only attempted seven threes as a rookie the year before and 17 in two college seasons at New Mexico State before that. Still, Dwane Casey and Toronto’s coaching staff were giving him the green light to fire away, particularly from the corners. The thinking was that, in time, he could extend his range beyond the arc and that would open up the other areas of his game.

Neither the player nor team seemed too concerned with his early-season struggles. They knew there would be growing pains, and while an 0-for-27 drought may have been a tad more painful than they bargained for, his role and modest expectations allowed for some patience.

Needless to say, that is no longer the case. Siakam is the Raptors’ highest-paid player, their all-star, and even in a more balanced system under new head coach Darko Rajakovic, he remains their most important offensive weapon. Not unlike any other prominent, high-usage player in the NBA, when he’s in a slump, it can be a problem for his team. When he’s slumping as badly as he is right now, it’s a big problem. 

Siakam hit 11 of 29 three-point tries to open the season, but since going 5-for-8 from long distance in the Nov. 1 win over Milwaukee, he’s shot 5-for-52 – or 9.6 per cent – over the past 15 games, having missed 16 of his last 17 attempts.

Let’s put that into perspective, shall we? 96 NBA players have attempted at least 80 three-pointers this season. Only one has hit fewer than 27 per cent of those shots: Siakam, who’s shooting 19.8 per cent. It’s his lowest mark since he shot 22 per cent during that aforementioned 2017-18 campaign as a member of the Bench Mob.

“Just continue to shoot,” the eight-year vet said on Monday. “I think the most important [thing] is just putting the work in. There’s nothing wrong with the stuff that I do… So, it’s just trying to not overreact. Either you stop shooting them or the other thing you do is you keep shooting and it just kinda [evens out]. I think it’s just basketball. It happens and you just got to continue to work on it, trust the work and the process. For me, I just believe that it’s going to turn around.”

It’s not like Siakam has ever been an elite shooter but, in stretches, he has shown to be a passable one. After that sophomore season, it appeared as though the patience was starting to pay off. In 2018-19, the team’s title-winning campaign, he shot 37 per cent from deep – generally considered to be league average. While some of that may have been the Kawhi Leonard effect, he proved that his improved jumper wasn’t a mirage the following season when he doubled his attempts from 2.7 per game to 6.1 and still shot 36 per cent as the team’s No. 1 option.

However, his efficiency has dropped over the past three seasons, hovering between 29 and 35 per cent. With more movement in the offence this season, the hope was that Rajakovic’s system would help generate cleaner looks for Siakam and thus make him a more efficient player in the process, but so far, that hasn’t been the case. Through 20 games, his effective field goal percentage – which adjusts for the fact that three-point shots are worth more than twos – is the second lowest of his career.

Of course, what makes matters worse is that he’s not alone. To little surprise, given the roster construction, the Raptors have been one of the league’s worst shooting teams by just about every metric and from just about every spot on the court. They rank 28th in three-point shooting and 29th in the free-throw shooting. Recently, they’ve also struggled to convert at the rim (they’re 28th from within the restricted area over the past three games). In their most recent contest, a 119-106 loss to New York last week, they missed 26 of their 32 three-point attempts and were outscored by 30 points from beyond the arc. Somehow, it wasn’t even their worst shooting game of the season – they went 4-for-29 (14 per cent) in a loss to Portland in October.

Naturally, when the team returned to practice on Monday following a weekend off, they spent even more time than usual on their three-point shooting drills.

“There is no substitute for coming into the gym and putting the work in,” Rajakovic said. “We have an assistant coach on our staff who is [tracking the results] and a bunch of cameras over the net tracking every shot, the arch on the shot, [whether] the ball is going left to right, and we’re trying to identify those margins where we can get better. It's a small thing but if we can improve our three-point shooting by one per cent every month or every 10 games then that will be awesome.”

It’s a question of whether or not you believe that a team without more than two or three above-average career three-point shooters on the roster can make those incremental gains, regardless of how hard they work or how many reps they get in.

In certain cases, we’ve seen that shooting can be a learned skill. OG Anunoby, the team’s most reliable shooter, was not known for his jumper coming out of school. Since then, he’s shot the three-ball at a 38 per cent clip over his first six NBA seasons and is shooting a career-best 40 per cent this year.

Then there’s Scottie Barnes, an early-season silver lining from a shooting standpoint, and several other standpoints. The 22-year-old has hit 38 per cent of his threes, up from 28 per cent last season and 30 per cent as a rookie. At 102 attempts, tied with Dennis Schroder for most on the team, the sample size is getting larger. His form is looking better than it did a year ago, he’s taking more threes, and shooting them with confidence and consistency. Whether it’s sustainable remains to be seen, especially as opposing teams adjust and start closing out harder, but the improvement is encouraging. It’s also much needed, especially with spacing at a premium in a starting unit that includes a rim-running centre in Jakob Poeltl, a driving point guard in Schroder, and the slumping Siakam.

Siakam has proven that he doesn’t need to be a great three-point shooter to be a great player; he’s good enough at the things he’s good at to make up for it. Ideally somewhere between great shooter and worst medium-volume shooter in the league would be the sweet spot. In today’s NBA, the margin for error shrinks drastically when your shots aren’t falling, as Siakam and his team are experiencing firsthand.

“It is human nature,” Rajakovic said. “We miss a layup and that's enough for us not to get back on transition defence and to allow other teams to score. And we’re trying to pride ourselves on protecting the paint really well, but if you turn the ball over and miss layups, you’re constantly on your heels running back on defence. So I always say the best player development is to make layups and make threes. If we can do better at that job, everything else is gonna be much better.”