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Josh Lewenberg

TSN Raptors Reporter

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TORONTO – Ever wonder how Raptors’ forward Pascal Siakam defied the odds and exceeded expectations to become a max contract player and one of the NBA’s rising stars?

Look no further than how he’s approaching a small speed bump early in the most important season of his young career.

All things considered, Siakam is off to a great start to his fourth campaign and first as Toronto’s featured player. Through six games, he’s mostly looked the part, averaging 26.0 points – 13th in the league and 9.1 more than he scored as the NBA’s Most Improved Player last year – and 8.5 rebounds while shooting 49 per cent from the field and an impressive 42 per cent from three-point range.

He’s been dominant at times, showing true superstar potential – like when he scored 19 third-quarter points against Detroit or put up 23 in the second half in Boston. He continues to grow and expand his game at an unprecedented rate and seems poised to take an even bigger leap forward now that he’s been fully unleashed.

However, he’s not interested in talking about any of that. The two things that have been on his mind after each game so far this season are turnovers and fouls.

Siakam is averaging 4.4 turnovers per 100 possessions, up from 2.9 last season. It’s not exactly a shocking development considering that his usage rate is up, he’s handling the ball more and he’s facing more defensive attention than he’s ever seen. That was an expected part of the learning curve as he adjusts to being the focal point of Toronto’s offence.

What’s more surprising, at least to him and the team, are the fouls. On Saturday in Milwaukee Siakam fouled out for the second time on the young season. He’s been called for at least five fouls in four of six games so far and has had to take a seat on account of foul trouble at some point in five of them.

“I mean, he hasn’t been very smart if you want me to be honest with you,” said head coach Nick Nurse, candidly after practice on Tuesday. “Most of those have been fouls. And they're touch fouls that they’re not calling on everybody and they're not calling every trip up and down, but, if you go back you say, ‘Hey, he’s got two hands on him.’ So he’s got to take the two hands off of him and that's what we’re working on. We’re poring over the film. We’re showing him just a little bit and that's okay. That’s something he can change quickly and I’m expecting him to change it [Wednesday] night [against Sacramento].”

A little tough love from his coach isn’t a bad thing, but it’s also not like Siakam needs it. The 25-year-old was one of the last players on the court following his team’s practice. He’s been putting in extra time in the film room as well, studying each of his fouls, what he did wrong and what he could or should have done differently.

It’s that work ethic and unrelenting drive to correct mistakes, turn weaknesses into strengths, and get better that separate great players from the good ones. Siakam is well on his way to putting himself in that category.

“Obviously there’s some fouls that I can avoid and not take because it’s definitely important for me to be in the game,” Siakam said. “It’s all part of the game, all part of learning. It’s a part of growing and if you guys know me, I’m always about improving and evolving, and I’m excited about it. I’m excited about the opportunity to learn, and by the end of the season I can look at these games and say they prepared me for something bigger. So yeah, I’m learning.”

One thing Siakam is focusing on is his readiness on defence. From watching tape he noticed that he needs to be down in his stance quicker and ready to move his feet instead of reaching with his hands.

He’s carrying a substantial workload offensively but he rejected the idea that his responsibilities on that end of the floor are to blame for any slippage or fouls on the other end.

“No, I think it’s just on me,” he said. “It’s on me. I’ve gotta be better. I’m good enough to be a great defensive player and a good offensive player. That’s what I think.”

To his credit, he isn’t making excuses or pointing fingers at the officials. It’s fair to say that Siakam hasn’t exactly gotten the benefit of the doubt on some 50-50 judgement-type calls early in the season. Maybe he’s still not getting the ‘superstar treatment’ from the refs (which exists, whether the league wants to admit it or not). The reality is it takes time to earn a favourable whistle and, like it or not, Siakam knows he has to focus on controlling what he can control.

“It’s just part of the game,” he said. “When you’re playing it’s kinda just a habit. Your hands are just right there and they’re trained to call that. As soon as you touch someone, that’s what they’re gonna do. So for me it’s just seeing those little things, and some things that might not be much, but if you wanna go by the book, it’s a foul. So I’ve gotta be better. I’ve gotta move my feet and not put myself in that position.”

In some ways this is part of the learning curve as well. Even having an open dialogue with the officials is not something he would have to worry about often as a complimentary player. Now, he’s figuring out how to do that in a productive and respectful way. Little things like knowing the referees’ names go a long way, he pointed out.

As for what he has to do differently on the court, it’s about finding a balance. If you’re Siakam, an energy player by nature, you don’t want to lose yourself by being less aggressive. At the same time, now that his role has expanded and the Raptors are relying on him so heavily, he may have to take fewer risks than when he was coming off the bench and playing 20 minutes a game.

As Nurse says, they can’t afford to have him wasting fouls by needlessly reaching in or swiping at the ball.

“I don’t remember him being like this, so I'm not sure why he’s doing it now and I don’t know if it has anything to do with anything other than he needs to knock it off,” Nurse said. “He just needs to knock it off. I don't remember him being a foul-prone guy at all. For some reason all of a sudden he’s picking up two early [fouls] in games and most of them are silly. It’s not like he's being put in difficult situations. A lot of them are 20 feet from the basket and he’s just got his hands on him. He’s got to adjust.”

Siakam is committing 6.3 fouls per 100 possessions this season, up from 4.5 last season and 4.9 the year before. He did average 6.4 fouls per 100 possessions as a rookie, but that was in limited minutes (15.6) over just 55 games.

Siakam has come a long way since then and it’s his attention to detail that has made that possible.

As a sophomore, he shot an abysmal 22 per cent from long range on 132 attempts – it was one of the worst individual three-point shooting seasons of all-time. Last year he hit a much-improved 37 per cent – above league average – of his 214 threes, and he’s opened the new season shooting 14-for-33.

He’s made similar strides with his ball handling and passing, among other areas of his rapidly evolving game.

Assuming this is no different, it won’t be long before Siakam’s foul troubles are a thing of the past.

“It’s something that’s going on right now and I have to find a way to be better at it,” he said. “It’s on me. It doesn’t matter what the ref does or what happens. It’s gotta be on me to make sure that I adjust properly to what’s being called out there and that I’m ready to help my team win, and that’s by being on the floor and not fouling out.”​