The month of June was quite a rollercoaster for the Toronto Raptors. They won their first championship, courtesy of Kawhi Leonard, then could only sit and watch as Leonard departed for the warmth of the West Coast. But Masai Ujiri and the rest of the front office refused to roll over and trade their other key contributors in pursuit of a long-term tank plan. They signed team leader Kyle Lowry to an extension and kept both Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka around despite the temptation to trade them while their value was highest.
Most importantly, they signed last year's Most Improved Player and emerging star Pascal Siakam to a max contract extension. The move raised some eyebrows, if only because Siakam had only one year of above-average production despite looking like a star at times throughout the season. Through the first nine games of his first season as a very rich man, Siakam looks like he'll be worth every penny, and it's clear the Raptors are his team now.
Defenses have adjusted to Siakam as we all expected, and are paying him far more attention than last year. But no matter how much attention is paid, Siakam's whirling style of scoring is nearly impossible to stop. His lanky limbs mean he can get either up or around just about anyone in the league, regardless of where he is on the court. He's shooting 75 percent at the rim so far this season and 57 percent on layups, a terror in both the half-court and in transition.
The biggest improvement for Siakam this year has come in the form of his jump shot. He was an adequate shooter during Toronto's championship run, but still only averaged one made three per game on 2.7 attempts. This year, he's shooting from deep at a similar rate (37 percent), but upped his attempts to an even six per game. Given how quickly he can get to the restricted area and how effective he is once he's there, this was a crucial development, and his increased scoring average of 27.4 points per contest reflect his emergence as one of the upper-echelon scorers in the NBA.
That isn't even to mention his switchability on defense or his ability to kick-start the transition game as a menace on the boards. It was all on display when the Raptors marched into Staples Center on Sunday night and took down the Lakers on the back of Siakam's 24/11 statline with an additional three blocks and one nasty crossover on an early DPOY candidate in Anthony Davis.
Nobody is expecting much of the Raptors this year, which is only natural for a team that lost one of the two best players in the world. The team will likely regress after their 7-2 start, especially after Kyle Lowry fractured his hand, and they aren't built to match up with the smaller teams in the league. But 'Spicy P' is no longer an unexpected and inspirational story. He's a legitimate star, and Toronto goes as far as he can take them. So far, it looks like that could be much farther than anyone anticipated.