Rap­tors' Si­akam makes his case as NBA's most im­proved player

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P— His 3-point shoot­ing. That’s jumped from 21.6 per­cent to 36.8 per cent .

A player who was feared al­most en­tirely for his work around the bas­ket now has to be ac­counted for even when he’s away from it. Brook­lyn coach Kenny Atkin­son called Si­akam an X-fac­tor who now de­mands a much big­ger part of the scout­ing re­port.

“It changes be­cause he’s shoot­ing the ball bet­ter,” Atkin­son said. “I think at first you could ig­nore his shot. Now it’s like you’ve got to re­spect him from 3 and I know he’s worked on it ex­tremely hard, so that changes it.

“You could be in the paint, wait for his drives. You still have to re­spect (that) but I think he keeps getting bet­ter and bet t er.”

D’An­gelo Rus­sell, Atkin­son’s All-Star point guard, might be the other top can­di­date for most im­proved player af­ter lead­ing the Nets to a sur­pris­ing play­off berth. Sacra­mento’s De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield, Den­ver’s Ma­lik Beasley and the Clip­pers’ Mon­trezl Har­rell are some other play­ers wor­thy of con­sid­er­a­tion.

But of them, Si­akam has the big­gest role on the team with the best chance to be play­ing into June.

The Rap­tors made ma­jor changes af­ter they were swept out of the post­sea­son by LeBron James and Cleveland in con­sec­u­tive years. Dwane Casey was fired even af­ter win­ning coach of the year hon­ors, and All-Star DeMar DeRozan was dealt to San Antonio in the trade to bring in Kawhi Leonard.

The Rap­tors have come back with 57 wins and the sec­ond-best record in the East, with Si­akam’s growth cen­tral to their suc­cess. He can play in a tra­di­tional big lineup along­side Leonard and cen­ter Marc Ga­sol, or in a smaller one if they go with Serge Ibaka in the mid­dle.

The ath­leti­cism was al­ways there for the 6foot-9 forward. But now it’s only part of the pack­age for a player who made one 3-pointer his en­tire rookie sea­son in 2016-17 and now av­er­ages one per game, the eas­i­est place to no­tice his im­prove­ment.

“I don’t know who else is even re­ally up for it, who the vot­ing’s be­tween, all that stuff. I know that if anybody’s done more than this kid, has im­proved more, has im­pacted the team more and con­tin­ued to im­prove from even geez, 20 games ago,” Rap­tors coach Nick Nurse said. “He just keeps tak­ing another step forward, there has been no steps back.

“He’s cer­tainly de­serv­ing. If there’s some­body else who is de­serv­ing, then some­times that’s the way it works. But he’s had an un­be­liev­able sea­son.”

Soon it will be time for the Rap­tors to show how much they’ve im­proved along with him. They be­came post­sea­son punch­ing bags the last cou­ple years who want to show they won’t be pushed around any l onger.

“We have a new group so it’s go­ing to be def­i­nitely tough and I think we’re more fo­cused on that,” Si­akam said. “Ob­vi­ously we think about the play­offs, we’re ex­cited about it, can’t wait for it. We just want to make sure we get the right chem­istry and ev­ery­thing go­ing so when that time comes, we’ll be ready to per­form.”

He got into only two play­off games two years ago, when the na­tive of Cameroon was still learning the game. It was only five years ear­lier when he had come through the Bas­ket­ball With­out Bor­ders camp in Africa, then headed to Texas for prep school and onto New Mex­ico State be­fore be­com­ing a late first-round pick.

He’s not sure if friends back home are aware of his suc­cess. But if he wins the Most Im­proved Player award, chances are they’ll hear about it.

“I’m def­i­nitely not a per­sonal-type guy where I care about per­sonal ac­co­lades and stuff, but def­i­nitely a team-guy first,” Si­akam said. “Some­thing like that, in terms of who I am and the per­son that I’ve be­come, and peo­ple that know my story and how I came up, that would mean a lot just be­cause that’s me. Like, that’s literally who I am as a player and as a per­son.”

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