The Raptors will only go as far as Pascal Siakam takes them

What is Pascal Siakam?

Among all the questions that have been asked this preseason, that is the one that most needs answering as the Toronto Raptors get set to start the 2022-23 campaign, where they hope to go from a fun development story to a top team in the East. With all due respect to Fred VanVleet, O.G. Anunoby, Scottie Barnes and the like, the Raptors will go as far as Siakam takes them. Just like they did last season and the one before that and the one before that.

Is Siakam a superstar? Or is he closer to the 30th best player in the league? Could he ever be the best player on a championship team? Or will he always play second-fiddle?

The numbers and results say that Siakam is among the best players in the world, yet when he declared that he wants to be a top-five player in the NBA this upcoming season on Media Day, he was met with mixed reactions.

Most Raptors fans nodded their heads. It would be difficult, they acknowledged, but not out of the question. After all, Siakam was named to an All-NBA team in two of the last three seasons and peaked towards the end of last season, averaging 23.8 points, 8.8 rebounds and 5.6 assists on 49.9 percent shooting from December 1st onwards, carrying an inexperienced and injured Raptors team to a 38-21 finish, which translates to a 53-win pace.

Still, NBA fans and media outside of Toronto shrugged off the pronouncement, seeming to believe that Siakam is closer to the 30th best player in the league than the fifth. After all, ESPN ranked him 30th in their preseason player rankings, CBS had him 24th, and Complex Sports had him at 28.

Just how far can Pascal Siakam take the Raptors this season? (Getty)
Just how far can Pascal Siakam take the Raptors this season? (Getty)

This has always been the case with Siakam, who is significantly more appreciated in Toronto than he is elsewhere. The question is, why?

Is it because the Raptors are generally overlooked? As the only team north of the border, they have hit the over in Vegas’ win-total projections in 8 of the previous 10 seasons, the most of any team. And they have a history of star players like Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan being similarly underrated by fans outside of Toronto, with DeRozan’s moving onto a bigger market in Chicago before getting proper acclaim.

That could be part of it. But in order to fully understand why Raptors fans feel so highly about Siakam while the rest of NBA intelegencia might not, you have to have ridden through the ups and downs with Siakam; you have to understand that NBA careers do not exist in a vacuum, and that Raptors’ fans have witnessed Siakam overcome about as many obstacles as anybody in the league, blowing past every ceiling that has been set for him and doing so with limited support.

To recap, Siakam entered the league as an energy big who lived in transition off of hit-ahead passes from Lowry. The 27th overall out of New Mexico State who only started playing basketball in his late teens turned himself into the face of the Raptors over six short seasons, becoming an effective heliocentric offensive hub who can dribble, pass, shoot and create advantages with the best of them, while guarding all five positions and covering as much ground as anyone in the league defensively.

After winning the Most Improved Player Award and an NBA Championship in 2019, Siakam was well on his way to unanimous acclaim during the 2019-20 season, when he led the Raptors to the second-best record in the league in his first try as a No. 1 option. But when the pandemic hit and Siakam didn’t touch a basketball for months — with visa issues forcing him to stay locked down in Toronto — Siakam and the Raptors flamed out in the NBA bubble and fans turned on him, ignoring the context and deciding that he was never going to be an effective No. 1 option. As ESPN reporter Zach Lowe said on a recent episode of The Lowe Post Podcast: “people have looked at the bubble and made it whatever they want [it] to be.”

The next season added fuel to those peoples’ fire when Siakam and the Raptors were forced to relocate to Tampa Bay at the last minute, playing in unfamiliar territory in front of away fans with a roster lacking any legitimate bigs — all during a pandemic. Siakam struggled and the Raptors missed the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons, with Siakam ending the year early due to a torn labrum in his left shoulder that would require surgery. Yet fans still took it as a referendum on Siakam’s play, blaming him for a season that was largely out of his control and which, in hindsight, was so obscure it should have been a write-off.

But last season, despite missing the first 10 games while rehabbing from shoulder surgery, Siakam bounced back and delivered his best year of his career, not only becoming an effective No. 1 option but becoming one of the NBA’s best two-way forces. On one hand, it was the classic case of an NBA player overcoming adversity. But after the flame-out of the bubble, the blowup with Nick Nurse in Tampa Bay, the fans turning on him and the trade rumors, it felt like more than that.

“I think when you go through tough times, you get stronger as a person, you get better. I do believe that,” Siakam said of the ups and downs of his career, including the shoulder injury.

“I did question: ‘Why is this happening to me?’ But I think as I was going through it, I was also thinking I also grew from it. I just got better as I’m growing and learning from past experiences, just lessons that I feel I would never probably learn and it can only make you a better person, a better player… there’s just so many things I’ve been through that’s only gonna make me stronger at the end of the day.”

Siakam averaged 22.8 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 5.3 assists on 49.4 percent shooting in a league-high 37.9 minutes per game last season, becoming the first Raptor in franchise history to average 22/8/5. He shattered his career highs in assist percentage (22.5 percent), mid-range shooting (46 percent), free-throw attempts (5.6), and even defensive rebounding (20.1 percent), proving that he could do anything the team needed of him.

Siakam had by far the best net-rating on the team, with the Raptors being +8.0 points better per 100 possessions with him on the court. He finished the season with a 56.5 true shooting percentage — within a percentage point of both Luka Doncic and Devin Booker, who each finished top-5 in MVP voting (with higher usage ratings, it should be noted) — and followed that up in the playoffs with a 55.8 true shooting percentage, more efficient than he was during his run to the championship when he was a secondary option on a team that was perfectly suited to insulate his weaknesses and showcase his strengths. Only this time he did it with VanVleet and Anunoby in and out of the lineup due to injuries, dragging a group of young, inexperienced players who lacked any semblance of floor spacing or rim-pressure — one that likely would have completely bottomed out without him — to the fifth seed in the East. The list of players capable of doing that is short.

“He's one of the best players in this league,” DeMar DeRozan said about Siakam after a recent preseason game in Toronto. “That's evident, I think. As players we more so look for respect from our peers before we look towards the media… But people in the league know that when it comes to Pascal, he's definitely one of the top players in this league.”

But it’s not just that fans and media outside of Toronto have a difficult time gauging the context of Siakam’s productivity, it’s also that they seem to have a hard time appreciating his style of play. And these two things go hand in hand, with what some consider an unappealing style of play costing Siakam respect. To that point, this is what Complex had to say about Siakam’s 28th ranking:

“It isn’t always pretty with Siakam, in fact, it hardly ever is. But what he definitely can be labeled as is effective. Siakam just brings his hard hat and lunch pail to work everyday and stacks days, and at the end of the season the Raptors have made the postseason, he has averaged 22.8 points and has made an All-NBA team. He doesn’t have the deepest bag, the prettiest jumper or is the most graceful player in the halfcourt, but the numbers and results speak for themselves.”

In other words, Siakam does not look like your typical NBA superstar — he doesn’t have the graceful jumper of a Steph Curry or Booker, the smooth dribble combinations of a Paul George or Doncic, or the dominating physical presence of a Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, or Nikola Jokic. He sometimes looks like a bull in a china shop, bouncing off bodies and recalibrating on the fly, finding new and obscure ways to get into the paint and finish.

But there is beauty to Siakam’s approach, too. Like a figure skater stopping and starting at their own whim, there is grace and intentionality in the movements. Take his trademarked spin move, for example: a lethal combination of speed, size and footwork effective enough to literally tear through double-teams and get from the perimeter to the rim in seconds. It’s all about how you look at it — perspective.

“I mean, what is a superstar?” DeRozan asks when I ponder the idea that Siakam doesn’t get the credit he deserves. “Superstar. Superstar on his team. Superstar in this country. I mean, what's the measurements of a superstar? How many magazine covers you are on? How many commercials you got? What are the measurements of a superstar?”

“...Somebody could have more commercials than somebody else but that don't necessarily mean they are better than that person. So for me, the passion that he carries himself with, and how hard he worked to get where he is now, if he stays on that trajectory, he’s gonna be fine.”

The work ethic has been well chronicled, with every Raptors player admitting that by the time they get to the gym in the morning, Siakam is already dripping with sweat. The passion is evident, because only someone that passionate about the game would continue working through all the downs he has gone through.

“I love to be in the gym. I love to get better. I enjoy the process of getting better and knowing that, before I couldn’t do something and now I can do it — That process of the game is so important to me,” Siakam said. “And having the opportunity to do that while healthy [this summer], it was amazing. I just get lost in it.”

Siakam is primed to have the best season of his career, and any improvement on how he ended last season would have him near the top-10 in a league that is more star-studded than ever. And it’s not only because he has gotten better and added to his bag every summer, it’s also because the team around him makes as much sense as it has since that 2019-20 season. The hierarchy is clearly set, with Siakam alone at the top; the young guys have had a year to learn Siakam’s tendencies and to adjust to the pace of the NBA; and the Raptors have added a spot-up shooter in Otto Porter Jr. and a rim-runner in Christian Koloko, two pieces that should make the game easier on Siakam.

Plus, Siakam is in the right headspace to be the dominating presence that the Raptors need him to be. And sometimes, that mentality is just as important as the physical tools or the skill set.

“Just his mentality,” Raptors assistant coach Rico Hines said of the biggest change in Siakam’s game. “You know, he's always been a nice guy. And now he's becoming a little bit meaner. And that's good. We want them to continue to grow in that aspect. Because that's what it takes for you to be one of the elites, is just the mentality.”

“Mentally having that ‘always wanting to kill’ mentality,” Siakam said of his new approach. “Just having that feeling, and knowing that I’m going into these games knowing what I have to do to win. It’s just another part of the game that you approach mentally. All these things that I never knew as a younger player, it’s all been a part of my development as a player.”

“It’s all about getting better this season. I just felt like, yeah, it’s time to take another step,” Siakam added. “I always do that. And I try every game to take a step up. I think for me, after the year that I had, just accomplishing that level of play — I’ve been All-NBA, I’ve been an All-Star, I wanna be a top-five player in the league. I wanna be one of the best, and I’ll do everything I can to make that happen.”

What is Pascal Siakam? The truth is he is something that we’ve never seen before — Not in Toronto, not in the NBA. And just because he is different doesn’t mean he's any less dominant. It doesn’t mean he's any less of a superstar.

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