Basketball in the Eastern Conference is back and for the first time since Jordan retired, the top of the East is looking a lot better than the top of the West. The team that currently holds the league-best record reside north of United States. At the time that I am writing this, the Raptors have a 25-10 record and of this season’s breakout players is 24-year-old Cameroonian by the name of Pascal Siakim. Only now is Siakam entering the gaze of the average NBA fan. That being said the energetic forward hailing from Douala, Cameroon has been Masai Ujiri’s prized possession for a number of years now with Zack Lowe heading his fan club. This year has been a coming out party for the 6’9 Raptor and his continued advancement and growth could very well define how deep of a playoff run Toronto is able to make.
Pascal Siakam has the perfect frame for a player who can switch onto multiple players. Coming in at 230 lbs, he stands at 6 feet 9 inches with a wingspan of wingspan that exceeds 7’3. His slender frame allows him to defend the smaller guards of the league while he impressive build allows him to bang down low against the biggest of frontcourt players. His lateral quickness is extraordinary for someone of his size and his quick bursts allow him to cover up any defensive lapses. The blend of his athleticism, intelligence, and instincts on the court make him one of the premier defenders in basketball. While he may not warrant the title of a unicorn that has been bestowed upon the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo or Kristaps Porzingis, it is safe to say that Siakim is truly one of a kind. Time and again, he has gone toe-to-toe with some of the league’s best and has come out on top. He can match the release points of the likes of Anthony Davis and Kevin Durant while and the speed to cover ground on the perimeter. All of this is enhanced by the fact that the Raptors have been a very good defensive team so far this season. They have a defensive rating of 107.4 (for 8th best in the league) and restrict their opponents to an average of 107.6 PTS/G (for 9th best in the league). Their defensive is spearheaded by Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green on the perimeter and is anchored at the rim by Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas. Add the OG Anunoby and the Swiss Amy Knife that is Siakam to the mix leads to the conclusion that that Raptors defensive ceiling is as high as anyone else’s in the NBA.
While he has always had the potential to be a perennial feature on the All-Defensive teams, Siakam has blossomed whenever the Raptors are in transition. For someone who prominently features as a power forward or as a stretch 5, Siakam has a fantastic handle and is competent passer on the break. By design of the coaching staff, he is allowed to push the pace with the ball and find an exploitable matchup against unset defenses. There are occasions against the better defensive players where he turns the ball over but this is just a product of youth and unfinished development. Either by pressuring him into double teams or by forcing him to his weaker left side, there are still plenty of areas where Pascal can improve with his ball security. Nonetheless, craftiness to lead with a crossover and then spin back to finish with his stronger right hand is slowly becoming his go-to offensive move. His improved finishing at the rim forces the weak side defender to help and contest at the rim. Siakam vision and unselfishness make him an underrated shot creator and he often finds open shooter standing behind the three-point line. The Raptors are among the league leaders in creating shots from penetration which puts Siakam’s offensive skill set to the best use. That being said, he looks to score around defenders at the rim rather than drawing contact. From an aesthetic standpoint alone, I just wish he would avoid his crafty dribbling in favor of powering his way to the rim. Not only would he get to the line even more (where he is shooting 78%), there is no harm in putting a defender on a poster.
Just by watching Pascal Siakim extensively this season, one would think that he has been playing basketball ever since he could walk. But this could not be further from the truth. Sure, someone of his measurables, adeptness, and agility could always make for an astute basketball player. It was not until 2011 when he was first noticed by the hoops world as a skinny teenage by then Milwaukee Bucks forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. His parents’ house was only a couple of miles away from the school Siakam was enrolled in. He took part in a local basketball camp that Mbah a Moute had organized and returned the following year for a Basketball Without Borders Camp. Despite having literally any competitive basketball experience; his raw athleticism, unlimited energy and hustle play stood out. And what do you know, Masai Ujiri (who in 2012 was Vice President of in charge of Basketball Operations for the Denver Nuggets) never forgot the display that Siakam had shown and would later drat him when the former was the Team President of the Raptors. At 16, Pascal traded his hometown of Douala for God’s Academy – A Preparatory School in Texas. He was 19 years old when he joined New Mexico State and was sidelined with injuries during the 2013-14 season which he redshirted. He made his collegiate debut at nearly 20 years of age and was an instant success. In his sophomore year, he would go on to average 20.3 points, 11.6 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks while shooting 54% from the field. Ujiri would draft Siakam as a late first-round pick in 2016 at the age of 22. Now at 24 – after an early stint with the Raptors G-League affiliate – he has become a core part of Toronto’s present and future.
Sometimes players have setbacks in their developmental process. Not Siakam though, he has improved in every major category from his second to the third season. Then again, Pascal has always been a role-player and not star on any of the iterations of the Raptors franchise since he joined. In each of his three seasons so far, there has always been a talented pecking order with Siakam more than comfortable to flourish when the spotlight is not on him. He has never been asked to become a lead offensive option. If his shot is not a corner three-pointer nor a shot at the rim; he is likely to pass up on the shot. Within the limited ranges where he is at his best, Siakam in very efficient. Outside of his comfort zones, there is plenty of improvement that is still to be made. Outside of the role he currently has, there is almost no evidence to suggest that he can diversify his game. Not that he is an offensive liability – with defensive only players slowly being weeded out of the game – but the chances of being a number one or even the second option on a half-court set are very slim. Even if there is only a slight improvement in his offensive repertoire, the fact that he is already recognized as one of the best defenders in the league with the potential to get even better makes him a highly sought after and valuable player.
Despite the unlimited goodness and no major discernable flaws in his game, Siakam might be hindered by the fact that he plays in Toronto. While the major metropolitan is by no means a small market, the fact that it is the sole team outside the Mainland United States and is beyond freezing during the winter has been the deterrent for most superstars. To be fair, the Raptors are not known for generations upon generations of heartbreaking moments. Nor are they known for once being the gold standard that has fallen to become the league’s laughing stock. Despite being one of the newer franchises, the support and passions of their fan base should normally indicate that their team has been there since the beginning of time.
Toronto has drafted some incredibly talented players and has had some key basketball moments over the past two decades. But at the end of the day, they are unable to jump the hurdles of the “class system” that the NBA cities operate within. Time and again the Raptors have fielded some good teams in the playoffs that have been led by an All-Star and two. And yet they have always been summarily dismissed by the Goliath’s of basketball. Despite their many attempts, the Toronto Raptors have barely been able to budge the Old Guard so they can finally have a seat at the table. To be fair to the Vince Carter’s, Chris Bosh’s and DeMar DeRozan’s of the world, All-Star talent alone can never be the best player of a championship team. It takes an MVP caliber player to truly compete for the title and the Raptors have just that in Kawhi Leonard. This might be their best shot in franchise history to make the Finals. Serge Ibaka is having a Renaissance at the age of 29 and is having a career year. People have forgotten how productive of a player Danny Green can be on both ends of the floor. And let us not forget the multitude of young players on the roster who are quietly having productive seasons who will only get better from here. This is a cast of proven players and young talent with tremendous upside. Then the undeniable questions veers its head: For how long can their championship window run for?
Only Kawhi Leonard can answer that can his decisions in the coming summer will ultimately decide the trajectory of this franchise for years to come. Forget the future for a second and closely examine the present. Currently, the Raptors have the deepest, most balanced, most experienced roster with the highest possible ceiling that the franchise has ever had. Along with the continued development of Siakam, their other offseason moves have contributed largely to successes of the season so far. It takes a visionary to blow up a good situation and turn it into a great one. In the 35 games played this season, everything points towards this notion. Like the team from last season, many of the players and team statistics are largely unchanged. But there is an edge that this particular collection of athletes play with. Something different, maybe even an extra gear that they can play with and a higher level they can reach. In Kawhi they have a closer that they have desperately needed. When things grind to a halt, the assurance of having a top-5 player in the league who can push the team over the top on either end of the floor is a luxury that the Raptors are just now realizing. This should give them a swagger when the going gets tough deep into the playoffs.
This is a pivotal role for the Toronto Raptors. They finally have a chance to prove that they are an elite team – one that is worthy of perennially sending fear down the spines of every other team in the league. They have to show that they can more than ready to face the biggest challenges that the sport has to offer. They have to show that they can come out on top when the stakes are at their highest. All of this just to convince Kawhi Leonard that he can win at an elite level in the North. Should their winning ways continue and reach uncharted territories, there is no doubt in my mind that Pascal Siakam would have played a huge role in their success.