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Raptors’ Siakam hungry for more following career season

Toronto Raptors Pascal Siakam Pascal Siakam - The Canadian Press

VICTORIA – Pascal Siakam didn’t allow himself much time to bask in the glory of his career season.

Fresh off a bounce-back 2021-22 campaign and his second All-NBA selection, the Raptors’ forward was already on a new mission.

The day after he was named to the All-NBA third team in late May, and just a few weeks following his team’s first-round elimination from the playoffs, Siakam called his agents.

“What does this mean?” he asked of the honour that he had just received – a bit of an odd question considering he made All-NBA second team back in 2019-20, which increased the value of his contract by three per cent.

Well, essentially, it meant that he was a top-15 player in the NBA.

“That’s not good enough,” Siakam replied.

“I want to be a top-five player,” he continued – a goal he shared publically earlier this week.

“It’s time to take another step,” the 28-year-old told reporters on media day. “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 want to be a top-five player in the league. I want to be one of the best, and I’ll do everything I can to make that happen.”

It’s an ambitious goal, to be sure, but before you write it off as wishful thinking, consider the season he just had.

A year ago at this time, Siakam was a spectator at Raptors training camp, still weeks away from being cleared by the medical staff following offseason shoulder surgery. It was the latest in a series of adverse situations that he faced, dating back to the start of the pandemic, his bouts with COVID, his poor performance in the bubble and uneven 2020-21 season.

Not only did the injury limit Siakam’s generally extensive offseason training regiment in the summer of 2021, but it cost him the start of last season. He missed the first 10 games and needed another five or so to get his rhythm and conditioning back.

In spite of it all, over the final 63 games of the season, Siakam averaged 23.5 points, 8.7 rebounds and 5.4 assists on 50 per cent shooting while leading the league in minutes played. Only three players equalled those numbers over the course of the full season, and they’ve won eight of the last 14 MVP awards: Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James.

In his sixth NBA campaign, Siakam took a big step forward as a playmaker, and while his defensive effort remained up and down, he was locked in more often than not. There were certainly stretches where he looked the part of a top-10 player, if not top-five.

Being one of the best five players in this league is a tall task for anybody. Just look at all the talent at Siakam’s position alone. Antetokounmpo and James aren’t going anywhere, neither is Kevin Durant. Kawhi Leonard is back healthy this season. You’ve got Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum, Devin Booker, Anthony Davis and Paul George, and that’s not even including the centres – Jokic and Joel Embiid – or the many great guards in the game.

But whether it’s attainable or not, that’s the mindset you’d want an elite professional athlete to have. He should aim high and refuse to settle for anything less. If not for that approach, Siakam – a former 27th-overall pick, who didn’t even start playing organized basketball until he was 17 – wouldn’t be where he is today. That’s a credit to the work he has and continues to put into his craft and his drive to be great.

“He’s been that way ever since I’ve known him,” said player development guru Rico Hines, Toronto’s new assistant coach, who hosts the famed and star-studded UCLA runs in Los Angeles every summer and has been working with Siakam each offseason since before he was drafted in 2016.

“He’s always had that work ethic. He’s always tried to make winning plays and he’s always been a great guy. Sometimes I have to tell him we can’t come back to the gym. I’ve worked with a lot of people and he’s right up there with the hardest workers I’ve ever been around… He wants to be a great. He wants to squeeze every [ounce] of ability he has, he wants to get it out.”

“Pascal’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever seen, ever,” said teammate Khem Birch. “When he wakes up in the morning, I don’t even think he eats breakfast or stretches. He works out for hours before practice, practices, and then works out for another hour after practice. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

So, after his first full offseason of training since way back in 2018, what will he come back with? There’s a very clear and obvious path for him to reach that next level as a player: improving his jump shot, and he knows it. Becoming a more consistent and efficient three-point shooter was a focus for him this summer. He hit 34 per cent of his threes a year ago, an improvement from the season before but still below league average. If he can bump that up to 37 per cent, something he did on a lower volume back in 2018-19, and incorporate the pull-up three into his already expansive arsenal, that raises the ceiling on what we can expect from Siakam this season, and beyond.

He’s just entering his prime years, has added something to his game almost every summer, and he’s shown that he’s not somebody you should be betting against.

“Just his mentality,” Hines said, asked where he’s seen the biggest difference in Siakam over the years. “He’s always been a nice guy and now he’s becoming a little bit meaner, you know what I mean? And that’s good. We want him to continue to grow in that aspect because that’s what it takes to be one of the elites.”

“I always believed it,” said Siakam. “You go through stuff and things happen and you don’t play like you [want to], but it’s just basketball at the end of the day.

For me, I believe in what I have, I believe in the work I put in and I’ve always done that every single day.”

“I think over the years, just the player I am, I want to be perfect. It's hard, I miss a shot and I get mad… but it's okay, you don't have to [hang] onto every shot and wanting to make everything perfect. It's okay because you put the work in. So that's my mindset, just growing as a player, understanding that and knowing that you can miss five shots in a row, but just take the same shots because you believe in it and you work on it every day.”

Of course, in the NBA so much of it comes down to a player’s impact on his team’s success. Assuming Siakam is able to take that next leap into superstardom and the Raptors exceed expectations, as they did a year ago, it’s not hard to see him generating some buzz as a fringe MVP candidate, like DeMar DeRozan did last year before the injuries hit the upstart Bulls.

It goes hand in hand. For him to reach his lofty individual goals, the team will almost certainly have to reach theirs. His teammates know they’ve got a part to play in his pursuit.

“He continues to grow and get better every day,” Fred VanVleet said of Siakam. “I watch him work out every day and I’ve been watching it for six years so you can see the growth and development. It’s the wherewithal to stand in there and deal with the ups and the downs, the highs and the lows. He looks like he’s having fun again, back at peace and just playing at that All-NBA calibre level.”

“Now, we just got to get him the top-five player in the league. That’s what he wants and we gotta help him do that.”