Longtime friends Poeltl and Siakam reunited with Raptors after trade
TORONTO – On the eve of the NBA trade deadline, Jakob Poeltl sat in his room at the Four Seasons hotel in downtown Toronto and texted back and forth with Pascal Siakam.
The Raptors were scheduled to host San Antonio later that day, and in what had become a biannual tradition before or after their teams would face each other, the former teammates and longtime friends were catching up. This time, the conversation had a different tone.
With the Spurs in the process of rebuilding, Poeltl felt there was a good chance he would be moved over the coming 24 hours. More and more, his name had been popping up in the rumour mill, and Toronto – the organization that drafted him more than six years prior – was among the teams to repeatedly express interest.
“It was something that was bound to happen, I felt like,” said Siakam.
“We were kinda talking about the what-ifs,” Poeltl told TSN this week. “What if it actually happens? It would be dope running it back, like the good old days. And then it actually happened.”
At around 1 a.m. last Thursday morning, hours after the Raptors’ 112-98 win over Poeltl and the Spurs, the news broke: Toronto was re-acquiring the veteran centre.
Like the rest of us, Siakam found out over social media. Just before going to bed, he sent Poeltl one last text.
“Oh, s***. See you tomorrow.”
Their first meeting was so brief that neither remembers it.
The Raptors were gearing up for a very important draft in the summer of 2016. Fresh off a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals, they were fortunate enough to own two first-round picks, including the ninth-overall selection – a gift from New York via the Andrea Bargnani trade three years earlier. It was the first time that the Masai Ujiri-led front office would be selecting in the lottery.
Poeltl and Siakam were among the players they hoped to bring in for auditions. The difficulty was that their student visas wouldn’t allow them to cross the border into Canada, so with less than a week to go before the end-of-June draft, the team hosted a last-minute session in Buffalo.
Siakam didn’t know much about Poeltl at the time, just that he was a projected lottery pick. When he heard that he would be working out with the Austrian centre, who was coming off an excellent sophomore season at the University of Utah, as well as another top prospect in Kentucky big man Skal Labissiere, he saw it as an opportunity to boost his stock.
As it turned out, they never shared the court that day. Poeltl and Labissiere each had individual workouts, as is often the case with upper-level prospects. Meanwhile, Siakam was grouped with three other players – a Latvian big man that Toronto also wanted to get a look at, and a couple mid-major guards who were brought in primarily for the purpose of running pick-and-roll drills.
“He was very annoyed about that,” Poeltl said with a laugh, years later.
Siakam felt so slighted that it motivated him to have what Raptors officials still regard as one of the best pre-draft workouts they’ve ever witnessed. It’s why they would go off the board to select the Cameroon native and New Mexico State forward 27th overall a few days later.
“He came in and just destroyed it,” assistant general manager Dan Tolzman recalled. “It’s like he was possessed. He was just unbelievable.”
After the workouts, the team served everyone lunch. There, Poeltl and Siakam would’ve crossed paths, but they don’t remember meeting until later that summer.
The morning after that 2016 draft, the Raptors brought Poeltl and an unselected free-agent point guard by the name of Fred VanVleet to Toronto to get acquainted with the staff and the city, and to begin training. Siakam, who was still getting his visa issues sorted out, would join them in Las Vegas for Summer League a couple weeks later.
The three rookies hit it off immediately. Poeltl and Siakam, in particular, built a quick connection.
“It was pretty much right away,” said VanVleet. “They just clicked from the first couple car rides to practice. It was pretty much an instant friendship.”
Initially, they bonded through their love for the game, but it didn’t take long for them to find some common ground outside of basketball. They’re both introverts by nature. They each left home and moved to the United States as teenagers to pursue a future in the sport. And, off the court, they prioritize family above all else.
“I think our personalities mesh pretty well,” said Poeltl.
“I just feel like I’m a private person and I’m kinda antisocial,” Siakam said. “We just understand each other. He comes from humble beginnings, so he understands being humble and living the simple life, which is what I’m about.
“We just formed a bond. It just happens with time and being together, building chemistry. He’s a selfless guy and I’m also a [selfless guy]. It just worked out.”
Poeltl and Siakam grew together over the course of their first couple years in the NBA. They both spent time in the G League and experienced similar highs and lows during their freshman campaigns. They even shared rookie duties, having to carry around pink backpacks throughout the season.
After spending the bulk of the 2017 off-season training in Los Angeles, Poeltl, Siakam and VanVleet became the nucleus of the team’s young core. As sophomores, they made up three-fifths of the vaunted Bench Mob, which would push DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and the veteran starters in practice every day, and completely shift the momentum of games with their energetic play.
As Poeltl joked recently, they spent so much time together in those early years that they were almost forced to get along. While DeRozan and Lowry were good vets, the younger guys just naturally gravitated together. They came into the league together. They put in the work together. Away from the court, they were going for dinners and hanging out together.
In time, the Poeltl and Siakam friendship went viral. They were dubbed Yak and Skills and would film fun digital shorts for social media. They even starred in a Google commercial.
“That’s real,” said Dwane Casey, who coached them in their first two seasons with the Raptors. “From Day 1, they were close.”
When the rosters for the 2017 Rising Stars Game were announced and neither Poeltl nor Siakam had made the cut, they were both surprised and disappointed, given their contributions to one of the league’s best second units.
They needed something to do over all-star weekend. Together, along with Christian Siakam, Pascal’s older brother, the two sophomores vacationed at a small resort in Playa del Carmen, Mexico.
“It was so much fun,” Poeltl said. “We had a great time there, just relaxing, enjoying the sun, enjoying the resort, good food, stuff like that.”
One night, Poeltl was boasting that he would jump in the pool, fully clothed. The Siakam brothers called his bluff and before long the 7-foot-1 Austrian was mid-cannonball, diving into the water. One problem: his cell phone was in his pocket.
“It was crazy,” said the elder Siakam, who still has video evidence. “He didn’t care. He was having the most fun… That’s one of the best moments we had.”
In fact, they had such a good time that they returned to the same resort the following year, even after Poeltl had been traded to San Antonio.
The trade hit them hard. Maybe not as hard as it hit Lowry, who lost his best friend, DeRozan, in the deal that sent Kawhi Leonard to the Raptors. But for Siakam and especially for Poeltl, this was their introduction to the business of basketball.
They spoke often during that first season apart, as Poeltl adjusted to life in a different city and with a new team. Over time, though, those conversations would become less frequent. Occasionally, they would check in on each other and their families, who they also grew close to. Poeltl would send a congratulatory text when Siakam reached a big career milestone, and vice versa. They would catch up in person a couple times each season, and then again when their schedules overlapped during the summer, usually in L.A.
“It’s just the nature of this business that we’re all so busy,” Poeltl said. “But we stayed in touch. It’s good to have friends like that, where when you don’t see each other for a while and then you do, you go out for dinner and you just kinda pick up where you left off. Even though you might not be in touch every day, some friendships just work like that.”
During a timeout in last Friday’s loss to Utah – Poeltl’s first game with Toronto since 2018 – Raptors game ops ran a video montage of old Yak and Skills clips on the big screen. Watching from the bench, VanVleet couldn’t help but have déjà vu.
“Looking back, the time has flown by,” he said. “It was cool to see how much we’ve all grown since then, those two guys in particular.”
They’re no longer impacting games in short spurts off the bench. Those three now make up 60 per cent of the team’s starting lineup.
A lot has changed since they last played together. Siakam’s ascension to NBA champion and now, two-time all-star remains one of the league’s most unlikely success stories. Poeltl’s development has been more on par with what the Raptors expected when they drafted him. He’s become one of the steadiest two-way centres in the game – not an all-star but a star in his role, and that’s something Toronto has desperately needed.
“It was a weird trade to get somebody who probably should’ve been here the whole time,” said VanVleet. “Obviously, we had to trade him for a championship, but we’ll take him right back. He just fits in.”
In his third game back with the club, a 123-113 win over Orlando on Valentine’s Day, Poeltl scored 30 points – one point shy of his career high – on 15-of-17 shooting. He grabbed nine rebounds and blocked six shots in 37 minutes. It was one of the best and most efficient performances by a big man in franchise history.
For this milestone, Siakam didn’t have to send a text. Moments after the final buzzer sounded, he was the first to run over and give Poeltl a hug. Their friendship has endured time and distance, but now that they’ve been reunited, it’s like no time has passed.
“The friendship has picked up right where it left off,” said VanVleet.
“Obviously, we wish we had that journey together, but things happen and I’m just happy for him,” Siakam said. “He continued to put the work in and continued to get better and evolve as a player and as a person. It’s awesome to see. And now it’s a full circle moment, coming back here together. Hopefully we get to stay together.”