With the 2019-20 NBA season about to get under way, Masai Ujiri – the league’s reigning champion GM – has made one thing abundantly clear; he believes the Raptors can win without Kawhi Leonard, and the key to doing so is 25-year-old Cameroonian forward Pascal Siakam.
On Saturday – three days before the Raptors officially tip-off their 2019 campaign against the newly-effervescent New Orleans Pelicans – ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Toronto had re-signed their young star to a 4-year max extension, worth somewhere in the vicinity of $130 million.
Only just entering the fourth season of his fledgling career, Siakam will now be a Raptor at least through the 2023-24 season.
His rise, it’s fair to say, has been meteoric. He grew up in Cameroon as a soccer player, was first noticed at a Basketball Without Borders camp in 2012 and eventually made his way to the Raptors via New Mexico State.
The start to Siakam’s NBA career was anything but inspiring. He played 55 games in 2016-17 and started 38, but finished the year averaging just 4.2 points and 3.4 rebounds in almost 16 minutes per game.
He then played all 81 games in 2017-18 but started in just 5, and by the end of that season was averaging under 6 points and 4 rebounds per game in his two-year NBA career whilst shooting a miserable 18% from three.
Then came 2018-19. Siakam emerged from the post-Derozan shadows to start 79 regular season games; averaging 17 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists, shooting 37% from three and, in essence, playing the all-important role of Kawhi-lite on the frequent occasions the star recruit didn’t play back-to-back sets.
In the playoffs, those numbers vaulted even further to 19.0 points, 7.1 rebounds and 2.8 assists during Toronto’s mythical 24-game post-season run, including 26 points and 10 rebounds in their Finals-clinching Game 6 win.
It’s not like the signs for NBA stardom weren’t there, it’s just that they just weren’t particularly obvious to begin with.
For example, as a college sophomore in 2015-16 Siakam averaged 20.2 points, 11.6 rebounds and 2.2 blocks in 2015-16, and was unanimously named the Western Athletic Conference’s Player of the Year.
In 2017, on a brief sojourn to the bizarrely-named “Raptors 905” G-League affiliate, he averaged 18.0 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.4 assists in the playoffs, leading them to the league title and winning the Finals MVP award in the process.
In October 2017 – against a Warriors team boasting arguably one of the strongest starting line-ups of all time – Siakam exploded for 20 points in 21 minutes on 9-12 shooting as the Raptors nearly pulled off a monumental early-season upset.
It was this game which, more than any other performance in his young basketball career to this point, announced Siakam as a potential NBA breakout candidate, and led to veteran teammate Kyle Lowry describing him as running the floor “better than anybody [he’d] ever seen in the NBA” – a comment which seemed ridiculous at the time but now looks remarkably prescient.
Siakam backed up that performance against the defending champions two nights later by dropping 18 points in 25 minutes against the Lakers in LA to round out the best two games of his season, and set Raptors fans alight with anticipation.
It was only really in the 2017-18 playoffs, though, where the rest of the NBA began to catch on to the idea that there might be something more to the lanky Cameroonian than just pure athleticism and raw speed.
In a series-clinching Game 6 win against the Wizards in Washington he put up 11 points, 8 rebounds and 2 blocks in 22 minutes, and followed that up with another 11 points in Toronto’s agonising one-point Game 1 home loss to Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Raptors were ultimately swept by LeBron’s Cavaliers, but for Siakam that series both announced his potential for the world to see, and ended up giving him a vehicle to express his talent in full as Ujiri – sick of perpetual mediocrity – sold franchise favourite Demar Derozan to the Spurs in exchange for a speculative punt on the injury-prone Kawhi Leonard.
Siakam’s 2018-19 season paired alongside Leonard has been written and spoken about ad nauseum. It doesn’t need rehashing. The numbers are astonishing, and he was a deserved winner of the NBA’s Most Improved Player award.
The real question now, though, is whether the man affectionately known in Toronto as “Spicy-P” can continue his upward trend in the absence of Leonard, or whether last year’s level of influence is the ceiling for his NBA career.
Siakam – for one – doesn’t believe his rapid improvement has finished. He was quoted earlier this offseason using no uncertain terms to describe his NBA future:
“I don’t feel no limits at all… I feel like it’s only the beginning for me and there is so much more to come. I’m just excited about the future and the possibility to even get better and better from this, and knowing that it’s only been three years. I’m in the league for three years and there is so much more growth and things that I can improve on … so I don’t think I’m going to stop now.”
It’s looking increasingly evident that the Raptors – and in particular Ujiri – don’t think so either. Toronto’s roster, which we can now officially begin to describe as being “built around” Siakam, is not one designed with the intention of allowing its fledgling star to develop at a glacial rate. It’s a win-now roster, even in the absence of the transcendent Leonard.
33-year-old Marc Gasol, 32-year-old Kyle Lowry and 29-year-old Serge Ibaka are not players retained with the idea of development in mind. Ujiri thinks – or at least wants to believe – that his roster is still talented enough to make noise in the notoriously-weak Eastern Conference.
The Raptors clearly intend to play this season the way they did in the 22 games Leonard missed last season; with zippy ball movement, an abundance of three-point attempts and an aggressive, ball-hawking defense.
It’s a stat that Toronto diehards have been spouting indiscriminately since July, but it does have some merit; the Raptors went 17-5 last season in the absence of Leonard. They’re clearly a lot deeper than just a one man team.
That said, someone is going to need to step up and cover Leonard’s 26.6 points, 7 rebounds and nearly two steals per game.
Per NBA.com’s Advanced Stats, over the course last year’s regular season Siakam spent an average of 13 minutes per game on the floor without Leonard. Across the board his averages in those minutes were almost identical to his averages with Leonard on the floor, apart from one glaring difference.
With Leonard on the floor, Siakam shot 41.6% from three; without him, that percentage plummeted to just 30.3%.
The Raptors need Siakam to shoot threes, it’s pretty simple. And he needs to do it at a reasonable clip.
If he can, not only will he blossom in to one of the league’s top-25 stars, he may also be able to lead Toronto deep in to the playoffs again.