How Lowry and Siakam represent Raptors’ path to respectability

Eric Smith and Alvin Williams discuss Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam representing the Toronto Raptors at the NBA All-Star game.

The Toronto Raptors non-star all-stars will get their chance to shine tonight in Chicago, and it’s kind of perfect.

With Pascal Siakam starting, Kyle Lowry coming off the bench and Nick Nurse and his staff coaching Team Giannis against Team LeBron at the NBA’s mid-season all-star showcase, the basketball world will get a proper representation of the league’s least twinkly franchise.

“It feels good having two players at the All-Star Game and our coaches together,” said Siakam before heading off for Chicago. “I think, for us, being in Toronto, it’s always good that those national things, we can have some type of recognition and have, kind of like, people representing us. It’s great, and it’s definitely going to be a fun weekend. It makes it more enjoyable seeing familiar faces and being around people that you are with every day.”

After 25 years the NBA’s only non-American franchise has finally won its decades-long fight for respect from the greater basketball universe in the most sensible way possible: they simply don’t care what everyone thinks.

If they get it? Hey great, it makes for a fun weekend. But there’s no neediness there.

The Raptors need to win and they do plenty of that.

But as a group, external validation isn’t really their thing. They have championship rings they can look to if they need a reminder of how far they’ve come.

This is a franchise that won an NBA title without a single lottery pick on their roster – the first time in league history. This season of their top-seven rotation players by WinShares (including oft-injured Marc Gasol who was a second-round pick) they have five players who were drafted. Four were first-round picks, though no higher than OG Anunoby, taken 23rd in the 2017 draft. Norm Powell was a second-round pick and Terence Davis and Fred VanVleet were undrafted.

They are coached by Nurse who had 25 years of coaching experience — most of it in lower-run minor leagues — before getting his first NBA bench in 2018-19. He enters All-Star weekend trailing only Steve Kerr (.718 vs. .715) for the best regular-season winning percentage in NBA history. In all likelihood, Nurse will finish the season in the top spot. His two seasons don’t represent the body of work of Phil Jackson (20 seasons at .704) or Gregg Popovich (with 24 and counting at .677) but they aren’t nothing either.

While Kawhi Leonard is often cited as the reason the Raptors won their title, Toronto is now 57-20 without Leonard in their lineup over two seasons, which translates to a 61-win regular-season pace.

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The star-studded Clippers, where Leonard jumped in free agency, are on pace for 55 wins this year.

All of which to say is there is something pleasing and symmetrical about Siakam and Lowry standing for the Raptors in Chicago.

Even their stories — as divergent as they are — help represent the non-traditional route the NBA’s lone Canadian franchise has taken to a championship and respectability.

Lowry is the Raptors’ undisputed leader. He was taken 24th overall in the 2006 NBA Draft after having his freshman season at Villanova nearly ruined by an ACL tear. As an NBA rookie, he broke his wrist in his 10th game and required season-ending surgery. It took him nine seasons to make his first all-star team and hasn’t failed to make one since, appearing in six straight.

Lowry can be tough on teammates unless they earn his respect, but it’s no surprise that Siakam got Lowry’s attention early.

When Siakam was voted in as an All-Star starter, continuing his meteoric rise from being taken 27th overall in the 2016 draft and earning his Most Improved Player award last year in his third season, no one was happier for him than Lowry.

“It means the world for me,” Lowry told reporters at the media availability in Chicago. “Honestly, it means the world to me to have him here. I was so happy for him. It was so important for me to see him be here. I was so happy for our coaching staff and for Pascal to just be able to have the season he’s had and kind of build off of what he did last year, Most Improved and winning the championship. So it was very special.”

Lowry’s and Siakam’s paths have been different, but it didn’t take them long to find common ground.

The Raptors point guard started playing basketball as a six-year-old in rough-and-tumble North Philadelphia, and all the accumulated knowledge and passion is on display every time he takes the floor. It’s what has made him a star even though he’s barely six-feet tall and hasn’t dunked since his second NBA season.

Siakam didn’t start playing hoops until he was 16 and not seriously until he left Cameroon to try his luck in the United States as a 17-year-old.

He’s become a star thanks to his rangy athleticism at six-foot-nine combined with dazzling, soccer-inspired footwork and a soft touch around the basket.

He’s had to learn the game on the fly and counts Lowry as a mentor.

“Coming in, he’s always been the kind of guy to talk to you and reach out and have dinners. He takes you in and it’s great to have vets like that to look at,” said Siakam. “I’m definitely fortunate to have had a guy like that in my rookie year to connect like we did. Just having him as a big brother you can go to for information. No matter what it is, I know I can send him a text and he’ll have something for me, like advice.”

For Lowry, connecting with Siakam has provided its own rewards. Siakam’s rapid progress from his rookie year when he shuttled between Toronto and Raptors 905 in the G-League to all-star status this season has helped keep the Raptors championship window open.

It helps that Siakam has been the perfect student — a sponge that can transfer new-found knowledge to action in an instant.

“When you [start to] play the game later, it’s a quick turnaround, a quick twitch,” says Lowry. “And I think that’s the one thing that he has, and I think that’s why he’s just going to continue to get better and better because he has the time to work and work and work. His body doesn’t have the all the natural talent and hard work that we’ve been as myself been playing since I was six. He’s still learning things as he is going … [but he has the] capacity to intake more and kind of put it together.”

Together Lowry and Siakam are the Raptors’ foundation pieces, an odd couple from with divergent backgrounds, different talents and skills but who have in common the determination to find ways to maximize their ability and find ways to win.

That they are both in Chicago is proof the Raptors’ road less travelled path to the NBA’s elite is headed in the right direction.

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