Raptors' Siakam confident his new approach will bring back old self

Brad Fay, Michael Grange and Eric Smith discuss this season’s Raptors squad, touching on the player likely to take the biggest step forward, and where they will finish in the standings.

In the wee hours after the most trying experience of Pascal Siakam’s professional life, there was no time to reflect on what went wrong or why.

Instead, after the Toronto Raptors were eliminated in Game 7 of their second-round series by the Boston Celtics back in September, there was only time to look ahead.

Circumstances dictated it. Teams that were eliminated from the 2019-20 playoffs didn’t have the option of leisurely collecting their things or sleep off an end-of-season party, or even have one.

Teams and staff had to be out of the NBA’s bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando by mid-day.

There were travel plans to make, an aspect complicated in Siakam’s case because he didn’t have a place to go. Ironically, Orlando is his off-season home but his new house was under construction, so that wasn’t an option, and going back to Toronto wasn’t on the table either given the border restrictions.

On a call with his agents at 3 a.m., there was some debriefing and the outlines of a short-term plan were sketched out: a quick vacation to decompress and then a more comprehensive strategy for the off-season would be put in place.

Siakam had an exit interview with Raptors president Masai Ujiri, general manager Bobby Webster and head coach Nick Nurse scheduled for 9 a.m. and was walking out of the lobby of the Gran Destino Tower at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort two hours later.

He didn’t look back. He couldn’t put the bubble behind him soon enough.

As the Raptors prepare to open the 2020-21 season against the New Orleans Pelicans in their temporary home of Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla., Wednesday night, one of the most important questions hanging over the franchise is which version of Siakam will lead them onto the floor?

Siakam’s first year as the Raptors’ primary option was like two seasons in one.

Prior to the pandemic, he showed the kind of dynamic two-way play that justified the Raptors signing him to a four-year maximum extension worth $130 million beginning this season.

In the first 53 games of 2019-20, Siakam averaged 23.6 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.6 assists while shooting a respectable 36 per cent from deep on six attempts a game, all while maintaining his status as one of the league’s more versatile and energized perimeter defenders – the six-foot-nine Siakam flying across the floor to contest an otherwise wide-open three on the weak side remained a thing.

But after the restart, and throughout the Raptors’ playoff run, Siakam was a completely different player. His shooting touch abandoned him, his energy seemed off, his rebound rate crashed, his turnover numbers spiked and he finished poorly inside and didn’t draw fouls. As the stakes got higher, his performance – offensively, at least – continued to spiral, and the Raptors’ fortunes with it.

Against the Celtics, he averaged just 14.9 points on 39 per cent shooting, including an anemic 12.5 per cent from deep. Defensively, he competed – one reason Nurse kept playing him 40 minutes a game – but mostly he was a shell of the player being relied on to beat a team of the Celtics’ calibre.

Coming up short a year after helping the Raptors to a championship as a breakout star was tough to swallow. Certainly there was plenty to chew on while decompressing on the beach during a brief Caribbean vacation, and when he arrived in Los Angeles to begin training again.

“I think for me, obviously, not having the result that we wanted as a team and then, for me personally, not playing how I wanted to do,” Siakam said when asked if he approached the off-season differently. “For me, my summer – or off-season – is always focused on just going back and [getting] better; working on things and making sure that I come back a better player.

“And I think it was no different [this time], but obviously with a little edge, knowing that we didn't get where we wanted as a team. And then myself, I didn't play the way that I wanted to.”

What went wrong is the question that Siakam and his agents – Jaafar Choufani and Todd Ramasar of Life Sports Agency – and those around him needed to answer to ensure he would resume the steep upward trajectory that has made him one of the league’s best young players.

On a personal level, seeing Siakam’s play fall off in the bubble while powerless to help was difficult for those closest to him.

“Of course I was worried, as a brother, as family, you’re kind of concerned, like, what’s going on,” said Christian Siakam, one four basketball-playing brothers of which Pascal is the youngest. “He’s never been in this situation before. You’re concerned. Is everything OK?”

In broad strokes, the consensus is the forced isolation following the pandemic hit Siakam especially hard. His fitness was compromised by months of relative inactivity and when he couldn’t perform to his standards on the floor, his confidence withered too. He wasn’t the same person after the restart, let alone the same player.

“I mean the world is crazy right now … there's so many different things that we all have to deal with as individuals, and I think it was no different for me,” said Siakam. “Just dealing with different things from the virus, to just all the things that are going on in the world. Family problems to, like, everything … I didn't feel like I was where I wanted to be physically and mentally. … It was weird watching myself.”

The problems began during the lockdown.

Due to visa issues, Siakam had to stay in Toronto and because he was concerned for his health, the health of others and his privacy, he remained in his apartment for weeks at a time, venturing out only in the evenings for walks, with his brother Christian, doing errands.

There were in-home workouts the Raptors set up, but Siakam didn’t respond to them the way some others did – Serge Ibaka and OG Anunoby were in similar circumstances in Toronto but played some of their best basketball after the NBA’s four-month hiatus. When Siakam was finally able to travel to the U.S. and begin training before the restart, an athlete who thrived on his fitness and quickness was moving in quicksand.

“I would equate it to flying into a windshield,” said Choufani, one of his agents. “It’s the extremes, I think. You’re constantly going and then you stop suddenly – I think people’s bodies react differently. And mentally there’s an adversity there. You’re in the bubble, they’re looking for answers and physically you’re not responding the way you normally would.

“He doesn’t party, he doesn’t drink, there’s none of that. You just have to assume it’s the being stagnant and that’s the reaction that came and then the pressure of it all.”

Dealing with pressures on and off the floor is part of the entry-level job description for NBA players. Figuring out how to deal with them when things go wrong is a career-defining skill. Siakam’s new status as a "max player" only makes the spotlight hotter.

“I think just the lens that people view him in has changed,” said Raptors guard Fred VanVleet. “I think depending on what kind of glasses you’ve got on when you’re watching him, you’ll see what you want to see. I think, for me at least, I think that he looks like himself. And I said it the other day, I’m excited about the year that he’s going to have and he’s going to be a big key for us this year and a big part of what we do. So, we’re all excited and we’ve got his back and just ready to get out there and get it going … [but] I’m not sure if Pascal is getting that benefit of the doubt anytime soon.”

Kyle Lowry says he dealt with his playoff failures earlier in his career by reading and absorbing every criticism and using them as fuel.

That wasn’t Siakam’s approach, however.

“Obviously, I know a lot of things went wrong and I wasn’t excited about it. But I think, for me, people talking about whatever doesn’t really matter. So I don’t pay attention to it,” he said. “I want to be happy and find that joy again of just playing and having fun and I don’t think me focusing on what people say is going to help me do that. I don’t really focus on that.”

Instead, guided by his agents, he channelled his energy into how he can continue on the path that led him from being an unheralded "energy" player taken late in the first round to becoming an all-star and All-NBA player in his fourth season.

But Siakam’s stumble in the bubble may have provided him a jumpstart in that critical area that is fast becoming an arms race of sorts across the NBA. Always a hard worker, Siakam was determined to become a smarter and wiser one, too.

“All these guys, the ones who are at the top level, that make All-NBA, all-star, max players, that’s what they do,” said Choufani. “That’s what you have to do. There is no rest. You have to put in more.”

Ramasar’s analogy is of the athlete as the Formula 1 car supported on all sides with a multi-disciplinary pit crew dedicated to peak performance.

There have been reports that the ageless LeBron James spends more than $1 million on personal support staff to keep him playing at an MVP level as he heads into his 18th season. It’s an approach Raptors veteran Lowry has been ahead of the curve on for years and a big reason he’s gunning to make his seventh straight all-star appearance in his age-35 season.

Just getting shots up and lifting in the off-season won’t cut it anymore.

“I was just laughing with Kyle this morning before practice,” said VanVleet, who broke in with the Raptors with Siakam and, similarly, is in the first year of a lucrative new contract to begin his fifth season at age 26. “When I just came into the league, some of the things [Lowry] did I couldn’t really understand it. Like, I wasn’t in the space to understand why he did certain things on the court or off the court, at practice, outside of practice, at the games. Now I’m like, ‘I see.’

“…It’s like a ticking time bomb that you’re fighting against as you continue to get older. You’re trying to get better and your body is going the other way. So you’ve got to keep being creative and keep finding new ways to get better and that’s the fun part about it, but that’s the challenging part about it.”

Siakam has always been a hard worker – his breakout was in many ways launched in off-season skills sessions with Rico Hines in Los Angeles that were gathering views on social media well before he started putting NBA defenders in a blender.

But the juxtaposition of his lack of proper preparation heading into the restart with his sub-standard play in the bubble put into sharp relief the value of the work he had always done and, simultaneously, whet his appetite for more.

Fortunately, his agents have pushed to be on the cutting edge of sports science, believing it can be an area they can separate their agency and their clients from the pack in a highly competitive market.

It helped, too, that Siakam signed an off-season endorsement deal with Red Bull and in the process gained access to the energy drink brand’s team of sports science experts.

By the time Siakam had finished his vacation, his off-season plan was assembled and in place.

All the elements of his training and performance – from strength training to skills development to nutrition to biometric analysis – would be coordinated and supervised by Dr. Andrew Barr, founder of Los Angeles-based Quantum Performance, which offers leading-edge training and recovery methods to some of the best athletes in the world.

Barr has worked with Siakam for three years and been impressed with his professionalism, but he sensed a different and broader level of commitment and openness this past off-season. With the wounds of his playoff failures still fresh, Barr had a client willing to go the extra mile to return to his pre-pandemic heights and beyond.

“I think what’s really changed, or what the difference is, he’s got perspective and experience now,” said Barr. “He’s reflected on things he knows he needs to do to maintain and to improve.

“When he wasn’t able to do the things that helped him prepare for that that was a good realization for him, how important it is for him to have the right prep and do the right things.

“His perspective now is more open and trying to grow and trust in people that are there to help him and trust in the process and be open to try things he hadn’t done before to get gains he maybe didn’t value as much. He’s got a growth mindset.”

Most NBA players have off-season access to individual skills trainers, physiotherapists and strength coaches. What was different about Siakam’s program, though, was the level of detail and the coordination.

Barr would lead weekly conference calls to make sure everyone was on the same page. It was vital to make sure the strength and condition work was complementing specific attributes Siakam was trying to develop on the court – balance and power off one leg at the rim, for example – annd that the physiotherapy program was properly identifying and correcting deficiencies that enhanced his strength work, and that all of it was being done in a progressive way so he wasn’t fatigued and at risk of injury.

Siakam consulted with a nutritionist to help him identify diets that fuelled both performance and recovery. He worked with a sports psychologist to help identify useful thought patterns and habits and displace less productive ones. His blood was tested to make sure he was resting, eating and healing optimally. He even committed to documenting the process in a multi-part mini-series on his YouTube channel.

“This year I put extra focus on it, making sure … outside of basketball I can look at everything and know that I put everything in my game and I make sure that I was healthy; eating the right things; and have a strength and conditioning person with me all the time to make sure that I keep, stay, at my best and things like that,” said Siakam.

It was dizzying at times, and hard to process even for someone who gave up soccer for basketball as a 16-year-old and has been navigating the fast track ever since.

“Sometimes just getting on a call with those people was just crazy to see that amount of people just focusing on me and making sure that I’m good and wanting to make me the best player that I can be,” said Siakam. “I think we did an excellent job – my team, my agent, all the people around me just making sure I had everything that I needed.”

Siakam is optimistic that what has been a significant investment of his time, money and trust will pay off, not only now but in the future.

At the very least, being back in the gym, in his element, fighting back against diminished expectations, felt comfortable to him.

“It was almost like a slap in the face,” Christian said of his younger brother’s bubble struggles. “He got hit in the face, he shook it off and now it’s time to get up and be greater. He loves that challenge.”

Entering his fifth season, Siakam is trying to put both the best and worst season of his career in the rear-view mirror as he gets settled in Tampa where the Raptors will call home for the first half of the 2020-21 NBA campaign.

“We all get better, man, we all try to improve and for me, from where I came from to be at this level is a blessing,” Siakam said. “And I always want to improve and get better [and] find things that I can do better to help me become the best player I can be.

All those things you learn, you learn on the fly and I’ve always been able to do that.”

He’ll get to leave the bubble, and all it represented, behind for good when the clock turns over to start a new season Wednesday night.

Siakam is confident his new approach will bring back his old self.

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