With the right mindset, Siakam could climb to a peak no Raptor has reached

Eric Smith and Michael Grange discuss Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam's goal to be a top five player in the NBA this season and what it takes to be among the league's elite.

To go where no Raptor has ever gone before.

That’s the task that Pascal Siakam has assigned himself heading into the 2022-23 season. That’s what it means — at least in a literal sense — when the 28-year-old veteran says he wants to be one of the “top-five” players in the NBA this season.

For argument’s sake, let’s say top-five means first-team All-NBA or finishing in the top-five of the MVP voting. It’s the rare air breathed by the league’s very best, where MVP awards and Finals runs are the cost of admission.

Siakam wants in.

“It’s all about getting better this season,” he said on media day of his goal setting coming into his seventh season.

“I just felt like, yeah, it’s time to take another step. I always do that. And I try every [year] to take a step up. 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 wanna be a top-five player in the league. I wanna be one of the best, and I’ll do everything I can to make that happen."

It’s a monumental peak to climb. The best players in franchise history, at the height of their powers, never managed it.

Vince Carter never got there. Chris Bosh didn’t. DeMar DeRozan fell short, as did Kyle Lowry. Kawhi Leonard came closest as a Raptor, but his load management regimen kept him short of any kind of official recognition – he was second-team All-NBA in Toronto and ninth in the MVP voting.

Carter, Bosh and DeRozan each earned second-team All-NBA honours once in their careers in Toronto. Lowry never got past third team.

Being ‘top-five’ is subjective, obviously. Who would really argue against LeBron James or Kevin Durant being one of the five best players in basketball, even if injuries or lack of team success prevented them from earning the kind of end-of-season recognition that being among the best of the best usually earns?

So whether it materializes in terms of an all-NBA season or MVP votes is one thing. But the real story will be if Siakam can inject himself into the discussion. Can it happen?

“Absolutely. No doubt about it,” his friend, teammate and fellow All-Star candidate Fred VanVleet said the other day. “He’s got the toolbox, there’s not anything on the court he can’t do. [We need to] find ways to support him, put him in positions to be great and continue to lead us.

Siakam’s been All-NBA twice in the past three seasons – second team in 2019-20 and third team last year – so by the math it puts him somewhere in the top-10 or 15 of the league, though these boundaries are fluid.

Still, it’s not the kind of goal you can make publicly and shy away from it. He’s earned some respect for even bringing it up.

“I think it says a lot about his character and his makeup (that he said it),” said VanVleet. “… 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 5 player in the league. That’s what he wants and we gotta help him do that.”

If it happens, it will almost certainly be to the Raptors' benefit. I did a quick study on the statistical thresholds that need to be met to earn first-team All-NBA over the past three years and one thing that stands out is team success: First-team All-NBA players since 2019-20 have played on teams that have played at a 51-win pace (allowing for the pandemic shortened 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons).

Coming off a 48-win year and trying to gain traction in a very tough Eastern Conference, it's doubtless the Raptors would take that.

But it also means absolutely bringing it, offensively, and with a high degree of efficiency.

At his peak last year – from Dec. 1 to the end of the regular season – Siakam averaged 23.8 points, 8.8 rebounds and 5.6 assists on 49.9 per cent shooting. He overcame a slow start following off-season shoulder surgery to perform the relatively rare trick of earning All-NBA recognition without being named an All-Star at mid-season.

Impressive production to be sure, particularly since Siakam’s surge coincided with the Raptors' 38-21 finish (which translates to a 53-win pace, it may be worth noting).

But the bar for first-team All-NBA is incredibly high. In the past three years, the only person named to the first team averaging less than 25 points a game was Leonard in 2019-20 — his first season with the Clippers — and he put up 24.8.

The average slash line for the past three seasons? Only 28.1 points, 9.1 rebounds and 6.7 assists with a player efficiency rating of 27.5.

Siakam would need career highs in all three major box score categories to pull that off. So far, across his six seasons, his high-water marks are 22.9 points, 8.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists.

It’s a tall order. The means to do it are almost secondary, though Improving his three-point shooting – he was just below league average at 34.4 per cent last season – would help, and getting to the free throw line more than 5.6 times a game should likely be another priority. But for now, having put his goals out in the universe, Siakam is focussing on the process.

“I don’t think I need to explain myself, I said what I said,” he said on Thursday after day three of training camp in Victoria. “[I] just have to be a better player [for it to happen] and I think we’ve got to win as a team. I think, for me, it's what I’m focused on. Obviously I have goals individually but that doesn’t matter until we get to a point where we’re a top team in the league or we’re up there. All that will come with everything else.”

Siakam’s work ethic is without question.

“Pascal’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever seen — ever,” said Raptors centre 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; practises, and then works out for another hour after practice. I’ve never seen anything like it. I think he’s gonna be very special, coming soon. This is gonna be a really big year for him.”

But being great isn’t just about skills or effort. It’s about believing in yourself to a level that’s almost irrational. There’s not much room for second-guessing when trying to be one of the best in the world.

On that front, there is optimism from those who know him best as well.

The Raptors added one of Siakam’s mentors — player development specialist Rico Hines — to head coach Nick Nurse’s coaching staff in the off-season. It was at Hines's summer pick-up runs on campus at UCLA where Siakam began to flash his potential before his breakout season in 2018-19.

The expansion of his skills over the years has been one thing, but Hines has seen Siakam develop the kind of uncompromising mindset that elite players have to have.

“His mentality, you know?” said Hines, when asked about the most important ways he’s seen Siakam grow recently. “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 them to continue to grow in that aspect, because that's what it takes to be one of the elites, is just his mentality. That's been a big thing, his mentality of being addicted to being great … that’s the biggest growth that I’ve seen.”

How does that translate? For Siakam it means shaking off his urge to avoid mistakes or being burdened by the need to have games unfold a certain way only to be discouraged when they don’t.

It’s a normal reaction, but superstars can’t have those kinds of setbacks. They have too many people depending on them to let poor stretches or poor performances stand in the way of a great game or moment to come. It’s not being selfish but being arrogant in your self-belief.

Siakam’s working on it.

"I think for me, over the years, just the player I am, I want to be perfect,” he said. “Like it's hard.  I miss a shot and I get mad and it's just like every day I have to hear that … it's okay, you don't have to be hung onto every shot and want to make everything perfect. Like, it's okay [to miss shots] because you put the work in.

“So that's my mindset,” Siakam added. “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.”

If Siakam can stick to that, and stay healthy, and lead the Raptors to the type of season they believe they can have – even if the rest of the league might not see it yet – he could very well end up on peaks no Raptors has ever climbed.

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