After tumultuous year, Siakam is emerging as a different kind of NBA star


Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam (43) celebrates after scoring during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Los Angeles Clippers Tuesday, May 4, 2021, in Los Angeles. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP)

In other circumstances it might be the elephant in the room, the thing no one feels comfortable talking about or otherwise is hoping just goes away.

But Pascal Siakam decided to bring it up.

In a wide-ranging and thoughtful interview with The New York Times that ran on Thursday, the Toronto Raptors forward and erstwhile all-star spoke on several topics, including his role, his contract, how those were intertwined in his mind, as well as his relationship with head coach Nick Nurse and the Raptors executive suite.

Oh, and the sudden turn from being a universal fan favourite to being the object of wrath from some segments of the Raptors fanbase.

It was a lot for a player who is still recovering from off-season shoulder surgery and likely won’t be playing meaningful basketball for another eight to 10 weeks.

Siakam could have easily kept laying low – at minimum – until training camp opens on Sept. 28, or even well beyond that other than some updates on his shoulder recovery.

He could have avoided any of the interesting stuff at all and simply let his play shape any narratives for the coming season, since it was his sharp drop off in performance post-pandemic in the NBA bubble and early season struggles in 2020-21 that were the source for much of the drama that has surrounded Siakam since.

What did we learn though?

Siakam-crop3 Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam (43) reacts as his shot at the buzzer doesn’t go in during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz Friday, March 19, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. (Chris O’Meara / AP)

Well, we were reminded at least that Siakam’s story is not to be overlooked; that even six years into his NBA career, he’s still processing how he got from playing casual hoops in Cameroon to the brightest stages in basketball. He’s learning as he goes, in other words.

“At that point in time, I wasn’t really thinking that I was going to make it to the NBA and I was going to be this big. That I was going to be at this level, win a championship. I could never even get myself to dream about those things,” he told The Times when asked about what his 17-year-old self would think about where the 27-year-old version has landed. “One, because obviously, basketball wasn’t my first choice … I just couldn’t see myself doing those things … I planned to go to college for business in Cameroon.”

So perhaps in that context it’s also worth remembering that Siakam’s ascent to stardom and a four-year, $130 million contract after being drafted late in the first round as a high-energy post player in search on an NBA role is different than that of most players with his level of on-court responsibility, who have carried that weight around since they began dribbling, for whom being ‘the man’ was a birth right.

Perhaps in that context we get a picture of an athlete in need of a level of reassurance beyond the big money deal he received in the summer of 2019.

“I had the contract, but I never really felt like I was the guy, to be honest,” said Siakam.

There are likely a few reasons for that, one being that — by personality at least — he wasn’t.

As Siakam pointed out, the Raptors were Kyle Lowry’s team until he signed with the Miami Heat this summer. What he didn’t say but seems apparent is that among the team’s younger core, Fred VanVleet has emerged as the club’s leader — at least in terms of being the on- and off-court tone-setter — and fifth-year forward OG Anunoby’s star is ascending rapidly as well.

After the past year, it feels like Siakam still needs to earn that title.

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But it’s an interesting comment because it was clear that the Raptors wanted Siakam to the ‘the guy’ on the floor. Nurse said so much on multiple occasions, and consistently put Siakam in positions to carry the load offensively, while acknowledging that there would be growing pains as the multi-skilled forward grew into a job he’d never had before, at any level, other than briefly with Raptors 905 early in his professional career.

Siakam’s late-game stumbles last season proved the point, but it wasn’t like Nurse ever took the ball out of his hands. He kept going to Siakam, giving him opportunities to learn the nuances of the toughest job in the sport on the fly.

But Siakam didn’t feel the support he needed. It was part of the fuel that sparked the locker room blow up between him and Nurse last March – between being suspended by the team for disciplinary reasons in January to being benched in the fourth quarter of a loss in February, by March he felt singled out for a Raptors season that had gone off the rails. He had a point. In the NBA, young stars with lucrative long-term deals are protected publicly — even if behind-the-scenes discussions might be more frank and honest, let’s say.

Siakam felt exposed and, combined with the vitriol he was taking on social media for the first time, he felt alone.

These things are a matter of interpretation, certainly, but if that’s how Siakam felt and it contributed to his struggles, at least some of that’s on the Raptors. We might like to pretend that all superstars are born with the kind of hard shell that Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant or Kawhi Leonard are known for, but others have to develop those callouses over time, and need some reassurance along the way.

That, by all accounts, Raptors president Masai Ujiri wasn’t around the team as much as normal during the season with his own contract status up in the air probably didn’t help. Raptors general manager Bobby Webster might run the team day in and day out, but Ujiri remains the culture-setter.

Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam reacts after a foul during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Detroit Pistons, Monday, March 29, 2021, in Detroit. (Carlos Osorio/AP)

According to Siakam, steps have been taken to rectify whatever gap existed last season.

“I think it’s growing, obviously,” he told The Times of his relationship with the team and management. “Because I just think that for me, I feel the love …. I never really felt like there was that [before]. And I think those conversations are happening now.”

We’ll see if Siakam’s revelations smooth the waters once he gets ready to return to the floor in November or early December. Sometimes it’s better to get everything out there rather than let feelings fester, unexpressed.

But there’s a case to be made to simply keep it moving and not dwell on what’s already done.

Because regardless of what Siakam says or doesn’t say, there’s one clear takeaway from the tumultuous past 12 months.

“… This is a sport, right? You get paid the big bucks. You get paid to perform. I get that and I understand it.”

Take care of that, and everything else usually falls into place.

It’s not always the most pleasant lesson to have to learn, but Siakam sounds like he’s got that part figured out.

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