Never Bored Again: Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow for Pascal Siakam

Abe Beame dives into why the lengthy Cameroonian forward and the Toronto Raptors have struggled so much in 2021 and how American sports fans' obsession with potential over the present has crafted a...
By    April 8, 2021
Photo courtesy of Pascal Siakam’s Instagram

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Abe Beame still gets nauseous whenever he sees the Brooklyn Nets’ Basquiat uniforms.

There’s an old adage when it comes to car buying that goes something like, “your purchase loses a third of its value when you drive it off the lot.”

When it comes to assets in the league, the saying goes that a draft pick is always worth more than a drafted player. The second the pick is made, it’s worth is incalculably diminished.

I recently saw a very smart basketball guy on the internet, befuddled, besides himself as the trade deadline approached and he scoffed at a report. An insider had tweeted that teams were interested in “buying low on Aaron Gordon”. He couldn’t understand how that concept was possible. How can you buy low on a player in the midst of the best season of his career? He apparently didn’t understand that Gordon had officially been driven off the lot. That the idea of Aaron Gordon and his once limitless potential in the market had been replaced by the finite reality of who Aaron Gordon is. The Nuggets got him for Gary Harris, rookie R.J. Hampton, and of course, a protected 2025 first round pick.

My point is as human beings, or at least as Americans, or at least in the NBA, we tend to value the future of things more than their present. We look ahead to the horizon, to the gleam of neon off the chrome, we breath in the intoxicating fresh scent, and wonder what could be, as we tolerate and generally shit on what is. Now is depressing, boring and bleak, but tomorrow the world will change for the better, we will at last realize the potential that is seemingly eternally just beyond our grasp.
I fell in love with Pascal Siakam, the loping Toronto Raptors loping wing from Cameroon, who turned 27 a few days ago and was drafted by the Raps with the 27th pick in the 2016 draft. Two winters later, he emerged from the mists of Toronto’s vaunted bench mob to become a household name. Seemingly overnight, he increased his rookie year scoring from 7 points per game to 16. For the atmospheric leap, he was rewarded with the Most Improved Player Award. Siakam is the type of player I, and many other obsessive basketball nerds, are predisposed to love. There’s was one specific play I’ll never forget, my thunderbolt, in the midst of a 26 point triumph in a 3 point win vs. the Warriors in November of 2018:

Julian Schnabel’s great biopic of his once friend and rival, Jean Michele Basquiat, opens with thoughts on talent and the career of Vincent Van Gogh — how Van Gogh lived in obscurity, and was only discovered and appreciated posthumously. How that parable scarred us as a society. How the human condition demands discovery, the dream of unearthing and elevating a brilliant artist who has yet to get their due.

This explains Siakam, and our general thirst for the bright and shiny new thing. We want to be able to type first in the comment section of the next Draymond, or Giannis, or Immanuel Quickley Nikola Jokic. As game has widened to a global scale, the potential for scouting that rough diamond further and further afield has increased exponentially, and with it, the inherent risk of whiffing big on lesser known quantities. The difference between a Luka Doncic and a Dragan Bender appears a gaping chasm now, but four teams passed on Luka and one team traded him. Even for those that guessed “right” on Luka, it was still a guess, and Bender’s number four pick in the same draft that Siakam was taken, was at least defensible at the time. Plenty of scouts and GMs were high on him, they were just all wrong.

Raptors President of Basketball Operations, Masai Ujiri, is rarely wrong. He is a master at finding value in distressed assets, and a riverboat gambler who would pull the trigger on any trade that he thought could improve his team. Who would fire a Coach of the Year if he thought there was someone better available. Siakam’s Cinderella Ball was a Basketball Without Borders Session, where Ujiri, a Nigerian-born former European player who founded the outreach organization Giants of Africa in 2003, first put eyes on him. Here’s what he saw:

A first round SI mock draft from 2016 didn’t list Siakam. A CBS mock predicted he’d be taken 54th. He was labeled a project, a wispy sophomore coming out of tiny New Mexico State, but an intriguing one. Siakam always had the motor, but the first leap was reflected between his freshmen and sophomore years in college. In what became a recurring theme, Siakam came back from the offseason with an entire new repertoire of offensive moves. Suddenly, a mid-range jumper emerged. Before, he’d exclusively been a creature of the paint, using an arsenal of post moves to dust slower defenders unused to this lightning quick, 6’9 sapling with a 7’3 wingspan who attacked the rim it was his salvation. That season he shit double doubles and won WAC player of the year.

People who follow the NBA on a granular level love new cars. We love the emergence of players, the ideas of players, the slow, or stunningly rapid realization of tantalizing skill sets, of personalities on the cusp of becoming fixtures in our league and our lives. Siakam was tailor made to fill this role. He came from obscurity, his game is surprising and electric, highly stylized and fun on both sides of the ball. And of course there’s the tangible, palpable joy he displays on court, for the game. His emergence was like a great romantic comedy, that player that had shown flashes, that you’d watched intrigued from afar and wondered what could be. Suddenly he had traversed the plain between the suggestion and the statement, and he was everything we could’ve ever asked for.

At one point in his life, Siakam’s father believed that his destiny was to become a priest, and in some senses he’s become one. He reflects the agony and the ecstasy, and the ecstasy in agony, the work of the game demands. Siakam is the patron saint of effort. His sacrament is the weight room and the practice court, his bible is sweat, his belief is in himself, and that belief is blind and absolute. In each of his first four seasons playing basketball — in college and in the pros, his game continued to improve and diversify.

2018-2019 was Siakam’s Sunflowers. Masai made a risky move, gambling big on a rental for then injured and disgruntled Spurs star Kawhi Leonard. But alongside Kawhi, Siakam truly found himself. His offensive numbers jumped, but his defense might have been even better. His blocks and steals ticked up. He went from 26th in ESPN’s Real Plus Minus defensive rankings to 9th. But the eye test was even more exhilarating. Siakam was joy incarnate. The pterodactyl, the blur of knees and elbows lead running the Raptor’s aggressive attack, capitalizing on a hint of space and split seconds of hesitation, cramming putback dunks or slicing to the rim when Kawhi was hemmed in on doubles. The Raptors won 58 regular season games, good for second best in the league, and an NBA championship. A favorite Siakam highlight that for me, embodies his on court strides:

Despite their intense recruiting efforts, Kawhi made the unprecedented decision to leave the team he had just won a ring with, absconding to the Clippers. The Raptors were disappointed but nonplussed. They were excited to see what the great jewel in Masai’s crown could do given his own offense to be the focal point of. Even Kawhi seemed to invest in the concept, recruiting and mortgaging the Clippers future for Paul George, something that could be seen as an attempt to create a rich man’s version of the super wings attack he had speared with Pascal in Toronto.

The most difficult thing about trading stocks, in an era in which value has come entirely untethered from reality, is deciding ceiling and floor. When you invest in a rising stock, are you getting in on the first or second level of a company that’s scratching the surface of its potential, or is this assigned value its potential realized? The Raptors bet on the former when they signed Siakam to a 4 -ear, 129 million max extension, joining his fellow draftmates, number one pick and superstar Ben Simmons, and number seven pick and superstar Jamal Murray, as the first players from the class to sign max extensions. Not one league expert batted an eye: the Raptors would’ve been crazy not to.

The trouble began with Covid. When the NBA shut down, the Raptors sat at second in the East with a record of 46-18, and Siakam had leveled up yet again as the focal point of the Raptors offense. He was more than capable, and was voted in as a starter in the February All Star game. When the season resumed in August, Siakam seemed to regress for the first time in his career. The regular season bubble games saw his numbers decline ever so slightly, but the most troubling content was off court. In interviews, in introspective moments, the crisis had given him perspective, gave him rare quiet time to reflect on his incredible journey, consider his success and the weight of his expectations, the role of basketball in his life. He said he struggled to rediscover his joy for the game, which had always been his fuel and secret weapon. In a brutal seven game series with Boston, Siakam was a shell of himself. Suddenly, Boston appeared more talented, perhaps even hungrier.

2021 has been even worse. There was little time between seasons for bionic Siakam to go into the lab and come back improved, honoring the perennial tradition of adding weapons to his game. There was a three week Covid protocol break in which he lost 10-15 pounds. It was more time away from the game. More time for deleterious quiet contemplation. The Raptors have struggled. They didn’t cash in Kyle Lowry, but many believed they would, that Ujiri was unhappy with the product the relocated Raptors were rolling out every night and was ready to retool. It culminated a few weeks ago with Siakam being benched in the fourth quarter of a double digit loss to the Cavs, their eighth straight. He expressed his displeasure, going so over the line that it became a news story. His team fined him 50k. The Raptors are currently 11th in the East.

There are two narratives available that could possibly explain what’s going on with Siakam. The first is that he is a propulsive engine and these prolonged stretches he’s suffered, including a potential bout of Covid, have hurt his game in the short term. That the All Star form he had assumed just a year ago will return with time to build his game and body back for next year’s campaign, ideally at home in Toronto. This was merely a blip, a classic scripted rom com plot turn throwing adversity into a relationship that is preordained to ultimately succeed and make all our dreams come true.

The other is that Siakam is a classic second option. That despite his gaudy numbers and the Raptor’s success pre-Covid in 2019-2020, Siakam can’t be the best player on a championship team. That the matchup with Boston exposed his ceiling as a ball handler and offensive initiator in a long series against elite defensive wings zeroing in on him. In this theory, he needs the focal point on offense to be someone else, freeing him up to frustrate and dismantle defenses with his never ending off ball cutting and rolling. We won’t have answers until next year, and even then, we may never truly know if Covid killed something inside of him for good, or if that something that would allow him to win as a #1 option on the highest level was ever really there.

The other night the Raptors got their asses whooped by the Lakers without LeBron or Anthony Davis. It was a schedule loss, a back-to-back with many of their best players out, and the play was largely make or miss. The Lakers made everything. The Raptors, nearly nothing. Pascal Siakam started slow and more or less stayed that way. He padded his stats with 17 points in fourth quarter garbage time with the Raptors well out of the game, and still only finished with 27 on 7-21. His shot was off from deep, his handle was shaky, he capitalized on a few Spicy P classics in transition, but he mostly rammed his head against the wall of the Lakers still tough and dogged D over and over again to no avail. It was rarely fun to watch.

But there was a bright spot for the Raptors, his name is Chris Boucher. Boucher is a dynamic forward, Canadian by way of St. Lucia; 6’9 with a Siakamesque wingspan (7’4) who has taken a charmingly wooly route to the league. He bounced around lesser college programs before landing at Oregon, where he earned the instant classic moniker, “The Slim Duck”. He went undrafted in 2017, and was briefly a two way player for the Warriors his rookie season, before he was waived and landed with the Raptors in 2018, where he’s been patiently waiting for his opportunity to shine.

That night, he did. Boucher was brilliant for the depleted Raptors on his way to 19 points in 33 minutes, rolling to the rim and dropping hammers, refusing to mail in a game his team was clearly going to lose. He played with fire. With his lean, strong frame, and his long stride, he played like and even physically resembled a player I’d fallen in love with an eternity ago in NBA time. Here’s a little Boucher from Tuesday night:

The Raptors announcing team fretted over the standings. They’re holding onto the long odds of making a play in game by their fingernails. To what end? Who knows. They found themselves watching uninspiring basketball on a Tuesday night in this strange, tropical ring of hell on the west coast of the Floridian peninsula, and they sounded like it.

Except for the moments Boucher slipped through a box out for a tip back, or ran the rim. Then they were animated, they were passionate. Boucher is a year older than Siakam and will likely never approach his talent, but this evening he had something much more valuable, a quality Pascal Siakam will never have again. Through the disappointment of the present, you could hear the tremor in their voices as they dreamed a dream for this still unknown quantity and what he could become. You could almost see the light of the future, and its limitless possibilities, dancing in their eyes.

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