The NBA is back. Kind of.
The league is facing their version of a new normal. In their words, it’s a whole new game for everyone. What wonders will the Disney Bubble bring to the teams, players, fans and even the league itself?
How do you become a star in the NBA?
Some players are born superstars, cliché as it sounds. Think LeBron James, Michael Jordan, or Kobe Bryant. Other stars burn bright as soon as they’re step on the court, like a supernova in the vast space of the league. Sometimes they keep that flame bright throughout their career, but if they can’t handle their heat, they fizzle and sputter out rather helplessly.
For Pascal Siakam, his road to NBA glory is unlike any we’ve seen before. Drafted 27th overall in 2016, Siakam wasn’t a well-regarded prospect compared to his peers. Many analysts felt that Toronto made a mistake drafting him so early, since he was considered to be a second-round prospect. This was because of his age (22 at the time of the draft) and perceived rawness in his game. His first season with the Raptors wasn’t anything to write home about, either: He started for the team but only managed less than five points per game. It was just another reason for pundits to believe that the Raptors missed out on other more intriguing prospects like Skal Labassiere (LOL) and Deyonta Davis (double LOL).
What most fans didn’t see, however, was the immense potential brewing in Siakam. He won Finals MVP honors in the G-League in his rookie year, and from then on he started his gradual but unstoppable rise to the top. In his sophomore season, Siakam would be a key part of the vaunted Raptors bench mob that terrorized the league in the regular season, providing tenacious defense and energy.
The next year, Siakam broke out once again, emerging as a worthy second option to Kawhi Leonard’s brilliance. He showed massive improvements both in his statistics and the eye test, earning himself the Most Improved Player award and helping Toronto to their first title in franchise history.
Now, after Kawhi’s departure to sunny Los Angeles, Spicy P has once again stepped up to another level. Despite doubts from experts and fans alike, he has led the resurgent Raptors in their bid to defend their crown. Again, his overall game improved to a point where he was voted as an All-Star starter; a mark of his ascent to the upper echelon of the league.
Siakam’s rise to stardom is unprecedented. No player has had an upward trajectory like his, one that only saw him get visibly better and better every year. In Year 1, he couldn’t even score to save his life. No Raptor fan in his right mind at that time would think that the lanky New Mexico State product would be half of the second-best scoring duo in a Playoff run all the way to a championship, and yet here we are. It’s a testament to Spicy P’s work ethic and talent that he’s been able to improve his game so drastically every year.
This postseason, however, will be the biggest test he’ll face in his career. Throughout his career, Siakam could get by with taking a backseat to the top option and just supporting them from the background. That’s not to say this was a bad thing; in fact, playing his role was his best contribution to the team.
This year though, there’s no more hiding behind The Man, because HE’S now The Man in Toronto. If he has a bad game, he can’t be bailed out by Kawhi popping off. Toronto’s Playoff progress is now tethered tightly to Pascal’s performance. That’s an insanely huge responsibility to be given to a player, especially for someone so new to this whole leading-a-championship-team shebang.
Siakam has done well training for this task in the regular season, leading his team to the second-best record in the East. But he himself should know that regular season is wildly different from the post-season. When the lights are shining bright, and the team is counting on him to deliver in the biggest moments, can Siakam bring his signature spice?
On the flip side, the Raptors management will clearly be keeping an eye on Siakam’s Playoff performance. Masai Ujiri handed Spicy P a massive contract extension last year, cementing him as the franchise cornerstone of the team. He’ll be expected to lead the younger generation of Raptors along with Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell to title contention. It makes sense: Toronto has historically not been able to retain their star players (see: Leonard, Kawhi and Carter, Vince) or get a cornerstone in the first place. Locking up a player who has great potential to be the face of the franchise is an absolute must for the Raptors.
At the same time, this is Masai we’re talking about. He’s one of the patron gods of fleecing other teams in crazy trades. And more importantly, he’s willing to trade anyone and everyone if he feels that the player is underperforming. This is a man who traded literally the only franchise player to stay loyal to the Raptors to get Kawhi. If Siakam can’t parlay his talents into Playoff success, his Raptors tenure might end up as a retelling of The Ballad of DeMar DeRozan.
Obviously, it would be delusional for Ujiri to shop off Siakam if the latter has a bad Playoff run this year. Horrendous as he was in the post-season, DeRozan still got a good four or five years before the Raptors GM decided enough was enough. But first impressions matter a lot, and a stellar title defense could cement Spicy P’s status as the face of the franchise this early into his new contract.
At the start of the season, everyone expected the Toronto Raptors to roll over in the absence of Leonard. And frankly, as a Raptors fan, I was worried a bit myself. This would be Siakam’s first time leading a championship-caliber squad. I expected him to have at least have some growing pains, or worse, completely flop and thrash around.
But Spicy P sees all of our flimsy expectations and laughs at them. People expected him to be just an energy guy off the bench his entire career. He destroyed that. People expected him to shrink under the bright lights of the Playoffs last year. He didn’t, shining nearly as bright as Leonard in their Finals run.
And yet, here we are, with experts expecting Siakam and the Raptors to not be as competitive as they were during their title run last season. If the last few years taught should have taught us something about Spicy P, it’s that he doesn’t give a single damn about our expectations.
So go ahead, count out Pascal Siakam. Forget about him, disregard everything he’s ever accomplished. That’ll just make his victories taste even sweeter – or rather, spicier.