LOS ANGELES -- He hasn’t passed through customs since taking a one-way flight to Los Angeles last summer and still the legacy and legend of Kawhi Leonard lives, breathes and gets buckets in Toronto.
You see it every time Pascal Siakam walks on the court with a strut, and when his number is called more than a bingo player. You see it when he asks for (and gets) the ball in tense moments, and most of all, how he responds in those situations.
He’s developing into a two-way player and filling a very important vacancy for the defending champions … which means Kawhi left behind something more than just the Larry O’Brien trophy and strands of confetti.
Siakam is his protege, and yes, that description applies even though Leonard spent only one season with him. What a season it was -- Leonard blowing into Canada with the gale force of a winter storm, uplifting the Raptors and, in the process, uniting a country by helping Toronto win its first NBA title.
One year with Leonard was evidently more than enough to get a primer on how to be a centerpiece because Siakam is very much taking a star turn. He’s playing inspired ball at a next-level pace and doing a solid (for now) imitation of Leonard.
Based strictly on this small sample size and the hint of what’s probably coming this season, Siakam has got next. His evolution is something to behold and is giving the defending champs a shot of security. It will no doubt also give Kawhi some satisfaction and even some stress Monday when the Raptors visit the Clippers (10:30 ET, NBA TV) and he gets a taste of what he helped create. The two wings will match up for part or most of that game and their interplay should be a tasty subplot within Leonard’s first Raptors reunion game.
“I haven’t really had the opportunity to play against him,” Siakam said, “but I definitely had the privilege of playing with him.”
Siakam is averaging 27.4 points, 9.4 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game, displaying the flexibility that -- like Leonard -- helps him impact games in a variety of ways. Furthermore, not only is he the bonafide first option for the Raptors, his role and importance will be enhanced while Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka nurse injuries.
The Raptors are coming off an inspired road victory Sunday against the Lakers where the shorthanded Raptors halted LA’s 7-game win streak. In the post-Kawhi era, the Raptors are showing the heart of a defending champion at 7-2, but they’ll need Siakam’s presence again against the Clippers and for however long Lowry and Ibaka are out.
“There’s not a Kawhi next to him so he gets to shoot a little more, has freedom a little more,” said Raptors guard Fred VanVleet. “Obviously we based everything around Kawhi last year so I think now it’s shifting to being more around Pascal. He’s playing as well as we thought he would and has gotten better each year and we’re seeing that so far this year. It’s about him being more confident and comfortable. And as we go on and the better he gets, this whole franchise will shift around him.”
The Raptors aren’t exactly shocked by what Siakam is giving. Maybe the timetable has quickened a bit, and they were curious to see what he’d do with more responsibility. But when Raptors president Masai Ujiri gave Siakam a $130 million extension last month, that essentially spelled out their faith in Siakam in a very stark way. Few teams will make that kind of massive, salary cap-filling investment in anyone unless they’ve got a pretty good idea what they’re getting.
I learned a lot, mainly about his poise and how he doesn’t get rattled. I try to do that and add that to my game. When I miss a few shots I just stay confident. That’s something he had.”
At 25 and in his fourth season, Siakam should represent good value -- even at that price.
His true coming out was during The Finals, when he confronted pressure with laughter. In his first Finals game he scored 32 points. In the title-clinching Game 6, he dropped 26 points. He was a solid compliment to Kawhi (the Finals MVP) and is comfortably sliding into Kawhi’s role.
To date, he’s scored 30 or more points four times, including a career-best 44-point game on Nov. 8. His teammates have complete confidence in him, as does coach Nick Nurse because Siakam is getting all the plays that once went to Leonard. In less than four seasons, Siakam has gone from a rookie averaging 4.2 ppg and 15.6 mpg to the reigning Kia Most Improved Player who sees the ball when it counts.
Watching and playing alongside Leonard during the championship run was an invaluable experience Siakam hasn’t forgotten.
“I learned a lot,” he said, “mainly about his poise and how he doesn’t get rattled. I try to do that and add that to my game. When I miss a few shots I just stay confident. That’s something he had.”
Siakam and Leonard had similar paths in that neither was a lottery pick or ticketed to instant stardom and their progression was gradual. Both benefitted from their team’s player development program, too. Siakam, who hails from Cameroon where the coaching, culture and facilities are not up to the standards in the States, needed it more than Leonard.
Both used their athletic ability and work ethic to create the player you see today. Also, they had proper mentors in Tim Duncan (for Leonard in San Antonio) and, in turn, Siakam observed Leonard.
“Pascal learned a lot about being a pro, about what a day looks like being a professional basketball player,” Nurse said. “Kawhi was a serious worker, a 9-to-5er. He came in on his off days and worked. And I think Kawhi’s seen some of that in Pascal. I know they worked out this summer together. He’s learned about having a variety of moves and to do a little bit of everything on the floor, the pick and roll, bringing the ball up, play the post, shoot the three a little more. He learned a lot from him on and off the floor.”
Pointing out Siakam’s drastic increase on offense -- from 4.2 ppg to 7.3, 16.9 and 27.4 this season -- screams the obvious to Nurse: “He’s turning into a prime-time scorer.”
Siakam has grown more comfortable as a 3-point shooter, too, going from seven 3-point attempts as a rookie to 214 last season.
“When you’re as gifted as he is and work hard, you can’t fail,” VanVleet said. “It’s about feeling right. That’s what I work on, making sure he’s feeling good every day, knowing that we got his back, right wrong or otherwise. He’s going to fail sometimes but we’ll be right there behind him. He’s good, down to earth, nothing’s different about him. That’s what makes him so special.”
Now he gets the chance to showcase himself against Leonard. To be considered one of the best, you need to learn from one of the best. Siakam has that going for him now.
“It should be fun,” he said.
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