One Step Closer To Whole

by Vivek Jacob

The Raptors have been back in action for 19 days now. Promising signs have already been delivered over the course of a 6-5 start, and whether it be Scottie Barnes making a highlight reel play, the trio of Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, and Gary Trent Jr. executing in-game on the work they put in during the off-season, or hometown favourite Dalano Banton stepping in and making a positive contribution, Pascal Siakam has been there every step of the way to cheer his teammates on from the sidelines.

On Sunday afternoon against the Brooklyn Nets, it was time to leave the cheerleading to someone else. After ending his 2020-21 season abruptly due to a shoulder injury that required surgery for his left labrum in the off-season, Siakam heard a loud ovation when his name was announced among the starters and went on to make an encouraging season debut with 15 points, four rebounds and two blocks in 25 minutes. 

“It's a big moment, and I tried hard not to make it a big thing,” Siakam said. “Today I was laughing on Open Gym because I was telling them I don't want to make it a big deal, and then he comes to my house and filmed me going all the way to the arena, and it's like -- yeah, so I tried not to but I know how important it is, and obviously I'm super happy and super excited to be back in Toronto.

“It's been so long, playing in this arena, and just playing with my teammates and seeing the fans, so yeah, it was a great moment and obviously wanted to get a win but it is what it is.”

Toronto lost 116-103 after struggling shooting from the outside where they were 7-for-30 (23.3 percent), grabbed just eight offensive boards when they averaged a league-leading 14.4 coming in, and couldn’t come up with difference-making solutions against the Nets’ superstar duo of Kevin Durant and James Harden who combined for 59 points, 17 rebounds, and 15 assists.

What the Raptors can take heart from is the first half performance where they teased both how stifling their length can be on the defensive end as well as exhilarating and effective getting out on the break. After anticipation throughout the off-season of how tantalizing the trio of Siakam, Anunoby and Barnes could be, Toronto got a limited dose due to both Siakam being on a minutes restriction as well as Barnes landing himself in foul trouble.

“It’s given us another athletic, skillful player out there,” Nurse said of what Siakam adds to the team. “I think the second quarter was -- that’s how you’d draw up what it had to look like, we were everywhere. Every time somebody turned, somebody else was there and then we were out and running. Again, that’s a big improvement area, I think we’re turning a lot of those turnovers into buckets, making some good decisions on that for the most part. The more bodies we have, the harder we should be able to play.”

Khem Birch missed the game due to some swelling in his knee, and while the MRI result came back negative, the 29-year-old will need a couple days of rest to bring the swelling down and will be considered day-to-day thereafter. Yuta Watanabe remains out after reaggravating the left calf injury that has kept him out since early in preseason.

Their returns will come soon enough but this day has been a long time coming for Siakam and takes the Raptors one big step closer to being whole again. Having to undergo surgery for the first time in his life, he opened up about being scared and crying in a way he hadn’t since his father passed away when Vice President of Player Health and Performance Alex Mckechnie informed him of the need for surgery. Siakam had joked on Media Day that, being from Cameroon, he was always of the opinion that there could be some type of natural remedy to his situation and so to take the surgical route was a sobering reality when also considering the projected timeline of approximately six months would wipe out all his plans to work on his game during the summer.

“I think about all the people that put in the amount of work that they did to get me to this point,” Siakam said. “Shoutout to Robert at Meyer Institute (of Sport) in LA, every single day from the beginning just going in, they did an incredible job out there. Obviously, Alex, and then when I was back with the Raptors, Amanda. The dedication, I really appreciate those guys, just every single day being in the gym with me.

“I could be a handful sometimes but they’re out there everyday. Big shout out to Amanda, I want to say her name again, she’s been incredible for me and just the support from the Raptors, my team, my agent, my family.”

Siakam’s mentality to overcome the setback was to reflect on those in the world who are forced to deal with a lot worse and so while he felt bad in the moment, it was about waking up each day with the spirit of wanting to get better each day and understanding no one was going to feel sorry for him. Having the support of his inner circle of friends and family was also vital, the ones he knows support him through thick and thin and whether he scores 40 points or zero.

The injury also served some life lessons for Siakam, who admitted to learning to come out of his shell and be more vocal so that he could help the team in any way possible. He admitted to feeling exhausted after just the first three minutes, and not being as loud as he’s been sitting on the bench purely because he was so tired. It will take more reps to get himself into game shape, but the Raptors will much prefer this to the latter.

With just under six minutes remaining in the game, Siakam posted up against Blake Griffin, spun around him and drew the foul while making a fadeaway jumper. It was his patented move, one that left the 27-year-old smiling ear-to-ear. It was a moment of unfiltered joy for the young veteran, a reminder of just how much it means to him to be able to play the game he loves at the highest level.

“I just wanna be happy, give everything that I have, just go out there and play as hard as I can for my team,” Siakam said. “This year, we have a very good team, I think the potential is there. We just have to continue to work hard and play to our identity and hopefully we can win some games.”

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