Siakam finds joy, ready for a new season

by Chris O'Leary

Pascal Siakam watched the film from the fall and struggled with what he saw. 

He recognized the lanky, versatile forward on the court, the All-Star that had come from basketball’s fringes to stand at the cusp of a seemingly unlimited basketball future. He saw the body, recognized the movement on the court, down to the No. 43 jersey. 

But at the same time, it didn’t look like him. 

“It was weird, watching myself,” he said on Thursday, his first public comments since the end of Game 7 of the East semifinals, when the Boston Celtics had ended the Raptors’ season. 

“I didn’t recognize myself in terms of just having fun. I am always somebody that has fun playing the game. I love this game and I...never want to be able to play the game without any joy. 

“That’s something I didn't see myself, which...for me, I just want to have fun and I just want to be able to play the game, work hard, have fun. That's something I want to get back to.” 

The bubble proved to be a safe place for players, with zero positive Covid tests surfacing over the three-plus months that it took to play out the season, but it wasn’t a kind place to everyone. It was a mental grind being isolated from the outside world. The pandemic raged on, the world went through waves of racial unrest and life went on through all of that, with the league’s players removed from it. 

“The world is crazy right now. There are so many different things that we all have to deal with as individuals and I think it was no different for me, just dealing with different things from the virus to all of the things that are going on in the world, family problems to everything,” Siakam said. 

“I didn't feel like I was where I wanted to be, physically and mentally.” 

After a four-month hiatus from basketball, it started to catch up with Siakam in the bubble. His regular-season numbers: 22.9 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists, a steal and just under a block per game, took a hit when the games mattered the most. He put up 17 points per game in Florida against the Nets and Celtics and shot just 39.6 per cent from the field. His 18.9 per cent rate from three was almost half of what it was pre-Florida, where he was hitting 35.9 per cent from deep. 

Siakam has spent this short off-season working on those two things, the physical and the mental, to be ready for this unique season, which tips off on Dec. 21. Each of his four NBA off-seasons have been about improving as a player. This year, he added some focus to the off-court side of his development. 

“It was kind of the next step in terms of having a crew of people that are put together that's going to focus just on me,” he said. “From (a personal trainer) to strength and conditioning to a nutritionist and a chef. 

“I think this offseason was probably the whole package for me. I thought it went well and I'm super excited about the season and the future in general.” 

After that Game 7 loss, Raptors guard Kyle Lowry said he’d tell Siakam to read every negative thing that was written about him, to use the criticism as fuel for his off-season training. That mentality stoked Lowry’s fire going into the 2015-16 season. Siakam’s approach to any negative press he’s received has been different. 

“I think we all deal with things differently,” Siakam said. 

“For me, if I listened to people I would never be what I am today. That’s something that I've never done in my life. I'm not going to start today. I've never paid attention to it. 

“I was disappointed in the fact that we didn’t win, obviously and then the fact that I didn't play the way that I wanted to. I don't think anybody could be more disappointed than I was but I don't listen to anybody. I know myself and I'm such a hard worker and I put so much into the game. 

“I want to be happy and find that joy again of just playing and having fun. I don't think focusing on what people say is going to help me do that.” 

Every off-season brings change and with this one, the Raptors are getting to work in Tampa with a new-look frontcourt, after Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka signed with the Lakers and Clippers, respectively as free agents. There are new big men to welcome into the fold, in Aron Baynes and Alex Len and a likely increased role for Chris Boucher. Heading into his fifth season, Siakam’s role will continue to evolve. He’s studied Lowry, Ibaka and Gasol and taken things from them, along with Kawhi Leonard and DeMar DeRozan. 

“You learn those things and as you grow, and your role kind of changes,” he said. 

“Now I have to figure out a way to talk a little bit more with Serge gone. Serge was kind of that voice for most of us sometimes. I think just being a leader, (there are) different things that I have to continue to be better at.” 

Through the off-season change and through the tumult that settling into a temporary home will bring, the Raptors will need Siakam at his best. 

“I'm in a good place right now,” he said. “I’m happy and excited about the future and I just feel like I have that joy again.”  

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