To go where the Raptor hasn’t gone before.
This is the task that Pascal Siakam assigned himself in the 2022-23 season. That’s what he means – at least in a literal sense – when the 28-year-old veteran says he wants to be one of the “Top Five” players in the NBA this season.
For the sake of argument, let’s say the top five means the All-NBA first team or finish in the top five in the MVP vote. It’s the rare air the top teams in the league breathe, with MVP awards and final prizes representing the cost of admission.
Sicam wants in.
“It’s all about getting better this season,” he said on a media day about setting his goal as his seventh season approaches.
“I felt like, yeah, it’s time to take another step. I always do that. And I try every [year] to take a step. I think for me, after my year in, I just accomplished that level of play — I’ve been in the NBA, I’ve been an All-Star, and I want to be in the top five in the league. I want to be one of the best, and I will do everything in my power to make it happen.”
It is a huge peak to climb. The best players in franchise history, at the height of their power, couldn’t manage it.
Vince Carter never got there. Chris Bush didn’t. DeMar DeRozan failed, and so did Kyle Lowry. Kowhi Leonard was the closest thing to a Raptor, but his load management system kept him away from any kind of official recognition – he was Toronto’s second All-NBA team and ninth in the MVP vote.
Carter, Bush and DeRozan have all earned the NBA Second Team Honors once in their careers in Toronto. Lowry did not get past the third team.
Obviously, being in the “top five” is a personal matter. Who would really argue against LeBron James or Kevin Durant being one of the top five players in basketball, even if injuries or a team’s lack of success prevented them from getting the kind of end-of-season recognition that is usually among the best to earn?
So whether it materializes in terms of the entire NBA season or the MVP votes is one thing. But the real story would be if Siakam could bring himself into the discussion. Could it happen?
“Absolutely. No doubt about it,” his friend, teammate and fellow All-Star candidate Fred Vanfleet said that day. “He has the toolbox, there’s nothing on the field that he can’t do. [We need to] Finding ways to support him, put him in positions to be great and continue to lead us.
Siakam has been an All-NBA twice in the past three seasons—the second team in 2019-20 and the third team last year—so by math, it puts him somewhere in the top 10 or 15 in the league, although those limits are fluid.
However, it is not the type of goal that you can openly achieve and get away with. He’s even earned some respect for his excitement.
“I think it says a lot about his personality and his makeup (which he said),” VanVleet said. “…he seems to be having fun again, coming back safely and just playing at NBA caliber level; now we have to make him a top 5 player in the league. That’s what he wants and we have to help him do that.”
If it did, it would certainly be in favor of the raptors. I’ve done a quick study of the statistical thresholds that must be met to earn an All-NBA first team over the past three years, and one thing that stands out is the team’s success: All-NBA first team players since 2019-20 have played on teams that have played with a 51-win pace. (Allowing the epidemic to shorten the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons).
With a year approaching 48 wins and trying to gain momentum in a very tough Eastern Conference, there’s no doubt the Raptors will take it.
But it also means doing it absolutely, offensively and with a high degree of efficiency.
At his peak last year — from December 1 through the end of the regular season — Siakam averaged 23.8 points, 8.8 rebounds and 5.6 assists in a 49.9 percent shot. He overcame a slow start after off-season shoulder surgery to perform the relatively rare stunt of earning an All-NBA recognition without being named an All-Star mid-season.
The production is certainly impressive, especially since Siakam’s increase coincided with the Raptors’ 38-21 finish (which translates to a 53-win tempo, which might be worth noting).
But the benchmark for the All-NBA first team is incredibly high. In the past three years, the only person selected to the first team with an average of less than 25 points per game has been Leonard in the 2019-20 season – his first season with the Clippers – and he delivered 24.8.
Average cut-off streak for the past three seasons? Only 28.1 points, 9.1 rebounds and 6.7 assists with a player efficiency rating of 27.5.
Sekam will need his career peaks in all three major fund point categories to make it happen. So far, during his six seasons, his high water marks are 22.9 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 5.3 assists.
It’s a tough job. The means of doing so are almost secondary, although his three-point shot improvement – he was just below the league average of 34.4 per cent last season – would help, and reaching the free-throw line more than 5.6 times would likely be. Another priority game. But for now, having set his goals in the universe, Siakam is focused on the process.
“I don’t think I need to explain myself, I just said what I said,” he said Thursday after day three of training camp in Victoria. “[I] You just have to be a better player [for it to happen] I think we have to win as a team. I think, for me, that’s what I focus on. I obviously have goals individually but that doesn’t matter until we get to a point where we are a big team in the league or we are there. All of this will come with everything else.”
Siakam’s work ethic is undoubtedly.
“Pascal is one of the toughest workers I’ve ever seen,” said Jim Birch of the Raptors Center. “When he wakes up in the morning, I don’t even think he eats breakfast or stretches. He exercises for hours before a workout; he trains, and then he trains for another hour after a workout. I’ve never seen anything like it before. I think it’s going to be very special, soon. This will be A really big year for him.”
But being great isn’t just about skill or effort. It’s about believing in yourself to an almost illogical level. There’s not much room for guesswork when you’re trying to be one of the best players in the world.
On that front, there’s optimism from those who know him well, too.
The Raptors added one of Siakam’s mentors – player development specialist Rico Haynes – to head coach Nick Nurse’s coaching staff in the off-season. It was in the Hines summer pick-up rounds on campus at UCLA as Siakam began to show his potential ahead of his breakthrough season in 2018-19.
Expanding his skills over the years has been one thing, but Hines has seen Siakam develop the kind of relentless mindset that elite players should have.
“His mentality, you know?” Heinz said, when asked about the top ways he’s seen Siakam grow lately. “He’s always been a nice guy. Now he’s getting a little meaner. You know what I mean? That’s a good thing.”
We want them to keep growing in that aspect, because that’s what it takes to be an elite, just his mentality. That was a big thing, his mentality of being addicted to being cool… and that’s the biggest growth I’ve seen.”
How does that translate? For Siakam, that means getting rid of his desire to avoid mistakes or shouldering the burden of needing games to unfold a certain way only to get discouraged when they don’t.
It’s a normal reaction, but stars can’t face those kinds of setbacks. They have too many people to rely on to let bad stretches or poor performance get in the way of a great game or moment to come. Not to be selfish but to be arrogant in your belief in yourself.
Siakam is working on it.
“I think for me, over the years, I’m just the player that I am, I want to be perfect,” he said. “It’s like it’s hard. I miss an opportunity and I go crazy and every day I have to hear that… It’s okay, you don’t have to get stuck in every shot and want to make everything perfect. Like, it’s okay [to miss shots] Because you put work into it.
“This is my mentality,” Siakam added. “Just develop as a player, understand that and know you can miss five shots in a row, but just take the same shots because you believe in it, and you work on it every day.”
If Siakam can stick to that, stay healthy, and lead the Raptors into the kind of season they think they can get — even if the rest of the league hasn’t seen him yet — he could end up at peaks the Raptors have never climbed.