With Pascal Siakam nearing return, how good can this Raptors team be?

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It was almost a year ago this week that ’s career took a sudden turn for the better after a long battle to find his form after injury – the final stage in him getting his career fully on track after some hiccups in the previous two seasons.

It has been on an upward path ever since, but as the Raptors dynamic forward gets ready to return from his latest setback it’s interesting to look back and see how far he’s come.

Early last December, Siakam had returned from off-season shoulder surgery, but simply didn’t look himself after missing a summer of development, three weeks of training camp, and the first 10 games of the regular season.

All of which was understandable but given that Siakam was coming off a poor finish to the 2019-20 season and 2020-21 campaign where not only did his performance suffer but Siakam butted heads at times with head coach Nick Nurse, it was hard to know whether his early season struggles were just rust, or if there were larger issues at work.

But after a few sub-par games, Siakam took the initiative to sit down with Nurse, talk through some of his on-court challenges and then went out against the Washington Wizards and put up 31 points and got to the free throw line 12 times and has played at an all-NBA level almost without interruption for 12 months, with the Raptors Won-Loss record the beneficiary.

The situation is not exactly identical. This time it’s a relatively minor pulled groin that has kept him out of the lineup for nearly a month, not a shoulder surgery that had him limited for several months. He’s been back at practice for a week now and is likely to return to action this week.

The 10-9 Raptors host the Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday night – Siakam is listed as questionable – and then head on the road to New Orleans and Brooklyn Wednesday and Friday, respectively.

When he returns, the Raptors know exactly what they’re getting: one of the best and most versatile performers at both ends of the floor.

Yet a year ago this time there were questions about Siakam’s play and even his fit with Toronto.

Now the only question is when he can get back, get fit and how long before he picks up playing like the borderline MVP candidate (24.8 points, 9.3 rebounds, 7.6 assists, leading the Raptors in all three categories) he proved himself to be through the first month nine games he played.

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The distance Siakam has come in the space of a year can be seen in how he’s carried himself: since being hurt: making sure he’s present to lead, encourage and lift his teammates.

It’s not a departure from what Siakam brought before. It’s just that his role with the team has evolved as he’s transitioned to veteran status, and he’s embraced the responsibility more fully than ever before.

“I’m never going to do something outside of who I am as a person,” he said after practice Sunday. “I kind of realized that from the way I go about my business. I always thought that was going to be enough for me to have people be attentive when you talk. [I didn’t want to be] … the main person who feels like your voice is always heard and it feels like, ‘Oh, man, can he shut up’ kind of thing. [I want to be] somebody that when he talks, you know that it means something. That’s who I always wanted to be because that’s me anyway. I don’t go around just talking all the time. I think the work and what I do as a player just speaks for itself. Sometimes that does the job more than the talking.”

Earlier in his career, Siakam was seen as reluctant to lead and tended to retreat to himself when adversity struck. He didn’t see providing anything other than an example as being his place.

But now?

This past month the 28-year-old has been seen walking through O.G. Anunoby through finer points of making reads when attacking the basket or gathering or huddling with his teammates to remind them that every injury represents an opportunity in the NBA, and for the club’s reserves to seize the moment; words that resonate coming from a late first-round pick who went from G-League assignee to a maximum contract extension in three seasons.

“I just thought we’ve been losing. Sometimes the mood is a little off,” said Siakam. “That’s normal. That’s basketball. We have competitors out there, people that want to win. Our team, we have a lot of injuries, a lot of things happening, it’s easy to get away from the focus of everything.

“I wanted to make sure that everyone knows that we’re going through things that are not normal. It’s not like we have all our players, and everything is great. It’s not good times, but we’ve got to stay together in those moments … when the good times come, we’re gonna enjoy them as a team. We’ve just gotta know that it’s gonna pass. I think for it to pass we’ve got to stay focused, and focus on ourselves and put the work in, which is the most important thing.”

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It’s the kind of step leaders take and one that Siakam is more comfortable and confident in making.

“It seems like it is fairly comfortable to him now. I’m not asking him to do it,” said Nurse earlier this week. “He’s coming forward and saying ‘hang on a second coach’ or whatever, and I think he is trying to be helpful, even in 1-on-1 situations. It’s good. I think that’s his station with this team and that’s his role with this team right now. He’s one of the leaders and that comes with some responsibility and he’s taking it on gracefully …. It also shows a deep understanding and care for the team, right? He wants the team to do well, and he’s going to do whatever it takes to make sure the team does well.”

It goes without saying that the Raptors will do well – or at least better – when Siakam is back and up to speed. In the nine games he was in the lineup Toronto was 5-4 but ranked fourth in net rating, fourth in offensive rating and sixth in defensive rating and led the NBA in fastbreak points per game.

Since his injury – which has overlapped with injuries and illnesses to every other starter save Anunoby as well as at least three key rotation pieces – the Raptors are 23rd in Net Rating, 22nd in offensive rating, and 19th in defensive rating, and 13th in fastbreak points, which is significant swing factor in the Raptors overall production.

That they managed to get through his absence – and having so many others miss games — with a 5-5 record is a small miracle.

And now it could be that the worst is over, as Siakam was joined in practice Sunday by , who has missed the last two games with what Toronto has declared a knee sprain, and , who has missed four games with an ankle sprain and then a non-Covid illness. Both are listed as questionable for Monday’s game. As well the slump that Gary Trent Jr. has been in – he’s shooting 30.3 per cent from the floor and 17.5 per cent from three since Nov.4th – can’t last forever.

Hard times never do, and Siakam is proof.

A year ago around this time Siakam shook off a long period of rust and come external doubts began playing the best basketball of his career, and not coincidentally the Raptors took off and began their surprising push from 12th in the East to fifth by season’s end.

Back then no one was sure exactly what to expect from the Raptors’ most talented player. Those questions don’t exist anymore.

The only questions now are when he can return, and how good this version of the Raptors can be.



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