Within the final few minutes of Game 7 between the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics, you could see the urgency of the moment painted on Pascal Siakam’s face as time ran out in the series. Veteran point guard Kyle Lowry had fouled out and the realities of Siakam’s limitations as a first-option offensive initiator and creator were no longer hidden behind the sorcery of the tenured Raptor.
There’s no fun in seeing players as joyful, humble and gifted as Siakam confronted with the inadequacies of their current abilities and overwhelmed by the demands of their role, but I learned not too long ago that in order to bask in any eventual glory, you must savour the journey — it’ll make it that much sweeter. Despite taking a lot of blame for Toronto’s second-round loss, the 26-year-old didn’t leave the matchup against the polished wings of the Celtics empty-handed, as one would think.
Toronto basketball fans are not new to witnessing the growth and development of players. From their humble beginnings as overachieving, spunky non-shooters to reaching the pinnacle of their capabilities under the tutelage of a front office that provides the space for both opportunity and failure, the organization understands that molding cornerstone players requires making them uncomfortable.
Losing is the gateway drug to betterment and success and who would know better than Lowry, made evident by his post-game words dedicated to Siakam: "When we got swept by the Wizards I read every single article. I read every single thing that was said about me — good, bad, evil, terrible, awesome, and I used it as motivation,” Lowry said. “And that's what (Siakam) is going to do. That's the advice I would give him. I think this is a learning experience. I think it's only going to make him a better basketball player, a better man, a better everything. And I would not be surprised to see him come back even hungrier and destroying people."
It was not at all necessary, to say the least, for the six-time All-Star and champion to bring up such an embarrassing loss of the past. But, it's no accident that one of the game's most feverishly intuitive players sees this as nothing more than a required, albeit painful, milestone for the power forward he’s helped mentor.
The Raptors forward is the most unique of archetypes in the grand scope of NBA history. There is quite literally no accurate player comparison for the trajectory of his four-year career thus far, which makes any projected assessments of his profile as an athlete creative guesses at best and arrogant assumptions at worst. So, what exactly do we know about Siakam? Well, to enter the NBA draft having played basketball only several years tells us he’s nothing less than a kinetic savant, with the unique ability to grasp and file drills into the banks of his muscle memory in remarkably short periods of time. This also tells us that his play is incredibly rhythm based, relying on feel and the flow of improvisation rather than the rigid discipline of more classically trained refinement. Since his start as the spark plug bench piece he once was, Siakam seems to enjoy the process as much as the results, and when you witness the fruits of your labour as frequently as he seems to, who wouldn’t?
In his second year as an NBA starter, Siakam followed up a championship postseason in which he scored the last Raptors basket during the final moments of Game 6 of the NBA Finals with a regular season that somehow inspired the same shock and awe from fans. In these playoffs, he was met with the realization that, right now, it begins and ends with him. How he responds to the culture shock of his new surroundings will answer questions about his ceiling and ambitions, but one cannot help but feel comforted knowing he welcomes the challenge.
“It's a learning experience. A lot of people go through these moments and I just feel like it's about responding,” Siakam said after Game 7. “What are you going to get from it? Are you going to take it as a learning experience or are you going to feel sorry for yourself?
“It's an experience. All the greats go through it and you have to learn from it. If you want to be considered one of the best players you have to be able to rise from these moments, and that's something I plan to do.”
Whether he is, at his best, filling the offensive cracks of destabilized defences alongside a superstar, or whether he expands his arsenal to become the equally vital co-star he can perhaps be, we as fans of the sport should relish the process. There is a beauty in the metamorphosis and I, for one, will be watching closely so as to not blink and miss the next chapter of Siakam’s story.
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