20-5 (soon to be 21-5) 🏀
In many ways, Siakam is the crown jewel of what Ujiri has built in Toronto. Ujiri spoke to the media for the first time since media day on Tuesday, as he was set to host a birthday honouring Nelson Mandela in the evening. Ujiri does this every year as part of the work he does promoting basketball in Africa, but this year is special: Mandela would have been 100 this year, and Wednesday is the fifth anniversary of his death. Mandela is one of Ujiri’s heroes, and the evening is of the utmost importance to him.
It was not a coincidence that Siakam spoke on Tuesday as well: He is one of the greatest individual success stories of basketball on the continent. It was also not entirely unrelated that ESPN’s all-access coverage of the Raptors will mostly air on Wednesday, before the Raptors play the Philadelphia 76ers, who have one of the two greatest modern-day success stories from the continent — Joel Embiid. (Giannis Antetokoumpo was born in raised in Greece shortly after his parents moved there from Nigeria.) Ujiri has wanted more promotion for his team for a long time. That he can use that interest in his team, largely caused by the acquisition of Leonard, to shine a spotlight on basketball in Africa is just smart by someone who cares deeply about the subject. It works the other way, too. It is a symbiotic relationship.
Ujiri is incredibly passionate about his work for the continent. He spoke of the league trying to help create a pan-continental professional league, and the difficulties that come with that effort. As proud as he is with players such as Embiid and Siakam, he is probably more pleased that his building efforts have earned scholarships and viable life paths for people we have not heard of. He sees the practical benefit of that work, too.
Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY Sports
“Honestly, (Africa) it’s a gold mine, and it’s just the challenges of infrastructure and coaching and leagues and structure (that are difficult),” Ujiri said before the Raptors’ practice. “But in terms of physical talent, I’m confident to say there are 10 Embiids walking around, there are 10 whoevers walking around in Africa, so it’s actually interesting that there are people who have gone through their lives that have that athletic ability who haven’t even touched a basketball — but they have that gift. They never had the courts, they never had the opportunity. That’s why it’s a gold mine and people are starting to realize it now. And it’ll become more prominent when we have a league.”
In Episode 429 of Locked on Raptors, Sean Woodley chats with Vivek Jacob about the Raptors; 106-103 loss to the Denver Nuggets. They discuss the Raptors’ continued struggles on the glass and how the problem might be fixed, the general goodness of the Nuggets, and the bench sorta kinda being okay despite all the discourse to the contrary.
The Toronto Raptors president and his Giants of Africa organization is hosting “Mandela 100,” a two-day celebration honouring the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela. It culminates with the Raptors’ game Wednesday against the visiting Philadelphia 76ers that will feature three African players in Toronto’s Serge Ibaka (Republic of Congo) and Pascal Siakam (Cameroon), and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid (Cameroon).
Ujiri said there’ve been talks involving both the NBA and FIBA about the possibility of an African league. The problem is Africa’s infrastructure.
“For me, the challenge for the continent is people see Africa as one continent, one country, and it’s not. There’s 54 countries with 54 different laws, regulations and borders and that’s the challenge for us,” Ujiri said Tuesday. “Once we can have some sort of league it’s going to blow up because you can see that there is talent. It’s a gold mine.
“I’m confident to say there are 10 Embiids walking around, there are 10 whoevers walking around in Africa. There are people who have gone through their lives that have that athletic ability who haven’t even touched a basketball. They never had the courts, they never had the opportunity. That’s why it’s a gold mine and people are starting to realize it now.”
Ujiri was asked about how a player such as Siakam or Embiid would be received in Africa.
“I think I was on a phone call with (American sports executive) Scott O’Neil the other day and he said ‘Embiid goes back to play it’ll be like Muhammad Ali or something,”’ Ujiri said. “It’s why you like the rise of these players with Pascal and Serge and OG (Anunoby, who was born in London to Nigerian parents) and these guys, with this day and age of social media and you can watch highlights on your phone.”
Siakam has grown into a player with immense confidence thanks to a summer filled with hard work and standout results on the court.
“I think my thing is my first step is pretty quick, so it’s hard to recover from my first step and that’s why I can always spin, because I’mma beat you with that first step,” Siakam said,
“(The defender) is off balance and it’s hard to recover. You can predict it sometimes, but that doesn’t mean you can stop it,” he said, crediting in part the soccer skills he developed in his youth in Cameroon.
The move has certainly worked for Siakam, who has hit 71% of his two-point attempts so far, the best mark in the NBA amongst any player who has suited up for at least 25 games.
It’s not just the spin, though. When Siakam gets a full head of steam it’s resulted in nearly an automatic two points.
Siakam is becoming a regular in media scrums as his play takes off.
“Bright lights, cameras and stuff, I get to talk a little bit more. But it’s the same thing for me, just doing the same thing I do and people are just catching on, I guess,” he said.
OverDrive hosts Bryan Hayes, Jeff O’Neill and Darren Dutchyshen are joined by Sirius XM NBA radio analyst Antonio Daniels to get an outsider’s view on how the Raptors look and what their chances are to make a deep playoff run.
It’s not Toronto’s first turn in the spotlight — Golden State was here and the game was on TNT just last week. The Raptors have been given some shine before, despite the market incentives for a league whose main broadcasting power is in a country where the other 29 markets sit, waiting for the lights. Ujiri is comfortable with some attention: his Mandela dinner, along with his work with his charity, Giants of Africa, is part of his boosting of Africa and the NBA. There is talk of an African league, and infrastructure with it. It is a grand project, and close to Ujiri’s heart.
“Honestly, it’s a goldmine, and it’s just the challenges of infrastructure and coaching and leagues and structure,” said Ujiri. “But in terms of physical talent, I’m confident to say there are 10 Embiids walking around … people who have gone through their lives that have that athletic ability who haven’t even touched a basketball, but they have that gift.”
The Raptors’ Pascal Siakam is one of those, and the Cameroonian’s ballet-footed emergence is one reason ESPN airlifted its all-access program here, showcasing a franchise that has forever craved a national American spotlight. The Raptors enter Wednesday’s game with the league’s best record, despite still being under construction. 20-5 with three narrow losses, the last against West-leading Denver Monday, is a new reality to live with.
“Hey hey — we’ve been good before and not been on TV,” said point guard Kyle Lowry. “It’s whatever. Honestly, it’s whatever. Listen, we appreciate it. But we’ve got to go play basketball. We can’t worry about, ‘Oh, we’re on TV.’ We’ve got to go play. And we’ve got to win the game.”
Win, and get better. As head coach Nick Nurse said, “The trick and the hardest thing to do is continue to coach them hard during a long winning streak. The trick is to continue to play team basketball during a long winning streak. Move the ball, make the extra pass, talk on defence, give it up for a teammate, and that’s the trick when you’re up 25 or you’ve won six or seven in a row. You’re always battling human nature of who we are, instead of ‘we better do this or not gonna be who we are.’
With Toronto All-Access – as they’re calling it – less than 24 hours away, the worldwide leader in sports took over the Raptors’ gym. Situated around the facility, multiple camera crews captured player arrivals and shot parts of practice. sat down with Rachel Nichols for an interview that will air on Wednesday’s edition of The Jump. It was a scene.
“It’s weird, man,” said Raptors forward . “It’s weird. I’m not used to it. It’s a little different. Yeah, it’s a little different, that’s all I’ll say. I’m always used to coming to practice and there are a few cameras there, but that’s about it. So it’s a little different.”
The Raptors have surely come a long way from the team that went four straight seasons without playing a single game on U.S. national television earlier this decade. In fact, following the trade of in 2004, Toronto was only scheduled for four national TV games in a 10-year span.
Even during this recent run – easily the best in franchise history, with five straight playoff appearances, a Conference Finals berth, and a team record 59-win season last year – they could only make moderate gains in that regard.
It became something of a rallying cry for the team and its players. It was even the genesis of their popular tagline, We The North. Despite their success – all the wins, their two all-stars, Lowry and , and rabid fan base – they still felt they were being overlooked. Why couldn’t they get on ESPN – which has a programming content partnership with TSN – or TNT more than a couple times a season? Why haven’t they played a Christmas Day game in 17 years? Why weren’t they a regular topic of discussion in the United States?
As the Raptors prepare for their long awaited close-up, it’s not hard to see the progress they’ve made, or why they’re making it. That’s what the best record in the NBA and the presence of a true superstar will do. Wednesday’s game is one of 15 that Toronto will play on U.S. national TV this season – the most the team has been scheduled for since the era (2001-02). Call it the effect.
Suddenly, it’s impossible to ignore the Raptors.
“For me, we have to build a brand that is worth talking about,” said team president Masai Ujiri.
It’s been his mission since the moment he took over in 2013 and was the primary motivation behind a ruthless summer of business that saw him fire long-time head coach Dwane Casey and trade a franchise cornerstone in DeRozan. You can see the disdain in Ujiri’s eyes every time the Raptors aren’t mentioned among the NBA’s elite organizations. It pains him, but he understands the nature of the business. To get respect you have to earn respect. More than ever before, his team is in a position to do that.
OverDrive hosts Bryan Hayes, Jeff O’Neill and Darren Dutchyshen discuss Kyle Lowry’s decision not to speak to the media and how it’s an odd choice given where the Raptors are in the standings right now.
It could mean nothing but its notable in that the Kawhi to Toronto rumours started the same way.
"Kyrie, on any given night, can be the best player in the NBA, not just the best player on that court…Kawhi is great, but he's not KD great, he's not LeBron James great."
— Richard Jefferson on if Toronto has enough talent to beat Boston in a 7-game series pic.twitter.com/LFjcmaMONq
— First Things First (@FTFonFS1) December 4, 2018
Jimmy Butler vs. Kawhi Leonard
They don’t make two-way players much better than these two. Both are late bloomers who weren’t highly touted out of high school or college, but have molded themselves into gritty, dominant forces. They can lock down the NBA’s best swingmen and can also fill it up at the other end. Both have also helped the league’s conference balance by heading East from teams in the West.
Butler has been red hot since joining Philadelphia after a trade from Minnesota, shooting .485/.405/.819 in fewer minutes than he averaged under grinding Minnesota head coach Tom Thibodeau.
Perhaps most intriguing will be seeing how Jimmy Butler impacts the oncourt festivities. Acquired 10 games ago, Butler’s presence should prevent the Raptors from constantly putting elite defender Kawhi Leonard on Ben Simmons. Leonard was the primary reason Simmons committed 11 turnovers on Oct. 30.
“You’ve got sort of a sparring partner for Kawhi,” Brown said. “There’s a newness that the history of what we might have done in Toronto is irrelevant to him. He doesn’t care. It’s a new day and we’ve got a new team and we’re feeling good about the direction that we are heading.”
Four-time all-star Butler went to head to head with two-time all-star Leonard when they played in other cities. They are two of the league’s most versatile two-way players — Leonard is a two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year and Butler is a four-time second-team all-defensive selection — and good friends.
“I like the challenge of going up against everybody,” Butler said. “All the prime-time guys in the league — I look forward to it. It’s going to be a (heck) of a battle. He’s physical. The guy has some really long arms and some really big hands and just plays hard. He’s super-smart. I don’t think there’s anything he can do on either side of the ball.”
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