From March 3 to March 9 of 2020, Pascal Siakam went super saiyan. He scored 33 points against the Phoenix Suns, closed out the Golden State Warriors, scored 11 points in the last three minutes against the Sacramento Kings, and then scored 27 against the Utah Jazz. Siakam was unstoppable in the paint, earning free throws, dishing to teammates, and flat-out dominant. The Raptors won all four games, moving to 46-18 behind unquestioned leader Siakam.
Then, of course, came the COVID hiatus, flat bubble play, flat Tampa play, a hiatus due to actually contracting COVID, and shoulder surgery. If it feels like the Raptors have been spinning on the Pascal Siakam wheel of misfortune since March 2020, it’s because they have. Every time it looked like he might be turning a corner, he would sit in front of a camera and speak to media with as much seriousness as he could muster and say that his head was finally right, he was finally learning to enjoy himself, and his struggles were behind him. They never were.
Now the Raptors are finally back in Toronto. And when Siakam came out for his appearance on media day, it seemed like he left his curse in Tampa. (Or Orlando. Let’s just say Florida.) He was, for the first time since 2020, himself in front of media. He joked, explained himself, made little asides and snickered at himself while he spoke.
Even before the questions started, Siakam was comfortable enough to pause the questions to adjust his gigantic body behind the weird newsroom-style desk used for media day. He made fun of reporter Josh Lewenberg for never turning on his camera during Tampa zoom sessions. He laughed about why he was afraid of getting surgery: “Obviously I don’t want to get surgery. I’m from Cameroon. I’m from Africa. I feel like I can always get a remedy or something. That’s the feeling I had. I didn’t want to get the surgery.” He made fun of Scottie Barnes for giving him unnecessary chest bumps in the hallway. He quoted Drake. He talked openly about how he needs to improve as a leader, needs to communicate with the youngsters unprompted. He laughed when a reporter called him the tallest player on the team and claimed to still be growing.
Siakam laughed more in his 15-minute appearance than he did during an entire season of basketball. That of course comes with the caveat that it only includes what the media saw, but Siakam has never been one to hide himself in front of media. When he’s comfortable, he laughs and jokes and is a gigantic goofball. When he’s not, he falls into platitudes and solemn declarations that both teams are trying really hard out there. His energy takes a hit on and off the court, and he wears his status in both cases on his sleeve.
But Siakam seems to be himself once again now that he’s back in Toronto. Unfortunately for my record of predictions, this is not my first time claiming this. In fact, I went over the top last year in my prediction that Siakam would rebound from a down performance in the Orlando bubble. I was wrong then, but I think I understand why. The sentiment was right, but the timing was wrong. I wrote then that “players don’t just forget how to be themselves.” That may usually be true, but in my case, I doubled down on a mistake — Siakam had already, for a short Orlando stretch, forgotten how to be himself. I assumed that he would remember who he was without any reason.
Now I have a reason.
It’s important to note that last year was hardly a poor season from Siakam. His scoring took a slight dip, but his field goal percentage actually improved. He went from 3.5 to 4.5 assists per game. He actually had better on/off differentials on both sides of the ball in 20-21 than he did in 19-20. By and large, Siakam had a solid season last year. The only substantial criticism was that his jumper fled, as he dipped from 35.9 to 29.7 percent from deep. (That his field goal percentage still went up is a good thing.) If Siakam had stayed as efficient with his jumper, he would have had a better 20-21 season than 19-20, and we wouldn’t be talking about this at all. It’s not like Siakam became a dud overnight. No, rather he looked like he was on star trajectory, and then instead seemed to grow into an above-average starter. That’s certainly not a bad outcome, but perhaps is was all the more disappointing because of how exciting he looked before COVID derailed the world and the NBA with it.
Speaking about Siakam as if he lost himself is less a comment on his numbers and more one on his style. He stopped running in transition, stopped spinning around defenders, stopped creating easy shots. He became quite good at finishing hard shots. But finding himself would mean he goes back to feasting on the easy ones, too.
Unfortunately for the Raptors, Siakam won’t get to show off how his new headspace impacts his game on the court until at the very earliest November. (Siakam had surgery in early June, and the team said the recover and rehabilitation time for the procedure is approximately five months, but Siakam certainly would still have to ramp up to game shape before joining the team.) He’s not yet cleared for contact, but according to Bobby Webster and Nick Nurse at media day, he’s still working incredibly hard in the gym every day. That doesn’t mean he’ll come back immediately healthy, and of course predicting that he’ll return to his dominant self assumes his shoulder won’t be an impediment.
Laughing is a small thing in the grand scheme of things. It doesn’t unravel a year of frustration and disappointment. (Well, if you’re Nietzsche, it might.) But when the issue — what issue there was — seemed to be a lack of energy, a lack of fun, a lack of laughter, then finding those things can go a far enough way. To be sure, I’m already the boy who cried bounceback when it comes to Siakam. But if media day is any indication, it looks like he’s finally rediscovered his energy off the court (at least in front of media). All that’s left is for him to rediscover his energy on the court, as well.