Pascal Siakam has filled a need in Indiana but left a void in Toronto

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TORONTO — Pascal Siakam’s time in Toronto didn’t end especially well. Then again, most things don’t.

The Toronto Raptors and Siakam, a player who wanted to play for the team his entire career, could never get on the same page at the same time regarding what a contract extension for the two-time All-NBA forward should look like. His future fit with Scottie Barnes was just blurry enough, between the disparity in their ages and similarity in skills, that going all in with the pair was too risky for a team that just wasn’t good enough around them. Age won the day.

After the Raptors traded Siakam to the Indiana Pacers last month, Raptors president Masai Ujiri said his communication with Siakam and his representation wasn’t as transparent and frequent as it could have been, in hindsight. This is clearly what caused some of Siakam’s angst, even if the idea of an executive being entirely upfront with a star who is not quite at the game’s top tier is ridiculous within the context of the modern NBA and the rumours that surround it.

“I grew up here as a kid (in Toronto),” Siakam said before his first game in Toronto as a visiting player, a 127-125 win Siakam came on strong in, in the second half, finishing with a team-high 23 points, as well as seven rebounds and five assists. “I came in as a young guy. I was just like, ‘Man, I’m so excited.’ Everything was great, amazing and I (was) learning. Masai has always been a mentor, someone that I looked up to. But at some point, it’s like, I’m growing, I’m a man at the end of the day, and to me it’s just that (imperfect) communication — it’s just like, ‘Hey, man, I understand it. I get it. To be honest, I get it, I understand the business.”

Which is to say if Siakam was truly upset by his final year-plus in Toronto, it probably won’t linger as long as it did with, say, DeMar DeRozan. That is good: The Raptors have been involved in enough bitterness with former stars over the years. Nobody benefits from those disputes — not the team, player or fans.

Siakam didn’t have to deal with that during his return. From two of his biggest sponsors while with the Raptors, Red Bull and McDonald’s, taking over Maple Leaf Square outside the arena to fans cheering him every time he was on the big screen during the national anthems to the welcome back video shown at the end of the introduction of Indiana’s starters, this was a love-in for Siakam. White and red No. 43 jerseys were everywhere, including on the kids who stood in front of the players on the court during the anthems. Deservedly so, especially considering what Siakam wrote about seeing fans wearing his jerseys after getting traded. Siakam seemed genuinely touched as he took in the cheers.

“Nobody really knew what to expect from me (when he came to Toronto as a rookie),” Siakam said. “And for me to come in here after eight years, just to see the reception, people being so genuinely happy for me — I think for me that was the most important thing.”

Siakam’s absence has been felt this week, with the microscopic focus on Barnes’ leadership traits coming into focus after Monday’s dispiriting loss to the San Antonio Spurs. In the context of that chapter of the Raptors’ season, it is helpful to remember that this immense of a rebuild — of sliding the dial away from “win now” and toward “win in the future” — was not the plan. It certainly was not in serious consideration until Fred VanVleet left free agency in July, even if it was speculated outside the team before then. Even then, the front office was still hoping to see the leftover pieces of the core come together with a new coach, hoping to be dissuaded from a seemingly inevitable course of action. If they had, Barnes would not be in his current position as prominently as he is now. You can fill out the roster with as many Garrett Temples and Thaddeus Youngs and Kelly Olynyks as you want, but none of them soaks up the attention and, more importantly, the pressure, on and off the court, that comes with being the main guy on a team. Pacers coach Rick Carlisle spoke at length about how Siakam has already talked to Indiana rookie Jarace Walker, who has had to spend plenty of time in the G League in his rookie year, just as Siakam did.

That’s the beauty of Siakam: He hasn’t been through it all, but he’s been through a lot.

“I think that he’s just got to be able to take those waves and as he continues to learn from it, he’s going to grow,” said Siakam, who said he spoke to Barnes about it recently. “He’s going to get better at it and as long as his head is in the right place, I think he’s going to be fine, but it comes with (Barnes’ status within the Raptors). You’ve got to be ready. That’s the conversation you have with him. It’s just like, ‘Know that it’s coming, so just brace yourself.’”

Whether Barnes can navigate that path is no longer Siakam’s professional concern. Wednesday morning, Siakam was in a notably lighter mood than he was at the beginning of the season with the Raptors. With his future a lot more certain now than it was then, that makes sense. The outcome of Siakam’s awkward final months in Toronto was moving to Indiana, where he will likely get paid close to his maximum in the offseason while playing on a team that is threatening for a playoff spot and still has plenty of young players and draft picks to use to improve in the future.

In the interim, he gets to play next to a maestro point guard in Tyrese Haliburton, a floor-spacing, shot-blocking centre in Myles Turner and a young, hungry team on the upswing.

“They’re a young emerging team and they want to do special things,” Siakam said. “I’ve been part of special teams, so I just want to be out there and be a leader … because some of the things I’ve experienced, most of them haven’t. Be that voice, be someone they can look to, a lot of young players that are just willing to learn. I’m excited to have the opportunity, to be honest.”

After getting over the initial discomfort regarding the change, it is a much better opportunity than the one he left behind in Toronto.


• RJ Barrett’s potential score-tying shot was defended well by Pacers swingman Ben Sheppard and hit the back rim. Darko Rajaković said he drew up a play for a 3, and the pass might have been there, but the team didn’t execute. Overall, it’s hard to allow 11 more 3-pointers than you hit and still win. The Raptors shot 6 for 26 from 3.

• Jakob Poeltl gave his old pal Siakam the old Spicy Spin. He’ll be hearing about that one for a while, I suspect.

“That was bad. I slipped, man. I saw it coming, too,” Siakam said. “I was trying to get the steal, and that’s the problem. I knew what it was going to do, and I just wanted to get the steal. And I also had fouls. … But that was a good spin, though. I’ll give him that.”

• In the wake of the mini-controversy, Barnes played an excellent game. I liked his fake handoff to Gradey Dick before taking it to the rim. He was a toe away from tying the score in crunchtime and a questionable non-call away from giving them the lead. He finished with 29 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists.

• Olynyk left the game with a lower back strain, clearing the way for Chris Boucher’s first meaningful minutes since Jan. 30. Boucher had played 11 impactful minutes, with 10 points and four rebounds.

• Dick had a crafty assist on a weakside pick-and-roll to Bruce Brown. The rookie is improving in real time. On the other hand, his attempts to draw charges are noble, but he has to stick with traditional lateral movement more often.

• Brown had one of his better performances as a Raptor, with a particularly impactful first half.

• Would you like to see consecutive examples of terrible transition defence? Of course you would. Happy All-Star break, guys. Get some rest.

(Photo of Pascal Siakam and Immanuel Quickley: Dan Hamilton / USA Today)

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