Imagine being called the next Kawhi Leonard. Imagine that happening while he’s your teammate. Imagine the pressure, once Leonard leaves, to then actually be the next Kawhi Leonard. Imagine living up to it.
That’s the possibility facing the Raptors’ Pascal Siakam. On Monday, Toronto played the Clippers for the first time since Leonard left the franchise that brought him his second championship. Or rather, the franchise that Leonard brought its first championship. Let it rest somewhere in the middle. Monday’s game was in Los Angeles, not Toronto, though several Raptors chants broke out at Staples, including an MVP chant for Siakam in the third quarter. Leonard’s yet to have his first reception in front of his former Canadian crowd, though it’s impossible to fathom it’d be anything but warm and chock full of tributes. They’re Canadians. The ultimate goal behind trading for Leonard—the point of this entire, wonderful thing we watch every night—was fulfilled. The title stays. Siakam stays, too, and if Monday’s 16 points (rather inefficiently scored points, but still), 10 rebounds, and six assists in Toronto’s close loss to L.A., 98-88, are any indication, he carries plenty of promise for Raptors fans to rally around.
Without Kawhi, Toronto hasn’t fallen off as many, myself included, expected. The Raptors are 7-3, and they hung with the Clippers without Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, or OG Anunoby, who left the game two minutes in after getting poked in the eye. Before Lowry fractured his left thumb last Friday, he was averaging a career-high 24 points (Ibaka is also out for the time being with a sprained ankle), and Anunoby is playing like a man desperate to prove he can handle the bump in minutes. But the real revelation—again—is Siakam, who signed a four-year, $130 million extension this summer. The contract was signed after Leonard departed, but it wasn’t one of the rash desperation signings that teams offer in the wake of the “real” superstar leaving. Siakam had already proved more valuable last season than other young max extension players. It’s carried over: Siakam is averaging 26.3 points, 9.5 rebounds, 3.9 assists, and 5.4 free throw attempts.
Siakam faced Leonard shorthanded, but more polished than when they were last together. His partial role as Point Pascal and much improved passing kept the Raptors moving without Lowry. (Fred VanVleet is Toronto’s only other option at point.) All the delightful tics that made Siakam a phenomenon—his spin move, which defenders still can’t figure out, his drives, which look like a car swerving out of the left lane only to swerve back once it passes the vehicle in the way, his speedy transitions—still make up the basis of the fourth-year pro’s game. This season, he’s added depth to those techniques. Drives are converted to fouls drawn. His trusty corner 3 has expanded to other parts of the arc. He’s making the passes that require the self-awareness to not force a shot instead. Siakam’s come a long way from defense being his only specialty.
No player has ever won the Most Improved Player award twice. There’s an unfairness to it, like repeating a winner would strip away an opportunity from another remarkably improved wunderkind, and voters love a new narrative. Yet Siakam, winner of last year’s MIP award, has the second-best betting odds to repeat through 10 games. (Brandon Ingram leads, justifiably, with far shorter odds.) He may separate himself as the obvious choice, again. There’s no consensus on Siakam’s ceiling this season, except for the acknowledgement that he’ll either be better, or much, much better. The 25-year-old also entered October with MVP odds—100-to-1, the unrealistic kind of figure offered out of respect for his performance last season—in addition to those Most Improved odds. As of two weeks ago, his MVP probability rose to 40-to-1, the same as that of Ben Simmons and Russell Westbrook.
It’ll be months before we can quantify just how big Siakam’s leap is this season. It’s already astonishing how his circumstances parallel with his former teammate’s, who made his big leap during the 2014-15 season. Gregg Popovich needed Leonard to become the next successor in the line of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker, the Spurs’ Big Three, though the trio was still intact when his coach announced Leonard the heir. “Kawhi is the new Parker, Ginobili, Duncan kind of guy,” Pop said before the 2013-14 season, when Leonard was 22. “He’s going to take over as star of the show as time goes on.”
The situation is slightly more urgent for Nick Nurse, whose Big Three in Toronto is already phasing out. Lowry remains, but Ibaka isn’t what he used to be, and the space reserved for DeMar DeRozan and later taken by Leonard is empty once again. Siakam will have the attention this season that Leonard did in 2014-15, with both coming off a championship. (Another slight difference here is that Leonard was named Finals MVP… in both.)
There’s a chance that calling last season Siakam’s leap will look premature in retrospect. Some players have a second jump in them. Leonard is one of them: Even in the summer following his first title, he was not yet a superstar. Comparing Siakam to Kawhi is to hold him to a nearly impossible standard. It would be a remarkable feat to even come close. Toronto paid Siakam based off a season and a projection. He’s still improving, after a season of award-worthy improvements. Becoming the “next Kawhi” may happen. Becoming the next version of Pascal is already on its way.