The “M-V-P” chants rained down from the rafters of Scotiabank Arena late in Wednesday’s fourth quarter, a propulsive paean applauding another stellar performance in a season full of them for the Toronto Raptors. The team had answered a 39-point second-quarter thrust from the Washington Wizards with a 44-point third quarter, weathered a mid-fourth run that brought the visitors within one point with 4:55 to go, and were within moments of heading into the All-Star break with a 43rd win, their sixth in a row, to stay within one game of the Milwaukee Bucks in the race for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
Nearly four months ago, when these kinds of chants first started ringing out in Toronto, Kawhi Leonard demurred. Sure, the two-time All-NBA forward and Defensive Player of the Year appreciated the love from the fans in his new home. But hearing it in the third quarter of a game in the third week of October? “It’s a little early,” he said.
Hearing those chants in the middle of February might make a bit more sense to Leonard. But these ones weren’t for him.
Nursing a sore left knee, Leonard watched as Pascal Siakam made the Wizards defense his plaything. He sprinted on the break, hunting runout dunks and deep post-ups to turn into easy finishes. He stepped confidently into the open 3-point looks Washington gave him, canning four of his five tries.
The 24-year-old used every tool in his ever-expanding kit, and the result was special. Siakam finished with 44 points, a new career high, on 15-for-25 shooting to go with 10 rebounds, three blocks, and two assists in 33 minutes of work. He led the Raptors to a 129-120 win—and the fans in the stands to show their appreciation.
Yes, they got a little carried away. Siakam isn’t his own team’s Most Valuable Player, let alone the league’s, but he’s got a damn good case to be its Most Improved. We’ve sung Siakam’s praises throughout the 2018-19 season, highlighting his value as a 6-foot-9, 230-pound über-athlete who can guard every position and initiate the offense. But after making the leap between his second and third seasons to establish himself as an integral role player on a Raptors team with championship aspirations, Siakam seems to have taken another major step forward of late—the kind that means his ceiling might be a hell of a lot higher than “integral role player.”
Over the past 20 games, Siakam has averaged 18.6 points on 13.5 shot attempts. In the past 10, it’s up to 21.5 points on 15.7 attempts, including 3.6 3-point tries per night, which he’s knocking down at a 41.7 percent clip. Siakam has taken on a larger offensive role as the season has progressed; over the past five games, he has finished 26.9 percent of Toronto’s possessions with a shot attempt, foul drawn, or turnover, a usage rate that would slot him in between Karl-Anthony Towns and LaMarcus Aldridge over the course of the full season. He has also continued to score efficiently with a heavier workload, posting a 59.2 true shooting percentage. That’s not easy to do: The list of players this season with usage rates north of 26 percent and true shooting percentages higher than 59 percent mirrors the rosters we’ll be watching in Sunday’s All-Star Game. (Well, them and Julius Randle.)
What makes those other players elite, though, is that they’ve proved they can produce like stars as the no. 1 target of an opposing defense’s game plan. It’s reasonable to arch an eyebrow at numbers derived from comparatively small samples in complementary roles. What makes Siakam’s recent surge worth monitoring, though, is that he’s had arguably the three best games of his career over the past month and a half, and in all of them, the Raptors have been without one or both of their top stars: 30 points on 11-for-15 shooting in a win over Milwaukee without Kyle Lowry; 33 points, 14 rebounds, and four assists to beat Atlanta last week without Leonard; and Wednesday’s 44-and-10 explosion against Washington.
It’s becoming increasingly common that, when the Raptors need more, Siakam expands his game to provide it. That’s interesting, because come July, there might be an awfully large void to fill in Toronto.
Leonard holds a player option for the 2019-20 season, and he’s widely expected to opt out so he can hit unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career. What choice he will make once he gets there remains one of the more fascinating questions in the NBA in 2019. Raptors president Masai Ujiri has thrown a ton of resources at making this season’s team a bona fide championship contender in an effort to convince Leonard to stay; as of press time, FiveThirtyEight’s postseason prediction model gave the Raptors 14 percent odds of winning the NBA title, a distant second behind the defending-champion Warriors, but just ahead of Milwaukee for the top spot among Eastern contenders.
But while many of us have described the Raptors’ pursuits, first of Leonard and then of Marc Gasol as ultimate win-now moves, games like Wednesday’s remind us that Ujiri hasn’t gone all in—not quite. He held onto OG Anunoby, who has had an up-and-down sophomore season as he’s battled injuries and “personal issues that kept him away from the team,” but who joined Siakam in a breakthrough performance Wednesday, scoring a career-high 22 points with four 3-pointers, five rebounds, and strong defensive work. He’s got Fred VanVleet, who’ll be on the shelf for a while after left thumb surgery, on an affordable deal through the end of next season, and resurgent swingman Norman Powell on one through 2021. He’ll have Lowry and Serge Ibaka on expiring contracts—very large deals, to be sure, but expirings nonetheless—to potentially use to restock the coffers in a quick-pivot rebuild.
Most importantly, though, Ujiri held onto Siakam, who’s eligible for an extension of his rookie-scale contract this summer, and who just keeps growing. When Toronto snagged him with the 27th overall pick in the 2016 draft, even the most optimistic observers likely didn’t project that Siakam would turn into the player we saw Wednesday night. If this summer results in an opportunity for him seize an even larger role moving forward, we may be saying the same thing—and hearing those same chants—a few years down the line.
An earlier version of this story mistakenly noted that Kyle Lowry sat out of the Raptors’ recent matchup with the Hawks; he did play.