Caterpillars live their whole lives like one another: dragging themselves around, chomping away happily at leaves on the ground, and hiding under more leaves after it gets dark outside. That is until one day, when they realize that they were destined to be more than just a caterpillar. The finest of them eventually make their way up a tree, hang themselves upside down from a twig, and spin themselves into a silky cocoon where they spend the next couple weeks of their life. In this stage, the caterpillar evolves from its raw worm-like body into a butterfly, able to come out flying, and live the remainder of its life on top of the world.
Watching Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby since the times that they were drafted in 2016 and 2017 respectively, feels like witnessing much of the same. Both came into the league as raw players, overlooked by most NBA scouts. Their talents as rookies ranged from being slightly above average defenders, to being high energy guys willing to run around on offense, with little skill in between. As Kevin Durant says though, “Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard.” That’s exactly the case with these #27 and #23 overall draft picks, who appear to be the future of the Raptors’ franchise.
Prior to the start of the 2016-2017 season, the Raptors’ newly acquired Jared Sullinger went down with an injury, which allowed Pascal Siakam to become a temporary starter as a rookie. He was inept of doing much offensively, shooting only 14.3% from deep, and couldn’t drive by anyone with his poor ball handling ability or scrawny frame. Each of his 4.2 points per game were coming off offensive rebounds, fastbreaks, or backcuts when he caught the defense sleeping. Still, he went on to start 38 games that season, and appeared in 55 in total, averaging 15.6 minutes per game. Eventually, he was assigned to the Raptors 905 alongside Fred VanVleet. Ultimately Siakam dominated against secondary competition, and won his first championship in the G-League, in addition to earning Finals MVP honours.
The following season, there was a gaping hole at power forward once again – a story that Raptors fans of this decade know all too well. Dwane Casey had limited options, and though he found a way to win a franchise-record 59 games by using Serge Ibaka as a power forward next to Jonas Valanciunas at centre, seeing that season’s roster in hindsight looks like a court full of clutter and chaos.
On top of that, it was a season where the Raptors projected to have very little depth. Extraordinarily though, the sophomores along with Delon Wright and C.J. Miles became the best 5-man squad in the NBA, earning the infamous nickname of “The Bench Mob” for romping through opposing benches, and their starters too. Siakam emerged as the leader of that group, making a name for himself as one of the most athletic big men in the game.
While Pascal worked off the bench, OG Anunoby found himself as a part of the starting lineup. Right after Norman Powell went down with an injury early in the year, coach Casey called on Anunoby to be the team’s defensive stopper on the wing, and after shining in his first few contests, he solidified his role as the best young player on the team and would remain a starter for the rest of the year. As a rookie, he was already drawing comparisons to Kawhi Leonard; both were mid first-round draft picks who came into the league with a defensive identity, had a quiet demeanour, and a relentless work ethic.
Like most young players with overflowing potential, OG got exponentially better as he gained more experience, and continued rehabbing from his ACL injury. During the season, he earned the attention of Kevin Durant, and into The Playoffs he was one of the few bright spots on the roster, hitting this clutch game-tying three against LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers.
Conversely, last season was a mess for Anunoby. He dealt with the loss of his father just as training camp commenced, and had various injuries throughout the year, from a concussion, to a wrist injury. Finally, when it seemed like he was ready to contribute to the team as The Playoffs rolled around, he was hospitalized with an emergency appendectomy. The season in which fans hoped he could work alongside Kawhi Leonard to become something of a Kawhi-lite unravelled rapidly.
On the other hand, Pascal Siakam had a preponderant 2018-2019 season, to say the least. He emerged from a bench player on a good team, to the second scoring option and one of the most versatile defenders on a championship team; his 3 point shooting went from subpar to spectacular, landing among the league’s best from 3 point range in the corners; his ball handling ability became guard-esque, allowing him to break down bigger defenders off the dribble, and he added some post-game dexterity to his arsenal. There were still noticeable flaws in his game, but he was much more of a complete player than he’d ever been before. In a game against Washington when Kawhi had a rest game, Siakam’s skillset was on full display as he exploded for 44 points. Media around the league agreed with Raptors fans that Siakam had taken enough of a leap to bring home the Most Improved Player award at the 2019 NBA Awards. Without his contributions, there’s a good chance we wouldn’t have a gold patch on the back of our jerseys, or the ostentatious rings that the luckiest of us can wear so proudly.
Throughout the first 5 games of this fresh season, Anunoby seems to be following in his leader’s footsteps, while Pascal somehow continues to get better, and is beginning to find himself on a level that very few players ever do.
It’s a small sample size, but OG is flat-out looking like one of the best defenders in the NBA, showing that he can guard anyone on the court with his combination of quickness and strength. He’s averaging an outlandish 1.6 blocks and 1.8 steals per outing, and has already recorded one 5-steal game, and one 4-block game. His confidence handling the basketball and driving to the rim is vastly improved, and his shot selection has been excellent thus far, not to mention his blistering 44.4% 3 point shooting percentage. In recollection, OG would have trouble creating his own shot – similarly to a young Siakam – his offense was limited to catch-and-shoot threes, and back cuts. Now, he’s a multifunctional offensive player whom Nick Nurse can experiment with in his schemes.
While Anunoby and company anchor the defense, Pascal Siakam doesn’t have to fly around on that end of the floor as he typically does, and can reserve his energy to carry the offensive load, which he’s been doing a beautiful job of through 5 games. One superstar walked out the door in Toronto, but another one rose from the soil. Right now, Siakam is averaging 28.0 points, 9.2 rebounds, and 3.8 assists, while shooting 44.4% from deep: all superior figures to what Kawhi Leonard did in Toronto last year. The one knock on his play so far has been his inability to limit turnovers, but this is his first experience being “the man” on a team since college, so as he learns to handle double teams while the season moves forward, his turnover ratio should diminish.
If you were to host the 2020 NBA Awards today, Siakam would be in the conversation to win Most Valuable Player, while OG would have a shot at winning both Defensive Player of the Year, and Most Improved Player. Our butterflies are only beginning to break out of their cocoons. Now it’s time to see just how high they can fly.