After the Raptors Summer League team dispatched the hapless Sacramento Kings last Friday night, a handful of media members scrambled over to the far end of the court looking for the team's new rookies. As the crowd buzzed around the Cox Pavilion, with players and team officials coming and going, there stood a familiar face. It was Jerome Williams -- or, the reason they call DeMarre Carroll "JYD 2.0." For Raps fans of a certain vintage, Williams will always be the original.
So JYD was standing to one side, high-fiving, fist-bumping or hugging every Raptor player or official who came by. He was (as always) upbeat; and while the necessity of his presence was tenuous at best, if you were a young player coming into the NBA, wouldn't you want JYD on hand to dap you up?
Williams' presence was also a small passing of the torch moment. As the continuum of fan favourite Raptors continues to move into the future, the city is about to be introduced to its next and newest member: Toronto's 27th pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, Pascal Siakam. You better believe JYD had a hug ready for him too.
"It's his personality, it's his smile, it's his energy, it's his life," said Summer League head coach Jama Mahlalela of Siakam after the team scrimmage the next day. "Sometimes someone has an "It" factor, just something that just resonates and that for me has been the most impressive thing. That's the thing, you can't teach that, you can't coach that. That's an innate sort of who [Pascal] is as a person."
Despite being one game into his pro career -- and half of one at that, after a left knee sprain forced him to sit out -- it was impossible not to notice Siakam loping up and down the court. In 15 minutes he finished with 12 points on 6-of-10 shooting, while chipping in two offensive rebounds and a steal. More importantly, Siakam, despite a truncated history of actually playing basketball, looked comfortable against the competition. He helped on defense, looked smart and decisive in his cutting, and as expected, was relentless in his energetic play. Pascal even asserted later that he can guard any position from the 2 to the 5. (And who are we to doubt him?) Mahlalela was quick to remind it was just one game while also being excited about Pascal's future. "He's rim-running, he's playing up and down the floor, he's got a ton to learn, but his character will carry him."
Afterwards, Pascal was all smiles, even with the pall of injury hanging over his promising debut. "I think I did OK," Siakam said. "I was just out there being the player I am, running the floor hard and trying to play as hard as I can." It should be mentioned again here, the Raptors went on to win the game 88-47, tying a record for fewest points allowed in a Summer League game. Siakam's assessment: "I think it was an OK day. Hopefully we come out next time and play better." Yes, better.
In this summer's NBA Draft, much was made of the Raptors possibly taking on two new rookies after playing most of the season with a roster that featured as many as five development projects. General manager Masai Ujiri joked that he thought the team's coaches wouldn't be happy having to take on even more young players. And while it's clear that Norman Powell is a rotation player, Delon Wright is maybe a step away, and Lucas Nogueira has the talent (if not the consistency) to play at the NBA level, both Siakam and new big man Jakob Poeltl are destined for either light usage or the D-League. (It goes almost without saying that Bruno Caboclo will be back with the 905 this coming season as well.)
Then again, even with yesterday's signing of Jared Sullinger to a one-year deal, the Raptors are a bit light long term at the power forward position, a spot into which the 6'10'', 227 pound Siakam slots nicely. As it is, Sullinger will presumably be the starter, with Patrick Patterson as the stalwart and crunch time backup. Both are with the team for one (more) year. The team also has some flexibility with the potential for Carroll to play small-ball at the 4. But still, it's worth asking: Is Pascal ready for the next level now? Surely he must be nervous.
"Obviously, you know, this is in the NBA. I mean, it's not really, it's Summer League," said Pascal after his debut. "But it's still the NBA, and you get nervous because you play against all of the best players in the world. It's always hard to avoid those nerves, but once you get going in the game, you kind of forget about it and be a basketball player."
The Raptors have that history of hustle guys who become symbols, stand-ins for how Toronto sees itself. It's not necessarily a hockey thing -- though some players there of, ahem, questionable talent do get venerated beyond all measure for their heart. The city just responds to the emotional play of a guy who visibly cares, whether it be Charles Oakley levelling intruders in the paint, the Junkyard Dog barking from the sideline, or the recently departed Bismack Biyombo finger-wagging to the crowd. For his part, Siakam is aware of the team's latest iteration. "Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Biyombo that just left, so it's a great team that's been now on the verge, and they win now. So it's a great organization to be a part of, and I'm just excited about it."
All of this is just the beginning though. Siakam has played a mere 15 minutes at the pro level and even then, it was, as he said, just at Summer League. He actually had to leave Las Vegas, not because of his injury but to get his visa issues worked out. Said trip (to Ottawa) will be his first time in Canada -- his workout was in Buffalo, and of course he played college ball in New Mexico. Siakam has never stood in the ACC and heard the roar of the crowd, though he does already know what kind of impression he'd like to make.
"I think I just want people to know that they have a guy that's gonna give everything he has for this team," said Siakam. "I'm going to play hard, and I'm going to hustle and play every possession like it was my last. So, that's the way I approach the game, and with the way the fans are, I know there's great fans, i just hope I can be the favourite."
"Just being the hustle guy, and just being a good teammate, and being a good player overall."
Get ready, Toronto. Your new favourite players is on his way.