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There are two types of teams in the NBA: Those with an NBA superstar and championship aspirations and those without one of the top, say, five or six players in the league and no real shot at winning an NBA title.

Let’s review history for a moment. Since Michael Jordan’s 1992 championship 30 years ago, all but one title has been clinched by a team with one of the league’s truly elite players. You’ve got Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, Steph Curry and Kevin Durant, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, Jordan, and Hakeem Olajuwon. The exception to this rule is, of course, the 2004 Detroit Pistons who bullied their way to a championship without a superstar and have now become the go-to example for anyone claiming championships can be won without elite talent.

Those claimants are wrong.

That’s why the pressure on Pascal Siakam these past few years has been so immense. Once Leonard left the Toronto Raptors in 2019, the attention shifted to Siakam who was asked to raise his game from being a role player on a championship team to the No. 1 option and one of the league’s true superstars.

When he failed to do so — as most do — the pitchforks came out. He was called names simply unimaginable. The vitriol was relentless and poisonous. It was unfair.

And yet, the 28-year-old forward didn’t let it break him. He returned from offseason shoulder surgery in 2021 and two pandemic-plagued seasons to take his game to a new level this past year. He posted the most impressive numbers of his career and became one of the top 15 to 20 players in the league, in the conversation for All-NBA, and a true star.

“I’m so proud of him. Watching his press conference the other day: yeah, I want that guy on my team,” said Raptors president and vice-chairman Masai Ujiri whose emotions and love for Siakam was clear. “I want that kind of fighter on my team. … Those things crack people, right? … To see him on that stage, fight and fight, that’s who we want to go to war with.”

That next jump, though, is the hardest. It’s one thing to go from being a late first-round pick to a role player on a great team, to an All-Star and an All-NBA player, but it’s another to become one of those true championship-winning difference-makers. For the gamblers, the wise money would be to bet against it. And yet, if you’ve followed Siakam’s journey this far, that would almost seem silly.

“Some of the nights he’d have a 43-minute night, 30 points, 10 rebounds, and I’d roll in here at 8:15 am and he’d be out here at eight o'clock in the morning and make me tired seeing him out there,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said during his year-end press conference at Toronto’s OVO Athletic Centre. “He understands what a day looks like to be a great player. And there’s just nothing that kind of veers him off that, not even heavy played, hard played game. He comes in and he’s right back to work.

“It’s super impressive and to me, I always thought that it never phased Kawhi at all. And with Pascal, it's almost enjoyment. You see him coming in and he's out there with a smile on his face going to go into work, putting in a day's work and some people are like, oh geez, I don’t know if I can do this again today, but not Pascal, he was out there doing it with an enjoyment and love of the game and understanding.”

To a man, his teammates agree.

“He comes in, he’s working, no matter what, good game, bad game. He’s staying true to himself. The definition of a true professional,” said Gary Trent Jr.

“He’s the one that did the most growth to be honest that you, just as a player as somebody that could be so positive after everything that happened to him,” added Chris Boucher. “It's really hard to be a go-to guy and come every night and having ups and downs and still be positive with your teammates and all.”

But the Raptors need more. They’ve made that clear and Siakam knows it. Even in a year in which his playmaking became better than ever, his offensive efficiency improved, his pull-up game and speed to the rim became virtually unstoppable, and his defense got back to where it needed to be, Siakam knows there’s more work to be done.

“One thing that I’ve always wanted to do is be a complete player, play at all levels of the game – go all the way to the rim, mid-range and then be a threat to the three-point line,” Siakam said. “That is what makes me a complete player.”

That three-point stroke is going to be the make-or-break skill for Siakam who went from shooting 35.9% on 6.1 three-point attempts per game three years ago to shooting just 34.4% on 3.2 attempts per game this past season.

In six years in the NBA, Siakam has shown he has every tool to be a superstar player. He’s been an incredible defensive player at times, he’s been a rim-runner, a playmaker, an isolation scorer, and even a three-point threat. Those skills, however, have never fully come together for one complete season. The next challenge is putting those all together for one year.

“Having an offseason that’s a little longer and where I’m not just rehabbing my shoulder, I’m working on my game. It’s going to definitely help me because I always felt that I was one of those people that during the summer got better,” Siakam said. “Just being able to have that, go back to the drawing board and continue to evolve in my game and be the player that I feel I can become, a complete player that can do everything on the floor. That’s my goal and I feel that I can achieve it. It’s there, achievable, all I have to do is go for it.”

If does it, maybe he’ll defy the odds again and make the final jump into superstar status.

Further Reading

Nick Nurse explains what he'd like to see from Malachi Flynn moving forward

Nick Nurse discusses Raptors' biggest needs heading into the offseason

Gary Trent Jr. discusses Toronto's bright future & why he's so comfortable with the Raptors