Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam are carrying the Raptors back to glory

The Toronto Raptors have always had an underdog mentality. As the only team north of the border, the franchise has a perennial chip on its shoulder, often picking up players who fit the bill. And right now, the two people leading the team don’t just represent that underdog mentality, they live it. One is a former undrafted point guard who stands at 6-feet tall. The other is a former 27th-overall pick who started playing basketball in his teenage years.

That’s Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam, the two best players on the seventh-seeded Toronto Raptors. Sure, the Eastern Conference is jumbled, with just four games separating the 12th and fifth seeds, but considering the COVID outbreak, injuries and the fan-less home arena the Raptors have had to deal with, it’s worth celebrating just how far they have come this season. Wednesday’s win over the Milwaukee Bucks propelled them above .500 for the first time since early November.

But if I haven’t made my point bluntly enough, let me do so now: The two players leading the Raptors into a new era are not supposed to be here. An undrafted 6-footer is not supposed to sign a 4-year, $85-million contract — the highest ever for an undrafted player — and become the only reliable point guard on a successful team, a top-5 analytics player, and one of the best three-point shooters in the NBA.

A former 27th-overall pick isn’t supposed to be a max player with a Second-Team All-NBA spot already on his resume while currently playing even better than he did that season, developing into one of the best passing forwards in the league. And they certainly weren’t supposed to do it together, both coming into the league in 2016 and taking steps forward every season since.

Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam have the Raptors back in a playoff spot. (Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images)
Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam have the Raptors back above .500. (Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images)

The truth is, Raptors fans have been spoiled in recent years. A friend recently texted me that she used to watch the Raptors, but stopped a while ago, and only knows that “They kinda fell off after the championship year.” In reality, the Raptors have had one bad season in the last nine years — the displaced Tampa Bay season in 2020-21, also known as The Season Who Must Not Be Named. Surrounding that, the Raptors had the league's second overall record before COVID forced them into a bubble in 2019-20 and are now a playoff team in a deep conference.

More importantly, thanks to veterans VanVleet and Siakam — as well as youngsters OG Anunoby and Scottie Barnes — they are set up to be good for years to come. And while it’s easy to find ourselves fawning over the exciting developments of Anunoby and Barnes, it’s VanVleet and Siakam who have put the team on their backs in recent weeks, displaying a two-way consistency that we just haven’t seen from either of them in their careers.

VanVleet came into the season hot, understanding that a big load would be on his shoulders considering his predecessor Kyle Lowry was gone and Siakam was out for the first 10 games of the season due to shoulder surgery. The 27-year-old guard is averaging 21.3 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 6.7 assists in his sixth season — all career-highs. He leads the league in minutes played, distance travelled, and deflections per game, while ranking 4th in Total RAPTOR, a catch-all analytical measurement.

VanVleet has improved in virtually every aspect of his game, especially as a playmaker, where he can now comfortably make every pass in the book while rarely turning the ball over. VanVleet is striking the right balance of getting his teammates involved while also understanding that his scoring is crucial for the team, especially in the half court, scoring at least 30 points in four of the Raptors' past six games. During that stretch he became the first Raptor to score 30 in three-straight games since Kawhi Leonard did it in 2019.

VanVleet is running more pick-and-rolls than ever, with 36.6 percent of his possessions coming in that set, where his 0.92 points per possession ranks in the 71st percentile in the NBA. But it’s his versatility that makes him so valuable, thriving off-ball as a spot-up shooter, where he has hit 70 of his 137 catch-and-shoot three-point attempts this season (51.1 percent) — the best mark in the league. VanVleet is an All-Star, end of debate.

“He’s really the focal point guard on his own. Certainly with Kyle gone, he’s had to run the team a little bit more,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said of VanVleet. “He’s playing great. He does a lot of things well and it isn’t just scoring or assisting. He’s a great rebounder, he runs the team, he finishes at the rim, shoots threes. He’s continuing to get better.”

One of the reasons that VanVleet is able to get off the ball and shoot such an efficient number from beyond the arc is because of Siakam’s ability to put pressure on the defence and find him (and other teammates) for good looks. Their two-man game has combined for 52 assists for one another this season. In fact, Siakam rarely faces single coverage anymore, with defences shading a lot of help towards him in the paint, and the game has slowed down for him to the point where he is picking apart those defences with relative ease.

The 27-year-old is averaging 20.4 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 4.4 assists this season while shooting 48.3 percent from the field — his best mark since the “Bench Mob” year when he was still a role player. But it’s Siakam’s passing that has stood out this season, as the combination of his steady improvement and more talent around him has allowed his playmaking to shine through, with his assist percentage of 20.0 ranking in the 92nd percentile for big men and his turnover percentage of 11.9 ranking in the 67th percentile.

But what has been most impressive is Siakam’s recent play. As with anyone coming back from major shoulder surgery, it took him some time to get back into the flow of things after missing the first 10 games of the season. Over his last five games, Siakam is averaging 25/11/7 on 52/39/66 shooting splits along with 2.4 STOCKS per game. Those are not just All-Star-caliber numbers, they’re actually better than his Second-Team All-NBA season.

The eye test confirms that Siakam is playing the best basketball of his career of late, taking what the defence gives him as he becomes a more efficient scorer and elite playmaker for his teammates, embracing the role of an all-around player that the Raptors need from him.

“I’m feeling good, my body’s feeling good, and I think I’m taking another step also just taking care of my body and making sure I do everything that’s right so I’m fresh,” Siakam said recently.

“And just a mentality shift in terms of being an all-around player, I feel like I have that ability and not a lot of players have that ability to be able to defend, be able to pass, be able to rebound and also score. I want to just do that at the highest level that I can. And just also with my legs under me now, having a little more energy, a little more push out there and just knowing that I’m able to do it all.”

Siakam got paid a max contract based off the championship season, when he was a second or third fiddle to Leonard and Lowry. And while those contracts are also about projecting future improvement, think about just how much better he's gotten since then. Sure, he might never be an efficient No. 1 option in the same way Leonard was, but he is his own player, and a very unique and valuable one at that.

The fact that the two players leading the team back to glory are VanVleet and Siakam speaks to the type of hardworking franchise that the Raptors are. Only that type of environment would allow for an undrafted player and the 27th-overall pick to work their way up the hierarchy until finally being given a chance to lead the team by themselves.

And lead the team they have. Over the past few weeks, VanVleet and Siakam have put the Raptors on their backs, and they will hope to continue to do so into the playoffs, defying the odds like they have for their entire careers.

“I read a quote the other day that said, ‘There are things that have never been done being done everyday,’” VanVleet said at the start of the season. “So I’m up for the challenge, and the team is ready for the challenge.”

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