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It’s just more than an hour and a half drive from downtown Toronto to Buffalo, N.Y. A Bills or Sabres game isn’t that far away for the adventurous sporting fan. Some outlet shopping with a low Canadian dollar entices others.
But on an early June morning in 2016, a year the Raptors franchise would take its biggest leap toward building a championship team, the front office personnel piled into two or three vans, heading out for a little more high-end shopping than even they expected.
Another van had headed out earlier to get set up for what would be two solo workouts and a four-man group at Erie Community College, which sits kitty corner to where the Blue Jays’ triple-A Buffalo Bisons play their home games.
The primary focus of the trip that brought team resident and GM Masai Ujiri, assistant GMs Jeff Weltman and Bobby Webster, director of player personnel Dan Tolzman and probably 12 other staffers and scouts from the head office down the QEW that day was Austrian big man Jakob Poeltl.
The Raptors wound up drafting Poeltl ninth overall and he became a part of the package headlined by DeMar DeRozan that brought Kawhi Leonard and an NBA championship to Toronto.
But pencilled in for this same workout right from the beginning was a lesser- known prospect out of New Mexico State named Pascal Siakam. That same Siakam on Thursday became just the seventh Raptor to earn NBA all-star honours. To date, the only other member of that 2016 draft class to earn an all-star berth is Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons.
Siakam, though, would not get the special solo workout treatment afforded both Poeltl or Kentucky standout Skal Labissierie who also had visa issues that prevented him from leaving the United States.
Siakam, who later would become good friends with Poeltl, remembers the Austrian being in Buffalo but did not interact with him.
“It wasn’t really a pleasant meeting,” Siakam said smiling at the memory. “I didn’t really like him. We didn’t compete. It was just funny that it was like that. But yeah, we didn’t talk that day at all, like I didn’t see him really because he had a babysitter, he had a separate workout. It was different.”
It’s clear, though, that the special treatment afforded both Poeltl and even Labissiere, based on nothing more than pre-draft rankings by various websites, was bothersome to Siakam. While he worked out with another centre — a Latvian who was not drafted and two guards the Raptors were considering for their G-League team — Poeltl and Labissiere were the sole focus at their respective workouts.
“I think my competitive nature kind of got into that when it was like: ‘Oh, Jakob is working out here and like a lot of top picks, it kind of gave me an edge. And I think from that day, it’s just like always, like a way to prove myself every single night,” Siakam says almost four years later.
The Raptors were well aware of Siakam and liked him quite a bit more than all the draft pundits that tend to sway public opinion. But after the workout, it went from ‘like’ for the Raptors to real keen interest.
As Tolzman, now assistant GM in addition to director of player personnel remembers it, only himself and maybe two other scouts had even seen Siakam live before that workout in Buffalo. Both Tolzman and Patrick Englebrecht, head of international scouting were high on Siakam because of his speed and his high-running motor and were pushing anyone within the organization scouting out west to check in on the future all-star as he finished up at New Mexico State.
Siakam didn’t just turn a few heads with his workout in Buffalo. He wowed the entire travelling entourage from Toronto.
“Prior to the workout, the thing we were pumping was he’s extremely fast and the way he changes ends is NBA level. His motor is NBA level and he rebounds like crazy,” Tolzman said. “We get him into the workout and we start to see this ridiculous touch offensively, like the footwork we see now in the post against opponents, and we were starting to just see this stuff up close and it was like: ‘Wow, this guy might have a lot more to him than what you could see in just one game live or grainy footage from New Mexico State. It was definitely eye-opening to the point where all of a sudden he jumped way up our board, too, to where I want to say he was in the teens on our draft list when it came down to the actual day.”
The Raptors though had a selection at nine which was used on Poeltl and not until 27, where thankfully they found Siakam still available and jumped at the chance to grab him.
Tolzman recalls the week after the workout, checking up on Siakam.
“We’re all wondering: ‘Did he just have the greatest day in his life or is he really that good?’ Tolzman said.
“We had to dig in to figure out ‘Did we just see an anomaly or is there a lot more to this from a skills standpoint?”
Turns out it was the latter.
Siakam has caught a few breaks in the years since that Buffalo workout. Jared Sullinger showed up damaged goods in Siakam’s first season, opening a door to 37 starts as a rookie. He wasn’t the Siakam then that he is now, but the experience gained over that time is invaluable.
The other break came at the end of that first year when Siakam, along with Fred VanVleet who is also a product of that 2016 draft class — though he was never drafted — helped the Raptors 905 farm team to its first championship season.
In the interim, Siakam has put in the time to tidy up his shot and turn himself into the complete player he is today.
Now that he’s an all-star, Siakam, rather than be content, is pushing for the next honour.
Tolzman already believes Siakam has made the jump from all-star to all-NBA. We’ll find out if he’s right at the end of this season.
But Siakam has loftier goals in mind. He’s pushing for an MVP season and not just one either if he gets his way.
And to think, it all began in Buffalo.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020