Embrace it. Those were the first words of advice 15-time All-Star LeBron James offered to first time All-Star, and first-time All-Star starter, Pascal Siakam.
James’s booth at All-Star Game Media Day was packed at least 5 wide from either side, and a dozen rows deep. Standing room only. But the King still took the time to think about any guidance he could offer, ignoring prompts for new questions as he gave a considered response.
“If he has his family with him, let them enjoy it. Let them go around and see pretty much everything. It’s not a promise that you’ll be here next year, but the way he’s playing he’ll probably be here—a lot—I think. Embrace it,” James stressed once more, “Enjoy it.”
Siakam has had a busy start to the weekend, putting in work as a coach at the Basketball Without Borders Global Camp, bringing his entire family to watch the Rising Stars game courtside, and finding time to practice for his own All-Star debut tomorrow night and of course, answering questions from the throng of international media. But Raptors fans are likely familiar with the way Siakam describes his game, his approach, his thoughts on the Raptors steadily winning season. He’s humble, hardworking, occasionally bursting out in his signature Cheshire Cat grin and snicker when conversation skews either serious or too self-important.
Kyle Lowry arrived in Chicago in the understated way he tends to handle most things. Putting in an appearance at Siakam’s BWB camp, happy to watch his guy glow from the sidelines. It’s behaviour a little uncommon for a 6-time All-Star and, of course, NBA Champion, but then Lowry’s business has always boomed doing what he can to make the people he cares about look good.
None of this is news to their teammates, fans, or anyone in Toronto paying attention. So when Team Giannis and Team Lebron took their individual player podiums, what better opportunity was there to do laps around a gymnasium, gathering insight, but mostly compliments, on Siakam and Lowry from their teammates.
Miami Heat big man Bam Adebayo has an explosive style of play that’s seen him very quickly become an furnace fuelling the Heat’s offence, as well as a new territorial rim protector. Like Siakam, his length can make things a problem and he plays with a creative flair that keeps opponents guessing. Adebayo and Siakam’s booths were placed side-by-side on the arena floor and from my vantage point, peering on the tops of my toes over the ledge of Adebayo’s podium, even the way the two were answering questions—smiling and animated—ran parallel.
When asked if he would be happy not to have to guard Siakam in the upcoming game, due to their mirrored explosive style, Adebayo was quick to underscore the capabilities of the entire team, “I feel like a lot of people on my team play hard,” he emphasized, “so we have a good chance of winning. Not only that but we pass the ball. Everybody on that team knows how to pass, wants to pass, willing to do the things to win.”
Adebayo caught me motioning with my chin over to where Siakam sat when I followed up. Asking whether he’d be happy not to have to face the signature spin move that has tied up the defence of so many teams.
“Ah!” He looked over to Siakam’s booth and dozens of heads turned with him, “I didn’t even know he was right there. Yeah,” he looked back and nodded, “I’m glad he’s on this side. He’s kind of like my African brother,” Adebayo grinned, “he kind of looks like me a little bit.”
Sometimes it helps having a rusty, grade school French still in your arsenal. Rudy Gobert, another inaugural All-Star nod, was closing out his scrum when I approached the booth and asked if he and Siakam planned to gameplay en francais to allow them an added advantage.
“Yeah! We love to. We always speak french.” Gobert admitted, “I met him a few years ago. I love Pascal, he’s a great guy, he’s one of the guys I have a lot of respect for. When you [saw] him when he came into the league, and where he is now, I think he’s only scratching the surface of what he can become. It’s a great story,” Gobert continued, “I love to watch him, and I love to watch guys like that that come out of nowhere and beat the odds.”
One of the best things about All-Star weekend is having such a massive contingent of present and past NBA alumni in close proximity. Hundreds of current players and legends just walking around, stopping to look out over the Chicago River criss-crossing downtown like the rest of the tourists. While it wasn’t at Media Day, bumping into the Junkyard Dog, legendary Raptor Jerome Williams, delivered an impromptu moment of sincere appreciation of the guys following in his footsteps.
“Siakam—Spicy P—he’s getting it done! He’s developing, he’s becoming that go-to guy as far as an up and coming superstar and I’m so happy that he’s made it this far and been given that acknowledgment, because he’s an NBA champion as well. His career is just going to continue to blossom. There’s only up from here.”
When I asked if he saw elements of his game in Siakam’s, JYD couldn’t list them off quick enough, “Running the floor. Athletic, high octane, rebounding, dribbling, slash into the basket, all the part of my game that I love.”
But there’s a familiar, easy appreciation that comes when asking players, past and present, about Lowry. Maybe it’s the understated way he’s not just played the game, but shaped it, been a difference-maker in the way he’s created a prototype for what being a fundamental player can look like. A player who is tough, resilient, who does the dirty work and doesn’t require any accolades for it. Who has, every season, grown more into himself as a generous leader, a “maniacal” kind of genius on the court, as Gregg Popovich put it.
Williams was quick to slip into the same rhythms when talking about Lowry, “Kyle has been, you know he’s going to turn into the mayor of Toronto, just because the resilience, the stick-to-it-ness. He brought us our first championship. And he stayed with the team. With Kyle it’s the toughness,” Williams continued, hitting on their similarities as players, “You’d be amazing how many 4th quarter offensive rebounds this guy gets. And loose balls. And steals. Dog pound all the way, both of the guys got a lot of grit.”
Resiliency is a quality Lowry shares with another guard, Portland’s Damian Lillard. Lillard was asked whether he would consider himself underrated in the league, but declined from extrapolating too much, saying it wasn’t up to him to decide. He did, however, agree that Lowry has and still can be underrated, even after winning a Championship.
“Just from the standpoint of he doesn’t get a lot of credit. He just won the Championship, Toronto’s been a good team every year pretty much since he’s been there, and a lot of that has got to do with him. He just doesn’t have the wow factor,” Lillard said, “He’s not going out there scoring 50 points a night, dunking on people. It’s not flashy, he takes a lot of charges, you don’t have a bunch of muscles and stuff like that but he’s very productive. So I do think he’s pretty underrated.
Another way of looking at it, according to James Harden, is that to not have detractors would mean you weren’t doing something right. While Siakam, his game still being familiarized to fans and critics, is widely favoured, Lowry does occasional get criticism that, if you’re really watching his game, doesn’t make the most sense.
“If you don’t have haters,” Harden said, “you don’t have people not wanting you to succeed and you’re not doing what you’re supposed to be doing. It’s a part of it. It’s a part of when you’re on the top, when you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing”
Part of being champs is not having to prove it anymore, letting the facts speak for themselves. Judging by the way some of the best in the league speak of Lowry and Siakam, in large part to the franchise they’ve helped to build, define, succeed and stay winning, the proof is loud and clear.