Raptors star Pascal Siakam’s real superpower is his elite conditioning

Between his minutes and his usage rate, Siakam shoulders one of the heaviest workloads in the NBA.

What Pascal Siakam has done for the Toronto Raptors this season has been nothing short of supernatural.

The 28-year-old forward is averaging 26.5 points, 8.3 rebounds, 6.7 assists and 1.5 STOCKS on .48/.34/.78 shooting for the 16-20 Raptors, performing one of the greatest individual seasons in franchise history. He is the primary reason the Raptors aren’t at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings and still have an opportunity to dig themselves out of this hole.

Siakam is a superhero, but his superpower is unique. In a league that emphasizes pull-up shooting, dribble-combinations, and eye-popping athleticism, Siakam’s superpower is more subtle and drawn-out — it’s his elite conditioning. He simply never gets tired.

Siakam ranks second in the league in minutes per game this season with 37 and has ranked in the top-11 in minutes per game for each of the past four seasons, averaging 36.4 minutes per game over that stretch, only third behind guards James Harden and Fred VanVleet. He has also ranked in the top-10 in miles traveled in each of the last four seasons, averaging 2.66 miles per game over that stretch, the second-most in the league behind only VanVleet (2.74).

Raptors star Pascal Siakam shoulders one of the heaviest workloads in the NBA. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
Raptors star Pascal Siakam shoulders one of the heaviest workloads in the NBA. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Combine the minutes played and miles traveled with a usage rate of 28.7 percent over the past four years and an average of 18.2 field goal attempts per game, and it’s hard to imagine a more taxing workload in the league — not to mention the fact that Siakam is doing it on a 6-foot-9, 240-pound frame.

“He can run all day. He's one of the top guys in the league running and playing,” teammate Fred VanVleet told Yahoo Sports Canada about Siakam. “I think he's just gifted. He's just gifted but he works his butt off everyday to put his body through the ringer to go out there and sustain that, not only through a game but through a season, and to still be strong at the end of the year. So he's been great with that his whole career.”

“I think it's fair,” Siakam said about VanVleet’s assessment of him being naturally well-conditioned. “I've felt like I've always had that, and I just want to continue to. I feel like I'm pretty special in terms of that. I can do a lot of things on the floor, and that comes with being in great shape. And it's something that I try to work on.”

Siakam’s heavy workload does not come in vain. Because while the Raptors are struggling as a whole this season, they have actually been very good with Siakam on the court, but terrible when he sits. The Raptors need every second of time Siakam can give them, because when he sits on the bench for roughly 11 minutes each game, the Raptors completely fall apart.

In 767 minutes without Siakam this season, the Raptors are -5.3 points per 100 possessions. Their offence without him on the floor would rank second-last in the league and their defence would rank fourth-worst. However, in the 961 minutes Siakam has played this season, the Raptors are +3.7 points per 100 possessions, by far the best mark on the team. In that time, their offence would rank second-best in the league behind only the historically good Boston Celtics, while their defence would rank 20th.

In other words, the Raptors go as far as Siakam takes them. And watching his two-way play, it makes sense: Siakam almost always has the ball in his hands, orchestrating the offence as a point-forward who is relentless in his approach, rarely settling for subpar shots. Instead, Siakam hunts mismatches on every possession, taking slower bigs off the dribble and pushing small guards under the basket until a double-team comes. Defensively, Siakam plugs holes for the Raptors chaotic scheme, often switching from being a rim-protector to a perimeter-stopper in the very same possession.

All of that takes a lot of energy and effort. And Siakam’s teammates have taken notice of the one-of-a-kind conditioning he demonstrates in order to do all that on both sides of the ball.

“I don't know how he does that s***, to be honest,” former Raptors teammate Justin Champagnie said about Siakam. “For someone to do that 40-plus minutes almost damn near every game, it's tough, you know what I mean?”

“I can't imagine doing that,” Khem Birch says. “Like Pascal has to guard sometimes the best player on the [opposing] team and he has to go out there and drop 20, you know? It's really tough to do that on a nightly basis playing 40 minutes. I see a lot of superstars getting like 30, 35 minutes. He’s out there sometimes playing like 40, 45… it’s just very tough to do stuff like that… mentally and physically.”

For Siakam, the work starts in the summers, when he is in the gym every weekday by eight in the morning, putting himself through a rigorous workout before weight training, stretching, and then possibly scrimmaging in the afternoon. Siakam began to regiment his summers more strictly beginning in the 2020 offseason following the NBA bubble, when Siakam hired a “pit crew, which are the best of the best at every level of sports science,” according to his agent Todd Ramasar, including a strength and conditioning coach, a sports dietitian, an exercise immunologist, and a doctor of physical therapy.

“I'm guessing he's in amazing shape. He certainly looks like he's in amazing shape,” coach David Thorpe, who has been a skills trainer of NBA players since 2003, said about Siakam after spending time with him this past offseason in Orlando, Florida. “Siakam is very much in that subcategory of the most dedicated athletes” when it comes to his training regiment and working on his body, Thorpe said, noting that Siakam would never miss a morning workout even if it meant scheduling his other responsibilities like endorsement meetings and flights around his basketball routine.

“You've heard LeBron James talk about how he spends a million dollars a year on his body. Well, I have no idea what Pascal spends on his body, but it wasn't zero,” Thorpe said. “It was very important to him… he moves so fluidly and relentlessly. And he would not dare to do that If he didn't spend the amount of time he did focusing on his body.”

“I try to continue to work on my body every single day and make sure I do the right things,” Siakam said. “And again, I know that as the season picks up, I'm only going to continue to get better. That's my focus. I want to be able to turn it up. I don't want to peak [now] or anything.”

Siakam’s training doesn’t involve running marathons or doing hill-sprints during the summer to improve his conditioning. Instead, he goes through every workout with 100 percent effort, building up his stamina by working just as hard in morning workouts and practices as he does in games.

“I’ve never seen Pascal do a conditioning drill. I just see him go freaking 100 and 20 percent in his workouts,” Champagnie said. “So he works out like he plays in the game and it kinda just correlates and it goes. Like when you do it over time in the summer, eventually your stamina is gonna build up to be crazy. Like he does it every single workout he steps on the court, he works out 110 percent. I feel like that's what enables him to play all those minutes and do all he does.”

“Again, he works. He works,” VanVleet said about what he has seen Siakam do to improve his conditioning since entering the league together. “And I think putting your body through that test and that stress throughout the summer and throughout the season, staying in tip-top shape, taking care of your body, getting the right treatment, eating the right food — I think all of those things help.”

Siakam isn’t a typical superstar in that he came into the league with almost no recognition. He was labeled an “energy big” with a relentless “motor,” but not the type of prospect projected to become one of the best mid-range shooters and playmakers in the league at his position. But what makes Siakam so unique as a superstar is that he never left the “motor” stuff behind in his ascent to stardom, continuing to make the hustle plays and do the little things with regularity.

In the month of December alone, Siakam has put on his cape for the Raptors and performed his superpower at key moments. Whether it’s running through a Joel Embiid screen to cause an offensive foul on Embiid late in a game against the Sixers, running back in transition defence after a teammate threw a turnover against the Clippers, crashing the offensive boards for second-chance opportunities against the Cavaliers, or dropping a career-high 52 points in a win over the Knicks, Siakam is doing both the superstar things and the role player things to help his team.

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“I love the way he’s defending and rebounding on top of everything else,” head coach Nick Nurse said about Siakam. “He’s really using all his talents to impact the game all over. He’s in, he’s out, he’s challenging shots hard, chasing down long rebounds. I think that’s probably why he’s covering a lot of miles because he is quite active out there in a number of areas.”

“I mean, just watch the Raptors play: their style of play requires Pascal to race all over the place with his teammates, and yet he still can do what he's doing offensively,” Thorpe says about Siakam’s workload. “That's what makes him a superstar, is you would think a role player would play with that kind of effort — and they do, but they can't score the way these guys can score and pass and rebound.

“Siakam is an All-NBA level player without question… because that's what makes them superstars when you can carry your team and without them, obviously, it'd be much much worse. So yeah, his zeal to compete. He's a very competitive guy from what I've seen. Very competitive guy.”

Another thing that makes Siakam unique as a superstar is that he never takes games off. In the modern NBA, where “load management” is as common as the flu, almost every superstar from Steph Curry to Giannis Antetokounmpo takes a game off for scheduled rest every once in a while. Not Siakam, who is on the court playing heavy minutes for the Raptors as long as he is healthy, and who says the Raptors have never really approached him about managing his playing time.

“I like hooping,” Siakam said. “I like playing basketball. And every time I want to be out there. This is my safe place and I want to be out there every single night.”

His young teammates look up to him for all of the reasons outlined. They have taken notice not just of Siakam playing heavy minutes on both sides of the court every game, but also of Siakam’s routine, including the habits and procedures he has developed over the years to turn into a consummate professional and one of the best and most well-conditioned players in the NBA.

“He’s actually somebody I look up to,” Champagnie said. “To kinda just see how he carries himself as a pro and kinda just pick off parts of his workout routine or his gameplan or all the stuff he puts in to get ready. It's actually pretty amazing watching him do that stuff and go out there and give guys a matchup nightmare out there.”

“I've always said that since I came here: Just seeing Pascal, his work ethic, him being the star of the team. He is always leading by example,” Christian Koloko adds.

Every superstar is different. And each has their unique superpower. Siakam’s is his fitness. As one of the best-conditioned athletes in the league, Siakam never gets tired, no matter how taxing his workload is. And it’s never been more taxing than it is right now for the struggling Raptors.

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