New Mexico State big man has the defensive ability to 'do some damage in the league' while making his family proud
POSTED: Jun 17, 2016 2:23 PM ET
Pascal Siakam was a force in 2015-16, averaging 20.3 points, 11.6 rebounds and 2.2 blocks.
Years ago, Tchamo Siakam would delight in gathering his four sons around him in their home in Douala, Cameroon and regaling them with stories about the NBA and its talented players. His dream, Siakam told the boys, was to see one of them play in the league.
One by one, each son, all of them tall, athletically gifted and intelligent, embarked on a mission to try and make their father's vision a reality. The quest began in the United States, and college basketball was the vehicle.
Boris, the oldest, left home first; he played at Western Kentucky. Christian was next to go, spending five years at IUPUI, including a redshirt season. The third Siakam brother, James, played for Vanderbilt, where he also redshirted as a freshman. The brothers were similar in that all three stood about 6-foot-7 and weighed in the neighborhood of 230 pounds, and while all had solid careers, none of them attracted serious attention from NBA scouts.
That left fulfilling Tchamo Siakam's dream to his final son, Pascal, who among all the brothers had seemingly won the gene pool. At 6-foot-9, he was two inches taller, and with that size, he also had the ability to run all day, to jump high, gather himself quickly and jump again, and lateral quickness to defend smaller players.
This is for whole family -- that's what drives me -- but most of all for my dad.
– Pascal Siakam on making the NBA
There was only one problem with Pascal's future in basketball. He didn't like the game.
"My brothers told me all the time that I'd end up playing basketball," Siakam said. "But I didn't want to play. I wanted to do something else, anything other than basketball."
That changed quickly in 2012, after he was coerced into attending a Basketball Without Borders camp run by the NBA and FIBA in South Africa. Watching Serge Ibaka and others, Siakam became inspired. He realized his physical gifts were rare, but that others from his native continent had used the same tools to make it all the way to the NBA.
"That's where I can say it all started," Siakam said. "Watching Ibaka and all those people. They were from Africa. They spoke French. They were kind of like me. That's when I began thinking basketball is something I can do. Basketball Without Borders gave me an edge."
Before he knew it, Siakam was in Texas, playing high school basketball. At a gangly 200 pounds, he scarcely attracted recruiting attention, but by that time, his recruitment was already over anyway. Marvin Menzies was already on his trail.
Menzies, who took over as coach at UNLV in April, had spent the previous nine seasons turning New Mexico State into a perennial NCAA tournament team, largely on the strength of connections that helped him recruit international players.
"Pascal's name was brought to me by a friend in Africa," Menzies said. "I've got extensive relationships over there, especially on the West Coast of Africa. So I just followed up and pursued the basic recruiting route with Pascal. I ended up being the first guy involved and the last guy standing."
The word raw is used all the time to describe a player that might have talent but no idea how to utilize it. That was Siakam when he showed up in Las Cruces in the summer of 2013. But Menzies and his staff were fine with it.
"He was a blank canvas," Menzies said. "Completely moldable. He didn't have a lot of good habits or skill level, but he didn't have any bad habits either. His demeanor and his attitude were off the charts. He had this engaging personality and a great big smile. He's stare into your eyes and try to soak up all the knowledge you could give him."
Prospect Profile: Pascal Siakam
Get to know NBA Draft prospect Pascal Siakam.
A lot of the task of giving Siakam skill to go along with his athletic ability fell to New Mexico State assistant Keith Brown, a former Division I head coach who's spent his long career becoming an expert on post play and how to teach it.
"I had one summer session before his [redshirt] freshman year," Brown said. "Once the year started, I couldn't work with him. So I had a summer to give Pascal a foundation. That's when you started noticing some of the differences. He was one of those guys that took all the information you had and went back and applied it.
"He was passionate about getting better, and that made it fun. And it was also evident from the beginning that there were some instinctive skills there. He had very good timing as a shot blocker. He showed the ability to become an excellent defender."
Siakam used his redshirt year getting bigger and stronger -- he would top out at 235 pounds -- and learning how to score in the post. By the time he was ready to take the floor in 2014, the Aggies had a force to unleash on their unsuspecting opponents. In his redshirt freshman season, Siakam averaged 12.8 points, 7.7 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in becoming the Western Athletic Conference freshman of the year. He led the league in field-goal percentage (.572), and sprinkled among his season-long performances were a 24-point game against Seattle and a 17-rebound effort vs. Stetson. Three times, he blocked five shots in a game.
But after having him with me for three years, I can tell you, whoever ends up drafting him will be more than pleased.
– Ex-New Mexico State coach Marvin Menzies on Siakam
But Siakam's offensive game was limited to the paint. In his first season, he took just 16 jump shots and made only three. Siakam knew what he had to work on in the offseason, and he threw himself into the task with all his might, taking up residence in the gym and hoisting thousands of shots.
"Summer three , that was all perimeter," Brown said. "He did whatever we told him and more. And he became a proficient shooter. For us, he was our best five man, and our best four. But he potentially could have been our best three, because he became a very good shooter from 15, 17 feet. He could score off the catch or the bounce.
"But we needed him around the basket, rebounding, having some rim presence and giving us basket protection."
Siakam was a force in 2015-16, averaging 20.3 points, 11.6 rebounds and 2.2 blocks. He led the nation with 27 double-doubles, and among the 22 players in Division I who averaged more than 10 points and 10 boards, he led them all in scoring. Siakam collected two 35-point games, a 23-rebound game and was an easy choice as WAC player of the year.
A not so easy choice was whether Siakam, who had two years of eligibility remaining, was ready to throw his name into the NBA Draft pool. His decision to declare for the draft was bittersweet. It's what his father wanted more than anything, but he never had the chance to see it happen. Tchamo Siakam was killed in a car accident in 2014.
Three of the Siakam brothers returned to Africa for the funeral, but the family decided Pascal should stay at New Mexico State and continue his mission. It's what his father would have wanted.
"We were all hurting," Siakam said. "I talked to my brothers and they told me [staying in the U.S.] was the right thing to do, that focusing on basketball would have made my father happy. But it was hard. Coach Marv, and my teammates, they were there for me. I knew that I had people who loved me, that made me feel like it was going to be OK.
"Nobody's going to replace your dad, but I had some support from people who cared for me."
Menzies closely observed how Siakam handled the loss of his father and calls it a "pivotal moment in his maturity."
"That was a tough time for him," Menzies said. "We gave him a lot of space and a lot of love. What he went through was incredibly difficult, but to persevere and get through it, that was one of the driving factors in where he is today."
Where Siakam is today is the brink of getting drafted. Most mock drafts predict he'll be taken in the second round, and one or two have him rising into the late first round. Menzies thinks if Siakam does become a second-round pick, he'll one day be considered a great bargain, a steal.
"He's going to make somebody really happy," Menzies said. "People don't understand. You can only get so much out of a brief interview, or scouting. You can't really evaluate an individual. But after having him with me for three years, I can tell you, whoever ends up drafting him will be more than pleased."
Siakam's first post tutor agrees. Brown followed up a telephone interview for this story with two subsequent text messages as he kept thinking of different facets of Siakam's game that will translate to the NBA: The high motor. Offensive rebounding. The ability to put the ball on the floor and go by defenders. A jump shot that now extends past the 3-point line. But of all Siakam's skills, Brown thinks one stands out.
"Defensively, he's really special," Brown said. "He is a multiple-effort defender. He can switch all screens and guard perimeter players. He hedges and recovers and stunts and gets back and plays multiple times throughout a single possession. He's not one and done. He also blocks shots. I think he can step in as an NBA four man right now."
Tchamo Siakam would have been proud.
"One of the things I always say is that you get what you deserve," said Pascal's brother James. "I would never give props to somebody who does not deserve them, I don't care if you are my little brother. But Pascal deserves them. He's taken a little piece of all the brothers -- he's almost like some sort of hybrid of all of us -- and also brings his own unique way of doing things, plus his size.
"He's worked hard to get where he is now. I think he can do some damage in the league."
Pascal Siakam's father has been on his mind in recent weeks as he's worked harder than ever to prepare for the Draft.
"This is for whole family -- that's what drives me -- but most of all for my dad," Siakam said. "I still think about the conversations he had with me and my brothers. He was so excited talking about basketball, and the NBA.
"And now I'm this close. It's unbelievable. If I can make that dream become a reality, it will have been the best thing I ever did in my life."
Chris Dortch is the editor of the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook.