Pascal Siakam: NBA All-Star
In the first Finals game of Pascal Siakam’s career, he dropped a postseason career-high 32 points. After a breakout third season that put him on everyone’s radar, the 2019 NBA Finals served as a promise from Siakam that it was only the beginning. Though the performance raised many eyebrows, it didn’t surprise those who have been around Siakam for the duration of his time in Toronto.
“He's been given a God-given ability of having a big engine with lots of energy that enables him to play with a certain speed, athleticism, and enables him to work very hard every single day,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said after that 32-point Game 1 performance. “That motor he's been given, he's using that to the best of his ability. He soaks up things. He takes it to the court. He works, works, works. He takes care of himself. He's really got a burning desire to be a very, very good player in this league. I give him all the credit for that for using those abilities to the best that he can.”
Averaging 23.5 points, 7.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.0 blocks and 1.0 steals per game this season, Siakam will hear his name called in the starting lineup for the Eastern Conference All-Stars at the 2020 NBA All-Star Game in Chicago. He will be an All-Star starter in his first All-Star appearance. Siakam will join Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Trae Young and Kemba Walker as the Eastern Conference starting five. In the West, the starting five will be LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Luka Doncic and James Harden.
Siakam is the seventh player in franchise history to earn an All-Star selection, joining Chris Bosh (five times), Vince Carter (five times), Kyle Lowry (five times), DeMar DeRozan (four times), Antonio Davis and Kawhi Leonard. This will be the sixth consecutive year that a Raptors player has been voted into the starting five.
It’s easy to forget that it was just four years ago that Adam Silver called Siakam’s name on draft night as the Toronto Raptors selected him with the 27th overall pick. From starting 38 games in his rookie season to going to the G League in the second half of the same season -- where he led Raptors 905 to a G League Championship and picked up G League Finals MVP honours -- to breaking out as a second and then first option a year ago as the Raptors won the first championship in franchise history, it has been an eventful few years for the 25-year-old from Douala, Cameroon.
“It's crazy,” Siakam said to reporters in New York after the announcement was made. “It's unbelievable man. I think you've just gotta think back to the journey, think back on my dad, you know, just kind of taking the chance and being like, 'Man I've watched these guys on TV, they play with this orange ball, and it's super fun, people are excited to watch them play, and it's so exciting’. And him wanting and hoping and dreaming that one of his sons could do that. And working so hard to send his sons to the US, get an education, play college ball and hoping to get to the NBA, and there I am.
“To be able to be at this stage and winning a championship and being an All-Star, and not only an All-Star but starting in the All-Star Game. For a lot of people that wasn't really possible, and that's something that he dreamed of. I wish that he was here. I kind of hate, like, every time there's a big moment, it feels like there's something missing. But I know. I know he's here, I know he's watching me. I can feel his presence. But I think it would be kind of nice to be able to look him in the face and just tell him, like, 'You did it. And we did it. And whatever you put your mind into and whatever you've worked so hard for is here and we do it at the highest level.'”
After becoming an NBA champion and then winning the NBA’s Most Improved Award last season, Siakam entered his fourth year knowing that in just three seasons he’d become the first option on the defending champion Toronto Raptors. Every night, he’d be getting the opposing team’s best defensive effort and he would have the green light when it came to the offensive end of the floor. While much is -- rightfully -- said of the evolution of Siakam’s game, for teammate and friend Fred VanVleet, how smoothly Siakam has adapted his mindset to being the No. 1 option is equally impressive.
“It takes a lot, man,” VanVleet said. “Obviously, most of my game is mental so I can appreciate seeing another guy develop that way. He’s a freak of nature, athletically gifted, but to see him deal with struggles and adversity and whatever it was, not playing, playing, starting, not playing at all, G-League then to come in last year and turn himself into a No. 2 guy, nobody really expected him to do that, and then now to be the guy? To see him grow and deal with everything that comes with that is really fun to watch and I’m happy to be part of the journey.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is Siakam’s desire for improvement.
“The thing I like about him the most is he’s not too tough or too good or too proud to ask for help,” VanVleet said. “[He’ll ask for] advice or ask for opinions on how to handle different things and that’s been the best part about it.”
While it’s felt like an extremely quick ascension to those watching, for Siakam himself, this has always been the goal.
“It's funny,” Siakam said. “I was [always thinking] about being an All-Star. Like, I literally was. And you know, probably looking at me play, you didn't think that … I knew I was gonna have to put a lot of work in, but I knew it was something that was definitely reachable.”
Putting the work in has never been an issue for Siakam. The amount of work that needs to happen to go from having never played basketball to being named an NBA All-Star is immense.
“It’s crazy,” VanVleet said. “He’s learning it on the fly. A guy who just picked up a ball not too long ago, now he’s reading defences, thinking ahead, reading game plans and making the right plays and dealing with all the pressures of being a max guy and being the guy for a championship contender. It just speaks to his intelligence, his basketball I.Q. and his love of the game.”
A need to seek out excellence and be the best player he's capable of becoming has driven Siakam since he entered the league as a little known 27th overall pick out of New Mexico State. After the breakout season a year ago, picking up a championship and then winning the Most Improved Player award, he still wanted more.
“It wasn't easy and it's not easy,” Siakam said. “I was like, one for what, [against the Sixers] last night? This is always a journey. And I think what makes it fun is having that support and having the people around me believing in me … And I'm so glad that it's happening.”
Coming into training camp as the defending champions this season, Nurse knew that Siakam would continue to grow and improve upon the breakout season he had in 2018-19. Still, becoming the No. 1 option doesn’t come without its challenges. In addition to the work Siakam has put into his game in the gym, he’s also had to see himself as a superstar and get accustomed to the attention he’s now receiving each night.
“I think that’s probably where it starts,” Nurse said. “His mindset is, ‘I’m going to be the focal point offensively for this team’, and that means probably scoring between 25 and 30 points a game. I think that might be easy to picture in your mind then to go out there and do it, [but] you’ve got to be able to do this consistently. If you’re going to be this guy, that’s not easy to do. You’re in one city one night, you’re back home for one night, then you’re in another city, you’re back home and it’s coming at you one after another, and you get a little knock, and whatever.”
How has Siakam done with this adjustment? He’s currently still working his way back after missing 11 games with a groin injury, but Nurse is happy with the strides Siakam has made in his new role this season.
“I think he’s progressing with his tempo a little bit,” Nurse said. “He may not be putting up 30 or 35 [points] as consistently, but I think I see him making better reads and seeing what’s coming maybe a half count before it gets there and I think his tempo is improving.”
After Toronto’s 107-95 victory against the Philadelphia 76ers, Siakam was asked what it would mean to be named an NBA All-Star. Last season’s Most Improved Player didn’t play it cool.
“It would mean everything,” Siakam said. “I think once you get to the NBA and you understand that those are the elite players in the league. As a young player coming in and knowing my path and how I got here, to be there, to be in that conversation, like that's crazy to think about.
“I've always put the work in to not only get be an All-Star, but be an All-Star for a long time. That's my goal. It's gonna be on me to go out there every single night and make sure that I'm the best player that can be and I continue to work hard and don't get complacent and do everything in my power to to be at that level. But to answer your question simply, it's gonna be an honor. That's something that a lot of players dream about it.”
An honour, a dream and only the beginning for Siakam.