Pascal Siakam: No Ceilings

Holly MacKenzie

One week and four days after becoming an NBA Champion, Pascal Siakam received another piece of hardware. On Monday night in Los Angeles, at the 2019 NBA Awards ceremony, the rest of the NBA world learned what fans of the Toronto Raptors have known all season: Pascal Siakam is the NBA’s 2019 Most Improved Player. 

After a season of delighting fans in Toronto, the 25-year-old forward introduced himself to casual NBA fans with a 32-point performance in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. He put an exclamation mark on that introduction with a 26-point, 10-rebound performance in Toronto’s championship-clinching Game 6 win. Siakam’s numbers in his third NBA season jump off the page. In 80 starts, he averaged career-highs with 16.9 points, 6.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists, while shooting 54.9 percent from the floor and 36.9 percent from beyond the arc, while seeming to set a new career-high almost weekly at various points of this season. These kind of stats are necessary in winning Toronto’s first Most Improved Player award in franchise history, but numbers barely begin to illustrate the joy, passion and perseverance that Siakam has brought to Toronto since being drafted by the Raptors with the 27th overall pick in 2016.

During the Finals, Fred VanVleet called Pascal Siakam his favourite player to watch in the NBA. “I love playing with him,” VanVleet said. Though fans watching at home cannot relate exactly to the thrill of being the point guard that throws an outlet pass to Siakam streaking down the court, the excitement that VanVleet expressed about his teammate translates to wherever you were posted up watching the Raptors play. From Siakam’s spin move to his Spicy P moniker, to the grin that immediately flashes across his face when talking about his teammates, watching Siakam flourish has been an absolute joy.

And really, how could it not be? Siakam might have won the NBA’s Most Improved Player award on Monday, but he had won Raptors fans over ages ago. Fresh off of watching Siakam star in the NBA Finals, it can be easy to forget just how far his journey has taken him in a relatively short period of time.

From winning a G League Championship and being named G League Finals MVP in his rookie season, to continuing to work at expanding his game in his second, Siakam has put in the time. He has also learned how to trust all of those hours spent in the gym. After dominating summer runs in Los Angeles last summer, Siakam showed up to training camp ready. Raptors head coach Nick Nurse was intrigued by the third-year player’s ever-growing confidence. Siakam earned his starting spot on opening night and hasn’t looked back.

In a season that featured new players on the roster as well as some new faces on the sideline, Siakam’s steadiness never wavered. Through lineup changes, injuries and mid-season additions, the third-year forward became a rock for Toronto. His numbers were stellar, but the energy and effort he played with every night were equally impressive. There wasn’t a singular area of improvement to focus on this season, but jumps taken in every aspect of his game instead. 

As Siakam’s skill set continued to grow and expand, his mindset never changed. He has always wanted to be the best player that he can be, but wanting hasn’t been enough. When the Raptors defeated the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals, head coach Nick Nurse said, “Nobody is giving us this thing; we've got to go take it ourselves.” Nurse was talking about his team returning from a second-half deficit but could have easily been speaking about Siakam who has made the absolute most out of every opportunity earned.

Throughout the season, after each of his career-high performances, Siakam was often asked, “Are you surprised at how quickly this has happened?” Each time, he would patiently explain that it isn't surprising because when he steps onto the floor each night he’s doing the same things that he’s already spent hours working on each day. Three days after the Raptors won the Championship, Siakam spoke about motivation. “For me, the motivation is, look what you did in three years,” he said. “What can you do in 10, you know? What can you do in more than that, that’s my motivation. Seeing how great I can be. That’s the next step now.”

Even as Siakam’s MIP-winning season was still unfolding, whether it was Game 7, Game 23, Game 59, or another stretch of basketball altogether, there was this feeling, a sense that this season from Siakam was extremely special, and that we’d all be talking about it in the years to come. Before the Raptors won the NBA Championship and Siakam was named Most Improved Player, before he scored 44 points against the Wizards or recorded his first game-winning buzzer-beater against the Suns, everyone watching the Raptors knew they were also watching a player in flight, actively taking the leap to the next level while seeming to improve each night when the ball was thrown up.

Watching Siakam receive the Most Improved Player award with his family by his side was another magical moment in a season full of them. It is impossible not to root for Siakam after watching him play, but his motivations run deeper than seeing his name surrounded by accolades in print. Siakam lost his father, Tchamo, in a car accident in 2014. He speaks of him often, of his father’s impact and dreams for his son to play in the NBA. On Monday, Siakam became the first player in NBA history to win the NBA’s Most Improved Player award in the same season he was also named an NBA Champion.

“For people that know my story, they know how important my dad is,” Siakam said. “He had this crazy dream … he always believed this would be possible one day. Me being here, I’m just blessed to make his dream become a reality and have an opportunity to keep it alive.”

When the Raptors won the NBA Championship, Siakam was also interviewed at the podium. In that moment, at the height of his professional career, his thoughts were with young players back home in Cameroon with hoop dreams just like his own. Siakam’s basketball journey began at a Basketball Without Borders camp. His message to those watching, seeing the championship hat on his head and Cameroon flag draped around him, was simple: “I was a little scrawny kid from Cameroon and I couldn’t even think about this moment,” Siakam said. “But here I am as a champion. I just want to tell them that it’s possible and that if you believe in something, go out there and work hard for it. It might sound cliché, but it’s the truth. I’m the proof.”

With a championship ring on deck and the NBA’s Most Improved Player award in hand, Siakam’s offseason has now officially started. After giving fans so many memorable moments and reasons to smile this year, it was fitting that the final highlight to Siakam’s 2018-19 season was a recognition of his success that he got to share with his family.

Before he left the building on Monday night, he was asked if he wonders where his own ceiling is, does he know how far he can take things?

“There are definitely no ceilings,” Siakam said. “I don’t feel no limits at all. I feel like it’s only the beginning for me and there is so much more to come … It’s definitely who I am as a person, always being able to improve and get better, I don’t think I’m going to stop now.”

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