NEW YORK — Pascal Siakam’s climb from Cameroonian teen with a marginal interest in basketball to NBA All-Star is as inspiring as it is improbable.
But it’s not just the climb. It’s the speed and angle of ascent. Straight up and fast. It’s summiting Mount Everest in half the time.
►In 2016, the Toronto Raptors selected him with the 27th pick;
►In 2018, he was a role player;
►In 2019, he was a prominent player on a team that brought Toronto its first title. He was named the league’s most improved player. A few months later, he signed a four-year, $129.9 million extension;
►This weekend, he’ll start in his first All-Star Game.
Siakam’s rise is one of the most remarkable player development stories in NBA history.
Confronting the realistic notion that the 27th pick doesn’t become a star, Siakam said, “This is what I envisioned for myself.”
“I always thought it (All-Star team) was possible,” Siakam told USA TODAY Sports. “If you’re not trying to be the best then why are you there? It doesn’t matter where you get drafted. I always believed that I could be better than I was. I knew I had to work harder than everybody else not only because I started basketball late but also because I felt like I wasn’t where I was supposed to be.”
In 2017-18, Siakam averaged 7.3 points, 4.5 rebounds and two assists and shot 50.8 percent from the field and just 22 percent on 3-pointers. While a solid bench contributor on a playoff team, there was no indication in 2018-19, he would blossom into a starter who averaged 16.9 points, 6.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists and shoot 54.9 percent from the field and 36.9 percent on 3s and become a pivotal piece in Toronto’s championship run.
“I’ve said this repeatedly, he went to work at his game, and he put in some serious time and had some great inner drive, and at the same time, handled all that was coming each time,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said.
Siakam and those closest to him saw the evolution first-hand.
Rico Hines, a player development specialist known for running competitive summer pickup games at UCLA, saw something special before the draft.
“I saw it coming,” Hines said, “because he worked at it.”
Siakam’s agent, Todd Ramasar, knew it was possible. “From my perspective, it’s not a fluke. From the moment he walked in the gym and finished his first workout, Rico walked over to me and … goes, ‘Todd, what do you think?’ And I said, ‘He has the potential to be a max player and perennial All-Star.’ ”
Raptors general manager Bobby Webster offered a look that embodies the franchise’s philosophy on players.
“Whatever improbable story you have and this is what’s inspiring about it, if you don’t put limits on whatever you’re working on – with certain character, certain work ethic, who you are as a person – there is no limit on what you can do,” Webster said. “ … We’re definitely not going to put a limit on him now.”
Teammate Kyle Lowry, who will play with Siakam in Chicago, said: “His rookie year, I believed in him then. I saw how much he wanted it.”
Today, Siakam, 25, is a major reason Toronto is 40-14 and second in the Eastern Conference, a place many questioned after two-time NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard left town. The Raptors are riding a 15-game winning streak heading into Wednesday’s game against the Brooklyn Nets.
Siakam leads the Raptors in scoring (23.7 points per game), is second in rebounding (7.5) and fourth in assists (3.4). He’s shooting 46 percent from the field and 36.7 percent on 3-pointers.
OK, maybe Raptors president Masai Ujiri, who first saw Siakam at a Basketball Without Borders camp in 2012 in South Africa, wasn’t positive Siakam was a sure thing.
“We all used to hold our breath when he took a 3-point shot. We all used to hold our breath sometimes when he went on the fast break. And now we can’t wait until he does that,” Ujiri said before the NBA Finals last summer.
But they all saw something. A 6-9 player with size and length who had the potential to be a two-way threat, defend multiple positions, play multiple positions on offense, stretch the floor with 3-point shooting, grab the rebound and be a playmaker.
He had the main component to give himself a chance: work ethic, a trait he learned from his parents.
Dad’s death ‘changed whole mindset of my career’
Siakam is the youngest of Tchamo and Victorie’s six children. Tchamo encouraged his sons to play basketball and all four played at Division I schools. His dad was a transit worker and mayor of Makénéné, a small city in Cameroon, and his mom sold goods produced in the United States and Europe.
“My dad is a part of who I am, and he was a very hard working person and someone who worked to achieve his goals and make sure his family is straight and I always admired that,” he said. “My mom worked so hard. I had two hard-working parents around me.”
The death of his dad following a car accident in 2014 while Siakam was at New Mexico State changed his life.
“After I lost my dad and felt the pain of that and understanding what his dream was, I dedicated my basketball career to what we wanted to achieve and accomplish,” Siakam said. “It wasn’t about wins and losses and who’s better. It was about honoring him and keeping his legacy alive and making sure I make him proud.
“That changed the whole mindset of my basketball career. It gave me a drive I never had before. When I felt like not doing anything or I was discouraged, I always think of him and that helps me push through.”
That drive was important, but other factors were necessary. A confluence of serendipitous events came together for Siakam. He choose an agent (Ramasar) who takes a holistic approach to a client’s career, worked with a player development coach (Hines) who is considered one of the best in the business and was drafted by the Raptors, who are one of the best-run franchises (front office, coaching staff, sports medicine) in the NBA.
“Masai is from Africa, it’s an international locker room with great veterans and the only international city in the NBA,” Ramasar said. “As far as adapting to his environment and feeling comfortable, you couldn’t ask for anything more. Coupled with our plan for Pascal and our communication with the franchise, it was a perfect partnership for the benefit of Pascal.”
It comes back to the work.
Hines and Siakam started the breakfast club – early morning workouts followed by Hines’ famous afternoon pickup games featuring the game’s best players. They worked on fine-tuning his shot, ball-handling and passing until he was exhausted. And when he was exhausted, Hines, who is a player development coach for the Sacramento Kings, pushed more. Make 25 shots from the corner 3 in 60 seconds. Make as many shots as possible in five minutes from five spots around the 3-point line.
Since Siakam wasn’t playing many minutes against the league’s top players during the regular season early in his career, Ramasar and Hines developed a plan to get him those minutes against Paul George and Kevin Durant during the summer.
“His basketball spirit is amazing,” Hines said. “He is different. He is always positive, always upbeat.”
Following the 2018 playoffs, in which the Raptors were swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers, Toronto dismissed coach Dwane Casey. Siakam was back in the gym immediately, focusing on his 3-point shooting and shot mechanics.
Nurse had been named head coach after Casey, and he planned to give Siakam a starting role headed into 2018-19.
“That was one of the big opportunities we gave him, and he got it right away and just wasn’t going to release that position,” Nurse said. “We gave him opportunities to snap rebounds and start bringing the ball up and playing a little point, letting him run screen-and-rolls, letting him post up, trying to let him do everything. He’s still not anywhere near his ceiling.”
One more driving force pushed Siakam. He didn’t want to be stereotyped as an African player who was known only for hustling, defending or dunking.
“It was a stigma,” he said. “I always thought I could do everything that a guard could do. It’s not to say I don’t want African players to hustle and play hard, but I also wanted to show we can do more. We can dribble. We can have high IQs. We can pass the ball. We can shoot. I wanted to make sure I changed the perception.”
His mother Victorie, his three brothers and a sister are expected to watch him play Sunday in Chicago. With everything that has happened to him, Siakam wonders what his dad would think.
“I think about it every day,” he said. “Every time I accomplish something big, that’s always the first question I ask myself, ‘What would he say?’
“I’m sure he would be proud of me. All I can do is speculate he would be … happy and overjoyed because this is what he wanted.”
Follow NBA reporter Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter.
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