Pascal Siakam’s eyes are darting everywhere.
He looks to the right side of the court, just above the 3-point line where point guard Fred VanVleet holds the ball, to see if a screen is needed. It’s not, and so Siakam quickly turns his attention to the lane, looking for a cutting opportunity. There’s room in the paint, but he eases back, lulling his defender into a comfort zone watching the ball. VanVleet lets fly with an errant jumper, and Siakam times a foray to the rim perfectly for a tip-in bucket.
It’s the Toronto Raptors first game of the Las Vegas Summer League, and the 6-foot-9 power forward is already defying expectations of most in attendance— including those who found the Raptors’ surprise first-round pick unassuming enough to misspell his name on the official scoresheet.
If they were before tip-off, nobody is sleeping on Siakam long. He pours in an efficient12 points in 15 minutes before exiting at halftime to avoid aggravating a minor knee injury. He finishes the game 6-for-10, out-racing the Sacramento Kings for a pair of dunks, going coast-to-coast off of a steal, and getting another easy slam off a lane-fill in transition.
“He’s that guy,” Raptors Summer League head coach Jama Mahlalela says of the 22 year-old rookie from Douala, Cameroon. “He’s gonna be that hustle player that can play above the rim and get second-chance points.”
As far as first impressions go –for most, the Summer League is their first look at him up close it’s hard to ask for a better one. Still, Siakam isn’t satisfied, even after the Raptors tie a Summer League record by allowing just 47 points. “I think I did OK,” he offers. “I was just out there being the player that I am, running the floor hard, and trying to play as hard as I can. It was an OK day.”
Here in Vegas, the centre of the NBA universe for two weeks each July, the first word that comes out of any coach, scout, or executive’s mouth about the Siakam is: “motor.” It’s what captured the Raptors’ attention initially, and it’s what draws eyes to him immediately when he steps on the court.
That intensity is something that comes to Siakam naturally, perhaps even genetically. The youngest of four brothers, all three of Siakam’s elder siblings played in the NCAA and that relentlessness is something of a family calling card.
“His motor is unrivaled in this draft,” assistant general manager Dan Tolzman says. “He is gonna be special from an energy standpoint,” head coach Dwane Casey agrees.
Those traits are what got him this far, and he knows it will be the key to finding success at the next level.
Considered by outsiders to be a bit of a reach in the first round, Siakam is used to having to work at proving people wrong.
He wasn’t a particularly heralded prospect coming into college, yet in his three years at New Mexico State (he redshirted one), he was able to carve out a significantly larger role than expected, leaving head coach Paul Weir no choice but to feed him more and more. He finished last season as the NCAA’s leader in double-doubles, and as his usage rate spiked 37 per cent, his PER somehow rose even higher, from a robust 26.1 to 31.5, good for sixth-highest in the nation.
The energy on display against the Kings in Siakam’s Summer League debut was terrific and infectious. But it’s the tip-in basket of the VanVleet miss that explains why the Raptors were high enough on the New Mexico State product to go away from the consensus with the No. 27 pick.
What that early highlight shows is that Siakam is more than just unconstrained energy. This isn’t Stromile Swift bouncing around guided only by the will of his fast-twitch muscle fibers, exuberant but ultimately purposeless. With Siakam, there’s an intelligence and skillset that goes beyond the typical agent of chaos, and what he was able to flash in a tiny sample was affirming.
“He’s gonna be another guy that’ll exceed where he was drafted,” says Tolzman, almost surely referring to last year’s second-round pick and surprise breakout Raptor Norman Powell. “It’ll surprise people, like, ‘Man, why didn’t we consider that guy?’”
General manager Masai Ujiri first met Siakam a few years back at Basketball Without Borders, but Siakam isn’t even sure if Ujiri remembered him. He surely did, but the forward wasn’t exactly prominent on the Raptors’ radar until last season.
Tolzman and Patrick Engelbrecht, the Raps’ director of global scouting, were the primaries on Siakam during the season, and they expected the sophomore to return for a junior year. Once he opted to stay in the draft, they ratcheted up their focus. The team brought Siakam to Buffalo for a pre-draft workout, and it wasn’t long before most of the staff was sold on the prospect.
That workout showed a little more about Siakam, too. While he’s affable and high-spirited, there’s also an edgy aggression to his game that the club was drawn to. The Raptors put eventual top pick Jakob Poeltl and Kentucky’s Skal Labissiere through individual workouts that same day, but Siakam was in a separate workout, lumped in with a larger group. If Siakam needed any additional motivation, that may have been it.
“Oh, it was awesome,” Siakam recalls, “it was one of my best workouts. I had a lot of energy. I mean, I always have energy, but I felt really good that day.”
As the team put Siakam under the microscope, they saw more than just a 7-foot-3 wingspan, 9-foot standing reach, and an engine that makes the most of those measurements. There’s a lot of talent there, too, and the Raptors think Siakam has upside at both ends of the floor that extends beyond that of just a role player.
His lateral footwork on the defensive end is strong, and he controls his body well, which should help him keep out of foul trouble. Casey is fond of comparing him to Bo Outlaw, which doesn’t sound like particularly heady praise until you realize Outlaw was, for a time, one of the league’s best defensive presences through the lens of advanced metrics. Siakam thinks he can guard four positions, and with the NBA evolving, he isn’t worried about traditional position definitions.
Offensively, Siakam has good balance catching on the run and has a soft touch around the rim with both hands, plus an emerging floater game from post-up situations or on short drives. If his shooting touch – there are some mechanical hitches to iron out – can grow consistent out to even 16 feet, there’s a belief he could be a significant two-way piece.
The Raptors projected how he might grow under their tutelage, and ranked him highly on their draft boards. There were tough conversations when the draft played out differently than most expected and some big names, including Labissiere, slipped. Toronto made the leap anyways.
“We trust him. He brings what we want. The energy, his length, it would be good for what we need,” Tolzman says. “So we pulled the trigger.”
It was Siakam’s late father Tchamo’s dream for one of his sons to make the NBA. His brothers joined him in Orlando on draft day to watch that dream be realized together, though Siakam didn’t have a good feel for where he might land. When, 30 seconds before commissioner Adam Silver called his name, his agent told his brothers that the Raptors were going to select him, Siakam was too focused on the broadcast to hear.
“It was crazy. I didn’t know what to expect,” he recalls. “I was just sitting there thinking about all the hard work, about my new journey now. It was just exciting. An exciting day.”
If there’s a common thread among even remotely skilled energy players in Raptors lore, it’s that they’re good bets to become popular in a hurry. Few know this better than the Junkyard Dog (1.0) Jerome Williams, who remains one of the most identifiable Raptors faces more than a decade after finishing up a relatively brief 180-game stint with the club.
Real recognize real, and to Williams, Siakam’s looking quite familiar.
“Oh I think so, I think so,” Williams said of whether Siakam is bound to be a fan-favourite in Toronto. “High-octane, really goes after the boards. I think there’s nothing but positives coming from that. I really think he’s a high-IQ guy. He looked very promising.”
Popularity isn’t something that’s factored into the decision-making process when it comes to the draft. Still, the Raptors are aware of that potential. Ujiri warned at Poeltl’s introductory press conference that people were going to love Siakam, and his brief on-court introduction thus far has only fed that expectation.
“It’s gonna be between him and Norm,” Tolzman says. “I think those two guys, they just play so hard, it’s hard not to root for the guy.”
Siakam’s quickly becoming a favorite of teammates, too. Lucas Nogueira’s taken to him swiftly, donning his jersey for scrimmages and interrupting his media scrums to ask flattering, loquacious questions. Poeltl speaks glowingly of him. Powell, of course, appreciates anyone who stays on their grind.
The staff believe they’ve found a piece that really fits the; the Raptors see value in a positive, high-energy presence in the locker room, and that kind of intensity can help raise the level of practices and spark the team on the court, too. Nobody is asking Siakam to fill such big shoes right away, but there’s a sense he could help replace some of the spirit lost with the departure of Bismack Biyombo, if not some of the minutes, as well.
“I see Pascal very similar to Biz. The athleticism, the way they play,” Nogueira offers. “They put a lot of heart. I think he’s gonna help us a lot this year… Sometimes you have bad moments during the game or during the week, and if you have people like that in the locker room, of course they help.”
Casey agrees that the presence of youthful exuberance should act as a speedy deterrent should complacency set in following a deep, successful playoff run.
“No question. They set the tone for practice,” the coach says. “I know Pascal well enough, and Jakob, they know only to go one way: hard. That’s gonna be a luxury. They can’t let the vets tone ‘em down, either. They’ve gotta come and bring it every day.”
Despite Casey’s warning, it seems unlikely the vets – or anyone – could tone Siakam down.
“I think I just want people to know that they have a guy that’s going to give everything he has for this team,” Siakam says. “I’m gonna play hard and I’m gonna hustle and play every possession like it was my last, you know? That’s the way I approach the game.”
Minutes may be hard to come by during Siakam’s rookie season. The Raptors employ Patrick Patterson at his position, just signed Jared Sullinger to fortify it, and already carry three young centers on the roster.
For now, it looks like he’ll fight for scrap minutes to start, even seeing time in the D-League to help expedite his growth, like his most notable summer league teammates, Powell and Delon Wright, did last year. Joining him could be the Raptors’ ninth overall pick, Poeltl, and while they won’t see much time together at the NBA level for a while, the Austrian big man is looking forward to drawing on his fellow freshman’s vibe.
“I feel like together we make a pretty annoying offensive rebounding duo,” says Poeltl. “Pascal is the kind of guy who gets going early and with the way he runs up and down the court, carries the whole team with him.”
So what if his playing time’s a little scarce to start out? For Siakam, it’s all the more reason to go all-out.
You get the minutes that you get,” he says. “It’s up to you to make the best out of it.”