By Arden Zwelling in Toronto
By Arden Zwelling in Toronto
Living his late father's dream and playing a crucial role on a playoff contender, Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam is blowing away the usual NBA learning curve — and he's only scratched the surface.

Come on, man — it’s 5:30. We have to go. You have to go.”

That’s Christian Siakam, one of three brothers to Pascal, the Toronto Raptors forward. He’s sitting in an empty gym, fiddling with his phone near the end of one the longest days he can remember. Christian’s an athlete, too — nearly as tall as his brother but much thicker, long removed from his years spent playing NCAA Div. 1 ball. All four Siakam brothers played Div. 1, but only Pascal went on to the NBA. Maybe this is why.

This morning, they were on the other side of the continent, in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, where the two brothers and Raptors centre Jakob Poeltl had escaped to the palm tree-lined beach of The Fives Hotel for an all-star break getaway. It was a good trip. They ate, they lounged, they visited a small school in Nuevo Noh Bec, a remote village where scores of wide-eyed children swarmed Siakam and Poeltl for hugs and autographs, necks craned up like they were looking at skyscrapers.

But the one thing Raptors head coach Dwane Casey asked of his players before they departed was to get a sweat. Handle a basketball. Get in some cardio. Just do something. And Siakam and Poeltl had. But Siakam wanted to do more.

So, after spending the day on the beach, and enduring a four-hour evening flight that landed in the cold at 1:00 a.m. the next morning, the Siakam brothers dropped their bags off at the condo they share in downtown Toronto and headed straight to BioSteel Centre, the Raptors practice facility. They got there at 1:30 a.m. They didn’t leave until 6:00.

The Raptors had a practice scheduled for the early afternoon. It didn’t matter. Siakam worked and worked and worked, as Christian watched the hours pass on his phone. Just the two of them, some basketballs, and an empty gym. “It was unbelievable,” Christian says. “That’s his dedication. That’s how much he wants to win — how much he wants to be better. The whole time I’m telling him he needs to go. And he just kept saying, ‘I have to do more, I have to do more.’”

Siakam made the Raptors starting lineup in his first NBA game, logging nearly 22 minutes and putting up a plus-16 against the Detroit Pistons.

During his rookie season, your typical Pascal Siakam highlight was one of three things. There were the rim-shaking dunks after backdoor cuts; the out-of-nowhere blocks that sent basketballs screaming out of play; and the sensational passages when, as everyone turned to run up the court after a Raptors defensive rebound, a 20-metre outlet pass was unleashed, often from the hands of Kyle Lowry, finding Siakam in full sprint at the other end, already behind the defence and finishing at the rim. That last category was where Siakam made his name. The ambush plays when he just beat everyone up the floor; the pure want-it-more effort you can’t teach.

“His motor is an NBA skill. It’s a gift. It goes, and goes, and goes,” Casey says. “But there’s other parts of his game he’s been working on and that are really coming along. I love the way he’s playing now. Handling the basketball, making decisions, reading situations — he’s not just out there using all that motor. He’s really thinking the game like a point-forward.”

Now there’s a thought: What if you had a player with Siakam’s energy level and explosiveness who could also make plays off the dribble; who could also run the floor, reading defences in transition and finding the open man; who could also dart around screens and handle through traps; who could also hit threes. Well, if you’ve been paying attention to Siakam this season, you already know that’s what’s been happening.

“He had this innate, natural thing that sometimes you can’t coach.”

In his rookie year, Siakam had just 17 assists all season. As a sophomore, Siakam had 17 games with four assists or more. In his first year, he attempted only seven three-pointers. This season, he put up well over 100. On both sides of the ball, Siakam maintained the vertebrae he’s built his game on — the hounding defence, the rebounding, the sheer hustle. But he also began layering other modern NBA attributes on top of all that and, in only his second year as a pro, provided an enticing glimpse of what he could someday become. “His ball-handling is off the charts. He can bring it down against pressure, he can bring it down off the break, and make good decisions,” Casey says. “He’s really made great strides. And the great thing is he’s still got huge upside. He’s just scratching the surface.”

How did this happen? Two years ago, Siakam was a late first-round pick, a project. Six years before that, he didn’t even play basketball. Today, he’s a crucial rotation piece on the Eastern Conference’s best team. He’s guarding multiple positions, hitting threes, running the floor. It’s not normal. You aren’t supposed to evolve at such a rapid pace, particularly as a power forward, and particularly when playing at the highest level. But Pascal Siakam doesn’t see the need for a complicated explanation. “I’m just continuing to trust my work — it’s happening naturally,” he says. “I never saw myself as this big dude that was just posting up. I always liked guard stuff. I always liked to be mobile. I always wanted to handle the ball. And I work on that stuff a lot. All summer, all season. If I’m going to work on something that much, I’m going to do it in the game. I mean, why not?”

Siakam is adding new dimensions to his game all the time, but his hallmark is still raw effort — beating out opponents for 50/50 balls.

There are a lot of reasons Siakam works the way he does, but a big one is the constant thought he can’t shake — the one telling him he’s perpetually trailing his peers. Perfectionism isn’t the right word, and it’s not quite imposter syndrome. But when he wakes up every day, the first file Siakam’s brain loads is one that tells him he needs to do more than everyone else because they have a head start. “I always think that — I’m late, I’m behind,” he says. “I have so much to improve on, so much to learn. I know that. When I work out, I think about how I’m not Fred VanVleet, I’m not CJ Miles. I might never be. They have so much time ahead of me. But I’ve got to catch them. I have to catch up. I just have to.”

You get that way when you began playing basketball at 16 and now, at 24, you’re guarding LeBron James. This is not how things were meant to play out. Growing up in Douala, Cameroon, the last thing anyone thought Siakam would be was a basketball player. His father, Tchamo, loved the game and always wanted one of his sons to reach the NBA. But as Siakam’s three older brothers — Boris, Christian and James — all left home to play college hoops in America, young Pascal was more captivated by soccer, dribbling around the yard trying to emulate his hero, Barcelona’s Samuel Eto’o.

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Rather than have Pascal pursue basketball like his brothers, Tchamo put his youngest son in a Catholic seminary instead, hoping he would someday be a priest. Siakam woke up at 5:30 every morning to attend mass. He sang in the choir. He didn’t like it, but it was what his father wanted, so he bided his time. If priesthood didn’t work out, he figured he’d go to business school.

But he kept growing. At 15, Siakam was already much taller than his peers, and attended an annual basketball camp run by NBAer Luc Mbah a Moute on a whim because his friends were going. He didn’t know what he was doing on the court, but his physical gifts were unmistakable. The camp’s organizers started spreading the word, and at 16 Siakam received an out-of-nowhere invitation to a Basketball Without Borders camp in South Africa. It was a last-minute thing — he almost didn’t go. But when he did, he caught more eyes, and an opportunity presented itself to go to a Lewisville, Texas prep school called God’s Academy and play basketball. Even then, no one was buying him as much of a ballplayer. “I’d talk to our parents on the phone, and they’d say, ‘Hey, Pascal’s getting taller. I think he’s taller than you. He might play basketball,’” Christian remembers. “I’d just laugh. ‘No, Pascal doesn’t play basketball. You’re crazy.’”

God’s Academy was a challenge, starting with the culture shock. It was Siakam’s first time in North America, his first experience with anything but the rigid discipline of the seminary. The basketball was tougher, too. No longer could he get by on his natural athleticism. At prep school, everyone was tall, everyone was athletic, and everyone was more skilled. Siakam had to work harder. Off the court, he was slowly learning English, and struggling to get accustomed to the almost painfully stereotypical American diet God’s Academy provided, consisting mostly of pre-made Wal-Mart meals and fast food dollar-menu items.

That held him back physically, as he grew long and lean. He could jump, but his skills weren’t particularly impressive, which is to be expected of a guy who’d first picked up a basketball two years earlier. But the one thing Siakam had that no one else did, the ultimate separator he still carries today, was that drive. A willingness to chase every ball, to jump for every rebound, to go for things harder than the other guy. When the staff of the New Mexico State Aggies scouted Siakam — first on video shot in Cameroon, then in person at God’s Academy — it was unmistakable. “The skillset wasn’t great,” says former New Mexico State head coach Marvin Menzies. “But the motor was fantastic. He had this innate, natural thing that sometimes you can’t coach. When he first landed in Texas, he brought that with him. And he’s just never lost it.”

It was enough for the Aggies to bring Siakam on as an 18-year-old project destined to redshirt in his first year and maybe even his second. On the court and off, there was still much to learn. Preston Laird was the Aggies graduate assistant at the time (he’d eventually become their director of basketball operations). He picked a shy, wide-eyed Siakam up from El Paso International Airport on his first night in New Mexico in spring 2013. “He was extremely quiet,” Laird remembers. “I was like, ‘Hey, are you hungry?’ And he was like, ‘Yes, I am.’ So I say, ‘Want to go to Chipotle?’ And he’s like, ‘What’s Chipotle?’ I said, ‘You’re going to find out.’”

“He has such high levels of intelligence: Emotional, social, basketball — just a really, really smart person. You show him something once and he immediately starts grasping it.”

There was a lot Siakam was still unfamiliar with. Laird and Menzies set him up with a bank account and a one-bedroom apartment. They helped him sign his lease, taught him how to pay bills. They helped him through his visa applications. Meanwhile, Siakam was determined to refine his English, and started seeking out ways to improve his grasp of the language. Paul Weir, a Torontonian who was New Mexico State’s associate head coach at the time, likes to run book clubs with his players. He creates a library in the locker room wherever he coaches. He gave Siakam multiple books — athlete memoirs, Dean Smith’s Basketball, that sort of thing — which he quickly tore through, before returning to Weir’s office, asking for more. “For a player to do that just shows a great deal of maturity and focus on where he wants to go,” Weir says. “He was trying to learn basketball, learn life, learn America — he wanted to soak up all the information he could. I don’t know if I ever got the books back. That might be the only downside.”

That July, Siakam attended the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, taking in the highest level of basketball he’d ever seen. It was inspirational. He wanted badly to be like the players he was watching, to fulfill his father’s dream. It was a sentimental trip, too. In Vegas, Siakam was reunited with Christian for the first time in more than a decade. “When I left, he was the baby,” Christian says. “And then 10 years later, he’s taller than me. I was like, ‘What happened?’”

When Siakam returned to Las Cruces, he opened Facebook and updated his status, beaming about getting to watch NBAers, and making up for lost time with his brother. “Being around all those NBA players made me feel like I was close to my dream,” he wrote. “But in reality, I have a long, long, long way to go.

Siakam redshirted his freshman season at New Mexico State, but worked his way onto the Aggies' starting lineup and then to WAC Player of the Year honours by his sophomore year.

The day Pascal Siakam’s life changed forever was October 23, 2014. Siakam had spent the past year working daily with Laird and the rest of the New Mexico coaching staff. He’d lifted weights with purpose for the first time in his life, and implemented a wholesome diet with a focus on adding muscle. He’d quickly gained 10 pounds, then 20, then 30. At night, Laird had sent him YouTube clips of moves he’d study and try to pull off the next day. Siakam was like a blank canvas for his coaches — they were essentially building a basketball player from scratch. “And he would pick things up so quickly,” Laird says. “He has such high levels of intelligence: Emotional, social, basketball — just a really, really smart person. You show him something once and he immediately starts grasping it.”

The Aggies were finally ready to see just what they had. After thinking Siakam might redshirt in his second year, Menzies et al. shifted gears and began preparing him for a regular role as the season quickly approached. But then that day in October. “I get a call from Coach Menzies,” Laird remembers. “He says, ‘Hey, Pascal’s dad passed away. He’s really torn up. Can you go over there?’ I dropped everything.”

“From that day on, my purpose in the game, the way I play the game, changed forever.”

It was a car accident. Siakam’s five siblings — the three brothers and a sister spread across the United States, plus another sister in South Africa — were all making plans to return to Cameroon for the funeral. But an issue with Siakam’s visa meant that if he went home, he might not be admitted back into the U.S. Siakam didn’t care, he wanted to be there to see his father one last time, but his family decided that what he was pursuing in New Mexico was too important. He wasn’t going anywhere. Sitting in his apartment, with a picture of his father next to him on his bed, Siakam was despondent. “We just sat there, man,” Laird says. “And he cried and cried and cried.”

“From that day on,” Siakam says now, “my purpose in the game, the way I play the game, changed forever.”

New Mexico’s coaches will tell you they could see it. The season started only a couple weeks later, but Siakam didn’t miss a game. He played 20 minutes in his first ever NCAA contest and earned a starting role just six games later, going on to average 13 points, eight rebounds and 31 minutes a night. A year later he started all 34 games, averaging a double-double — 20 points, 12 rebounds — as he was named Western Athletic Conference Player of the Year. “He improved so quickly in such a short amount of time,” Menzies says. “That’s when everyone started to go, ‘Shoot, he could be special.’”

Siakam leaned towards turning pro after his sophomore season, but went to the NBA combine still on the fence. Ultimately, he took the plunge, despite having no idea whether he’d even be selected. He was so raw, so untested; NBA teams weren’t quite sure what to make of him. He worked out for more than 20 clubs, but no one gave him a firm indication of interest or let him compete against the draft’s more highly touted prospects. When Siakam worked out with the Raptors he was put in a group with six unrenowned players while Toronto held private sessions with Poeltl and Skal Labissiere at the other end of the gym.

His final workout was in Orlando, where Siakam stayed to watch the draft at a restaurant with his agent and brothers, who all flew in to be with him. Siakam had no idea if he’d be picked until about 30 seconds prior to it happening, when he caught his agent trying to inconspicuously alert his brothers to the impending selection. Then, with the 27th pick, Adam Silver read his name.

Siakam calls it the best night of his life — a step closer to realizing his father’s dream, jumping around the restaurant with his brothers, yelling and crying. Two time zones over in Las Cruces, Menzies and Laird were having their own celebration in New Mexico’s offices. Then, only minutes after the selection, the phone rang. “It’s Pascal,” Laird remembers. “I can hear his brothers screaming and going nuts in the background. And he’s like, ‘I just want to say thank you! I just want to say thank you! Thank you so much! Thank you! I couldn’t have done it without you! I’m gonna call you later! I have to go!’ I don’t think I said a word. But, man, for him to share that moment with us — I’ll never forget that for the rest of my life.”

An up-and-down rookie season saw Siakam suit up for the Raptors 905 just to get playing time. He won a G-League championship with the team, taking home Finals MVP honours.

Some days from Siakam’s first season as a pro stand out more than others: Being in the starting lineup for his first NBA game, fulfilling his father’s dream with Christian looking on at a deafening Air Canada Centre. The night against Atlanta, when he put up 14 points and was a plus-23. The cold day in early January when he was sat down and told he’d lost the starting job he’d held for Toronto’s first 34 games, and his regular playing time with it. The frustration, the disappointment, the deep sting of that news. “It caught me off guard,” he says. “In my head, I was like, ‘It’s not fair, I want to play.’ Because I know how much work I put in. At the same time, you’ve got to understand that things aren’t going to go to your way all the time. But that’s difficult to accept. It’s rough. I can’t be like, ‘Oh, it was easy.’ It was hard, man. Really, really hard. But I had to go through it. It was important for me.”

Riding the bench, seeing the floor only if it was a blowout or someone got hurt, Siakam fell into a deep funk. He was playing so sparingly that the Raptors sent him to the G League just to get game time. But in a funny way, the demotion helped. It had been so long since he’d actually played, he was starting to question whether he even belonged. “There’s a lot of great players in the league. And you can get to the point where you feel like maybe you’re not as great,” he says. “Getting the opportunity to play, being in an environment where you’re hooping and making decisions, it gives you that confidence. Like, hey man, I’m in the NBA for a reason.”

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Siakam played his final meaningful minutes of the season — a 17-point, seven-rebound night — at Hershey Centre in Mississauga, Ont. helping Raptors 905 win the G League Championship. After the game, he was named Finals MVP, looking embarrassed as he was mobbed by his teammates. He accepted his trophy, and with the first words of his interview shouted out Christian, who was watching from the stands. A month later, they were in Dominican Republic, getting away from it all after Siakam saw only 10 garbage-time minutes during Toronto’s 10-game playoff run. A week after that, Los Angeles, where a small collection of Raptors — VanVleet, Poeltl, Delon Wright, Norman Powell — were spending the off-season training together. He can only remember taking one day off from that point through to the start of his second season.

During Siakam’s exit interview with the Raptors coaching staff, ball-handling and shooting were primary topics. He needed to improve his work off the dribble; he needed a more consistent three-point shot. And so, every day that summer started with 100 threes from each corner, then 100 from each elbow extended. Then he’d shoot 50 more on the move from seven different spots. Sometimes, he’d have to hit five or 10 in a row before he progressed. A lot of days, he worked out twice and took well over 1,000 threes.

The ball-handling came from playing point guard — yes, point guard — during live, intense scrimmages against other NBAers (one game involving Russell Westbrook was particularly heated) at UCLA and Santa Monica College. Not that Siakam thinks his handle needed that much work. Menzies was regularly drawing up isolation plays on the elbows for Siakam in his final year at New Mexico State. He posted-up plenty, but flashed his abilities off the dribble, too. He never forgot that. He just got away from it. “My rookie year, I just wasn’t confident — I wanted to stay in my lane,” he says. “I was so scared, and wanted to fit in so much, to the point where I forgot about my game and what I can do. But now, I’m feeling like, why stay in your lane?”

That’s why, this year, you’re liable to see Siakam take the ball beyond the arc and attack. It’s why he’ll drive on a defender who crowds him; why he’ll dart into the paint late in the shot clock, make a couple moves, and finish at the rim, or attract help and find an open teammate. “I call him our Draymond Green,” says DeMar DeRozan. “The way he brings up the ball, he’s able to get us into things and get us open shots. And he’s got a little iso game, too.”

And yet, Siakam started the season out of the Raptors rotation, not even touching the floor in Toronto’s third game. Quietly, he stewed. “I did so much work in the summer,” he says. “And then you don’t play. It’s like, ‘Damn. I’m back here again?’” But opportunity soon arrived when Jonas Valanciunas went down with an injury and Siakam was suddenly in the starting lineup for a game in Oakland against the Warriors. He scored 20 points on 9-of-12 shooting, hitting his first two threes of the season. “That night, I had something to prove,” he says. “I was like, this is my moment. Nobody’s going to take this away from me.”

From that point forward, Siakam played double-digit minutes every game of the regular season. He finished with a 9.1 net rating, third among Raptors regulars, and within the top 20 players in the league. When he was on the floor, good things were happening. “I just told myself to make it impossible for the coaches not to play me. I was like, I’m not going to let that happen again,” he says. “It’s so easy to complain or get mad at the coaches. But it’s another thing to do everything in your power to stay in there.”

“My rookie year, I was so scared, and wanted to fit in so much, to the point where I forgot about my game and what I can do. But now, I’m feeling like, why stay in your lane?”

Still, there were struggles. At one point, over a stretch that lasted nearly a month, he missed 27 consecutive three-pointers as part of a longer 9-for-78 slump. But he told himself not to stop shooting — that he’d worked on it so much, eventually it would come. And it did — he finished the season shooting 41 per cent from beyond the arc over his final 20 games. Confidence in his ball-handling was slowly earned, too. As the season wore on, Siakam began noticing his teammates running up the floor in transition whenever he’d grab a defensive rebound instead of doubling back to take the ball from him. One day during practice, Lowry pulled Siakam aside and let him know there was a reason for it. “Man, we trust you. When you get a rebound, just push it,” Lowry told him. “I’m running. I’m not coming to get the ball from you anymore.”

By the beginning of the playoffs, Siakam was in a much different position than he’d been a year prior. As a rookie, he was inactive for Toronto’s first-round opener. As a sophomore, he was jogging to the scorer’s table with three minutes remaining in the first quarter to check in. He pulled his red long-sleeved warmup shirt off and drew the sign of the cross over his chest as he stepped on the floor before pointing and looking upwards, for his father. He caught the rim on a left-handed turn-around hook with his first attempt from the field. But his second, a corner three, caught nothing but net, the first playoff points of his career.

“It’s not always going to be easy. I’m going to struggle. I’m going to go through things,” Siakam says. “But when you put the work in and you have the support that I have from teammates and coaches — it just gives you that confidence, that mentality. Right now, I’m just free and not thinking about anything.”

Siakam finished his second season with a net rating of of 9.1, good enough to land him among the NBA's top 20 in the category. When he saw the floor, good things happened.

When Tchamo Siakam talked about his dream of having his sons play in the NBA — not a rare occurrence for those who knew him — he did so with an almost boyish excitement. He wanted to see them throw down thunderous dunks. He wanted them to dribble between an opponent’s legs. He wanted them crossing guys out of their shoes. But he wanted a better future for his boys, too. He wanted them to make more money than they’d ever dreamed of growing up in Douala. He wanted them to be set for life.

Pascal Siakam isn’t there yet. He’s doing fine, earning a little more than $1.3 million in the second year of his rookie deal. But he’s got a ways to go. Still, if he ever does sign a lucrative extension, he’s got some ideas of what he’ll do with it. He’s already taken care of his mother, Victoire, who ran a retail business for more than 20 years and now won’t have to work another day in her life. The Siakam boys are hoping to move her to the U.S. someday, maybe to Kentucky where Boris now lives. Siakam’s next step, not any time soon but one day, will be finding his own way to give back to Cameroon. He’s not sure what he’ll do yet. Could be an event, could be a camp like the one Mbah a Moute ran that started his journey eight years ago. That will take time and energy Siakam can’t spare now. But he’s had discussions with Menzies about getting something started. They’ll talk more this summer. “He’s a great kid, man — he really is,” Menzies says. “It’s hard not to smile and chuckle when you talk about him.”

“I just told myself to make it impossible for the coaches not to play me.”

It’s a similar feeling for Christian, who may have gone 10 years without seeing his little brother, but knows him better than just about anyone on the planet. When Siakam began his rookie season in Toronto, Christian came with him. Siakam says it’s the best decision he’s ever made. “He’s helped me through a lot,” he says. “He helps me get away from stuff, get my mind off basketball. Because sometimes, man, you can just think about this stuff all day. You can stress about this game so much and never escape it. My escape is going home and just being with my brother and laughing and being goofballs. Sometimes, I just need to laugh.”

As he cracks jokes in a seat about 20 rows up from the floor in an empty Air Canada Centre, you can tell Christian’s good at it. He just watched his brother score 12 points and dish out six assists in a late-March victory. And now, as he waits for him to finish his post-game work and get ready to go back to their condo, Christian reflects on everything they’ve been through, and how that little soccer player ended up in the NBA. Those who know all four Siakam brothers say there’s something unique between Christian and Pascal. Christian’s the outlet. The one Pascal can be his most nutty self with, the one who takes his mind as far away from basketball as possible. It goes back to before they even left Cameroon. “Even as a kid,” Christian says, “me and Pascal were always cool, always a little closer.”

That’s why he’s in Toronto now, for every step of his brother’s most validating season. He’s been there for the nights Siakam’s so pissed off at himself after a loss that when they get back to the condo, he goes straight to his room, emerging a while later to have something to eat and let his brother help him get over it. He’s been there for the good nights, too. And he was in the gym, 5:30 a.m., watching the shots go up as the time on his phone blinked by.

“Come on, man. We have to go. You have to go.”

Not yet. Pascal Siakam has to do more.

Photo Credits

Design by Drew Lesiuczok
Ron Turenne/NBAE/Getty Images; Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images; Nell Redmond/AP; Rod Aydelotte/AP; Steve Russell/Toronto Star/Getty Images; Michael Dwyer/AP