Raptors’ Pascal Siakam continues improbable rise as All-Star starter

Michael Grange takes a look at the rise of Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam.

Everyone is so happy for him. That’s perhaps the most telling element about Pascal Siakam’s improbable rise from NBA nobody to All-Star game starter in the space of three short years.

They know the person, they know the story and they know what it means.

No one becomes an all-star on their own, but Siakam’s unlikely path has picked up a village worth of supporters, all of whom see something of themselves in the likeable 25-year-old’s success.

And so when Siakam was – as had been expected – announced as an All-Star game starter Thursday night, it served as a shared moment that elevates those around him because they know where the journey started. He finished third in Eastern Conference fan voting and, after media and player votes were factored in, the kid from Cameroon got the nod.

It’s almost hard to believe, but it’s true — and who doesn’t like those kinds of stories?

It’s why, when the Raptors headed onto their team charter for the trip to New York City before their game here Friday against the New York Knicks, Kyle Lowry was proudly repping a sweatshirt with Siakam’s logo on it.

It’s why Siakam’s older brother, Christian, squeezed himself onto a flight to New York Thursday morning to make sure he would be with his younger brother for the moment.

“He can’t be by himself [for] this,” he said.

It’s why Raptors veteran Serge Ibaka who – hailing from the Congo – understands Siakam’s journey from a French-speaking African country to the rare air of the NBA was moved at the prospect of his locker room neighbour getting league-wide recognition.

“To me, personally, it’s beautiful, because coming from Africa, as an [All-Star] starter,” Ibaka said. “It’s going to be big, not just for him, but for others, young players who look up to him in Africa. It’s going to inspire a lot of people. I always tell him, as an African player, whatever we do, it’s not only for us.”

It’s why Fred VanVleet, who broke in with Siakam as a rookie in 2016-17 and regularly shared a DNP-CD (did not play, coach’s decision) designation in the box score that season, feels like Siakam’s triumphs are in part his success — and every other teammate who made the drives out to Mississauga to play for Raptors 905.

“We’re all taking a piece of it,” said VanVleet. “We all went through everything together, for the most part, through those trenches, those dark times, sitting at the end of the bench, we all went through it together, so to see his rise now, it’s pretty cool. We all knew that he belonged as a player, but for him to move up into that range [as a starter] after not being there [before], that’s the part I look at, that’s real cool.”

They simply don’t make All-Star stories like this very often.

Siakam picked up the sport as an afterthought in his late teens. He was lightly recruited out of high school after moving to Texas, spent three years at small-conference New Mexico State, was a late first-round pick (27th overall) by the Raptors as an “energy guy” and averaged 4.2 points a game as a rookie. Even two seasons ago, he averaged just 7.3 points coming off the bench and was projected to be a rotation player in training camp heading into season three.

But alongside Kawhi Leonard — and often carrying the team in Leonard’s absence — Siakam broke out.

NBA-Raptors-Siakam-and-Leonard-during-game-against-Kings

Raptors’ forward Kawhi Leonard, left, talks with teammate Pascal Siakam. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

And now? He’s arguably the best player on one of the NBA’s best teams, and he’s headed to Chicago to play on one of the sport’s brightest stages — thanks in part to per-game averages of 23.5 points, 7.7 rebounds and 3.5 assists, all career highs.

Perhaps the only person who saw this coming was the man himself.

“I think for me, from the first day I got to the NBA, I’ve always wanted to achieve more,” he said, moments after learning he would be an All-Star game starter. “I felt like the league was wide open for me to come in and be one of the better players and we worked really, really hard. It wasn’t easy and it’s not easy — I was like, one for [whatever] last night? This is always a journey.

“And I think what makes it just fun is having that support and having the people around me believing in me and, and from the first day I got in the gym, I always say that my man Rico [Hines, Siakam’s Los Angeles-based trainer], even my agent, from the first day, they saw that in me and I saw that in myself and that’s why we connected that well. And I’m so glad that it’s happening.”

There is only one tinge of sadness. For all of Siakam’s biggest moments the person who he would want to share them with the most, but isn’t able to, is his father, Tchamo. It was his father who dreamed the big dreams first and encouraged his sons to use basketball as a way to further themselves and imagined that one of his four boys would play in the NBA. He died in a car accident on Oct. 23, 2014 before he could see his youngest son realize his vision.

“It’s unbelievable man. I think you’ve just gotta think back to the journey,” said Siakam. “I 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.

“I wish that 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.”

But this fast? It’s wild when you look back on it.

By the time the All-Star break rolled around in Siakam’s 2016-17 rookie season, the rangy forward was officially an afterthought in the Raptors’ rotation, sitting behind DeMarre Carroll, watching minutes go to Lucas Nogueira.

After the trade deadline and the Raptors’ acquisitions of P.J. Tucker and Ibaka, Siakam barely played again outside of some garbage time in a handful of games.

It’s been a steady march to this moment ever since.

Even with how far he’s come, Siakam’s never let his past and the path he took to get here drift too far from his thoughts.

Before every game, he still recognizes his late father by writing “10/23” on one sneaker and “RIP Dad” on the other.

He’ll no doubt be doing it in a few weeks’ time in Chicago, writing another chapter in an unbelievable story that few would have predicted, but everyone is happy to have come to pass.

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