ORLANDO, Fla. — He means no disrespect, but Pascal Siakam doesn’t care what Tracy McGrady thinks.
So, the morning after the Raptors’ energetic big man led Toronto to victory in Game 3 of its playoff series against Orlando, Siakam spoke thoughtfully of the people whose opinions he actually does care about.
McGrady, who was courtside for Siakam’s impressive performance at Amway Center on Friday night, recently dismissed the Raptor as deserving of the league’s most improved player award. Siakam is simply playing more this season, McGrady argued on ESPN’s "The Jump," adding it was more about opportunity than improvement.
"Y’all trying to start something man," Siakam laughed about McGrady’s comments. "I don’t know nothin’ about that, I don’t know what happened, I don’t watch what’s going on, what people say … it’s not about who said what."
But Siakam knows who is watching him. And every chest-flexing, roaring celebration of a big block, every megawatt smile after a three-point shot falls is for them.
"I’m just blessed to be here, happy that I’m in this position, and people from where I’m from can look at me and hopefully dream that they can be here one day … continue to work hard, and at the end of the day if I do that that’s what’s important to me," Siakam said.
"That’s the message I’m trying to send every night I’m on the floor, and if some kids or whoever come and tell me, ‘Hey I’m watching you and your development and how you got here, and your story is an inspiration,’ and maybe one day they’ll be like, ‘I’m here today because of you.’ I think that will be more important."
On a night Raptors star Kawhi Leonard was feeling under the weather, Siakam had 30 points and 11 rebounds in a 98-93 win that put the Raptors up 2-1 in the series. He’s averaging 24.3 points and 10 boards a game in the playoffs.
Siakam is also averaging 40 minutes a night through the three games. He has touched the ball 206 times and had just one turnover.
When Raptors coach Nick Nurse was asked before tip-off Friday if Siakam had become his third scoring option, he snickered and replied that if Siakam has, he’s fallen one spot.
The fact he’s become the second option behind Leonard says everything about Siakam’s improbable story. His improvement has happened at warp speed.
"Hey, look, he was terrific," Magic coach Steve Clifford on Friday.
The 25-year-old Siakam has only played organized basketball for seven years, the same number of years the Orlando Magic had gone without making the playoffs. That fact had teammate Danny Green looking incredulous Friday night.
"Seriously?" Green asked. Siakam winked in response.
Siakam spent his childhood in a Catholic boarding school, a dusty eight-hour bus ride from his family’s home in Douala, Cameroon. He was spotted at a basketball camp run by Los Angeles Clippers forward Luc Mbah a Moute, landing a scholarship to God’s Academy in Lewisville, playing well enough in one year there to earn a scholarship at New Mexico State.
On the eve of the Aggies’ pre-season in 2014, Siakam’s dad Tchamo was killed in a car accident. Siakam, at his family’s urging, made the tough choice to stay in the U.S. rather than travel home for the funeral and risk losing his scholarship over visa issues.
At a pre-NBA draft workout in Buffalo, former Raptors coach Dwane Casey loved Siakam’s energy, and Toronto selected the six-foot-nine forward 27th overall in the 2016 draft.
Siakam was sent down to the team’s G-League affiliate Raptors 905 almost immediately, calling those early days some of the most difficult of his life. He went on to earn MVP of the G-League finals.
Last season, Siakam was a cornerstone of Toronto’s popular "Bench Mob," which came up big in the Raptors’ post-season series win over Washington.
In this season’s revolving door of a roster, Siakam has been the one constant. He’s logged the most minutes of anyone on the team. His teammates love his infectious energy. He’s always animated. His wide grin matches his massive seven-foot-three wingspan.
"His personality is just to go play and have fun," said Raptors guard Kyle Lowry.
"Some of the things, I guess I’m kind of shocked at how he completes them," Green said. "(Lowry) throws a half-court lob and he catches it and figures out what to do when he’s up there. Pretty impressive, some of his finishes around the basket — tough angles, like, ‘I don’t know how I got that to go in."’
The Raptors didn’t practise on Saturday ahead of Sunday’s Game 4, and so Siakam sat perched on a stool addressing the media in a massive ballroom at the team’s posh resort hotel. He talked about being tired after logging so many minutes, running his hands over his long thighs.
Nurse wasn’t buying it.
"He’s young and riding a wave right now," the coach said. "I bet he’s not that tired. I bet he’s enjoying this, and I think he’s got plenty of energy."
The Raptors hope to harness more of that energy when they face Orlando again at Amway Center. The series returns to Toronto for Game 5 on Tuesday. If necessary, Game 6 would be back in Orlando.