TORONTO – Pascal Siakam’s NBA story is one mostly made up of improbable triumph in the face of adversity.
By now, you likely know it very well.
Born in Douala, Cameroon and the youngest of four brothers who all wanted to fulfill their late father’s dream of playing the NBA, Siakam didn’t start playing organized basketball until he was 16 — and there began his implausible path toward NBA stardom.
First starting in high school, where he played at the prep school God’s Academy in Lewisville, Texas, where he earned a scholarship with New Mexico State University, despite being relatively unknown. Then being selected 27th overall by the Toronto Raptors in the 2016 NBA Draft, after which all he did was get better season after season, culminating in a Most Improved Player award in 2019. Which then led to this season, where he was named an all-star for the first time in his career (as a starter, no less) and was looking to be worth every bit of the four-year, $130-million extension he signed before the season started, slated to kick in for the 2020-21 season.
This kind of meteoric ascent is pretty much unprecedented for a player as unheralded as Siakam was, and for a time it felt like he could only go up in his progression over time.
But here’s the funny thing about progression; it doesn’t always conveniently work out to be just a nice steady ascent. There are bound to be dips here and there.
And so, like any good story, if Siakam is the Raptors’ main protagonist as his big contract suggests he is, he had to eventually fail in order to rise up once again.
“It was tough and I think we hung in there trying to find ways and, at the end of the day, obviously, I have to be better,” Siakam said after his Raptors fell to the Boston Celtics, 92-87, in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference semifinal. “It was definitely a learning moment for me, just learning from this experience and just learning that you’ve gotta be ready and that I wasn’t able to really help my teammates. So, yeah, I take a lot of the blame, man.”
Yes, the Raptors’ seemingly never-ending title reign came to an end Friday night and Siakam has rightfully identified himself as the main culprit for why his team’s season ended in relative disappointment.
After an all-star regular-season campaign that saw Siakam lead the Raptors with a 22.9 points-per-game scoring average on 45.3 per cent shooting from the field, he severely underperformed in the post-season, averaging just 17 points per game on 39.6 per cent shooting and an outright putrid 18.9 per cent mark from three-point range, a disastrous line exemplified by his Game 7 performance Friday night, when he only scored 13 points on 5-of-12 shooting and turned the ball over five times.
That simply wasn’t good enough for the Raptors. It severely handicapped their ability to reach their goals this post-season and Siakam knows it.
“At the end of the day there’s no excuses, we’re all pros and we have to be ready and I don’t think it was anything pressure-wise,” Siakam said. “I just felt like I wasn’t at my best and when I’m at my best this team is unbelievable and you’ve gotta be at your best at this time and I felt like I wasn’t.”
Perhaps hearing Siakam admit this is cold comfort for Raptors fans. If there is a silver lining to glean from a season cut short, his honesty would certainly be it.
We admire our sporting heroes because they don’t run from challenges. They embrace them whole-heartedly, and this is exactly what Siakam is planning to do now with more time on his hands than he might've anticipated.
“At the end of the day, it’s part of being in this league and being at the level that I’m supposed to be at," he said. "Obviously, it’s a learning experience and, like I said, a lot of people go through these moments. What response are you gonna get from it? How are you gonna take it? Are you gonna take it as a man as an experience or are you just gonna feel sorry for yourself? Because at the end of the day nobody’s gonna feel sorry for you. I come from a background of just always working hard and fighting my way through everything that was thrown at me and I feel like this was just another step for me….
“But it’s an experience and all the greats go through it and you have to learn from it. If you want to be considered one of the best players you have to be able to rise from these moments and that’s something that I plan to do.”
Strong, encouraging words from Siakam, and given his track record of improvement, not any of that should be doubted.
And, at the very least, he can look to his teammates for support as he navigates what has been the first true bump in the road of his NBA career.
“When we got swept by the Wizards [in 2015] I read every single article, I read every single thing that was said about me: good, bad, evil, terrible, awesome, and I used it as motivation, and that's what he's going to do,” Kyle Lowry said of his teammate after the game. “And that's the advice that I'm going to give him, which is that you look at everything, you look at all these moments, and you see who's saying what, because you're going to use it as fuel. Fuel yourself. And that's what he's going to do.
“And for a guy like me, who has gone through the type of things that he's going through at this moment, he'll be able to call me whenever, and I won't be able to tell him nothing wrong. I don't think he did anything wrong. I think this is a learning experience. It's only going to make him a better basketball player, a better man, a better everything. And I would not be surprised to see him come back even more hungry and destroying people.”
Lowry notoriously averaged just 12.3 points per game and shot 31.6 per cent from the field in that dreadful 2015 first-round series with Washington he was referring to, but managed to bounce back in a big way to the point where he’s widely considered the best player in franchise history and a notable big-time playoff performer.
This wasn’t Siakam’s first time in the post-season, but it was his first time as the team’s No. 1 offensive option and it showed. That doesn’t mean he can’t learn and grow from this experience, though, as he said he will.
If anything, as Lowry alluded to, Siakam now fully understands what his limitations are and will have a clear off-season game plan to work on the holes in his game.
“What do I say to him is we gotta watch this,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said. “We kind of put it away for a little while but then I think we watch this little post-season in totality and then even watch the season and get to work.”
From this writer’s layman’s perspective, what Siakam probably needs to add are things he simply didn’t have enough time to figure out during the playoffs.
For example, much has been made about him having only a spin move. This is false, but he would benefit to add a more definitive, decisive counter to his signature move so he knows precisely how he’ll attack when he goes to the spin.
Additionally, and most importantly, Siakam will need to better recognize where double teams are coming from and make a quick decision on how to handle it by either splitting it, passing out or maybe even just shooting over the top. This mainly comes down to experience and Siakam hadn’t had a lot of it prior to this season, so he should only get better next year.
Lastly, and though it might sound blasphemous to the more analytically-inclined, Siakam would benefit greatly from a mid-range game. Knowing he was either just looking to pop a three-pointer or try to get to the basket made him easier for the Celtics to defend. Had he a more refined in-between game, he’d be much tougher to cover. With his length, quickness and athleticism, Siakam could reasonably operate from the free-throw line extended -- a la Dirk Nowitzki -- and be near unguardable from there, but it just isn’t in his bag yet.
So go ahead and ridicule and mock Siakam all you like because, yeah, it’s completely justified right now after he failed to achieve his goal.
But so did Hercules, Superman, Goku, the Avengers and any other hero you might think of.
It’s just part of the story, and Siakam’s isn’t finished yet -- not by a long shot.
“I wasn't supposed to be here," Siakam said. "I didn't play the way that I expected to play, but I always have those high expectations for myself. Like, it doesn't really matter what other people think. To me, I have these expectations for myself because I always saw myself as somebody that could be a really good player in this league, and I worked hard. I worked hard every single day and I put myself in this situation.
“You have to continue to learn, and like I said, that's something I take with my chin up, move forward, continue to work hard, go back, watch it, find ways to be better, and learn from it. That's all I can do. Obviously, there's a lot more years in this league and I feel like I can only go up from here.”