TORONTO – Pascal Siakam was nearly an all-star a year ago.
In the midst of a breakout season, the Raptors’ fourth-year forward was considered a fringe candidate. He was right on the cusp of making the NBA’s mid-year showcase but just missed the cut. He may have been the best player to get snubbed.
Understandably, Siakam was a little disappointed. But, like he had done so many times when facing adversity or hitting a roadblock in his career or in his life before, he found a way to turn a setback into motivation.
He told himself that he didn’t want to be the guy that just barely makes it in. He didn’t want to be an injury replacement and he definitely didn’t want to be a one-hit wonder. When he finally did make his first All-Star Game he wanted it to be a no-doubt selection and, most importantly, he wanted to make sure he would be there every year.
“I remember always saying that last year,” Siakam recalls now. “It was like, okay, he wasn't really, really there but he had a chance, you know? I wanted to be able to be there and be solidified and somebody that everybody knows when they look at him that he’s an all-star and there’s no debate. So, that's what I want.”
Mission accomplished. Siakam wasn’t just named to his first career All-Star Game on Thursday, the 25-year-old was also voted in as a starter. Joining Siakam as fellow starters from the Eastern Conference are Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, Philadelphia 76ers centre Joel Embiid, Boston Celtics guard Kemba Walker and Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young. Antetokounmpo was named the Eastern Conference's captain for the second straight year.
The West Conference's starters are Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James, Lakers forward Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard, Houston Rockets guard James Harden and Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic. Like Antetokounmpo, this is also James' second straight year being named the Western Conference's captain.
“As a young player coming in and knowing my path and how I got here, to be there and to be in that [all-star] conversation, I mean that's crazy to think about,” Siakam said. “But it's not something that I didn't think was possible, you know what I mean? I've always believed in myself. And I've always put the work in to not only be an all-star but be an all-star for a long time. That's my goal. I mean, I think about those things and I feel like I have the ability to do it. It's going to be on me to go out there every single night and make sure that I'm the best player that I can be and I continue to work hard and don't get complacent and do everything in my power to be at that level. It’s an honour. That's something that a lot of players dream about it.”
His journey from Cameroon to the NBA All-Star Game – which will take place in Chicago on Feb. 16 – is remarkable. Most are familiar with his unprecedented success story by now, but that doesn’t make it any less astonishing.
Ten years ago, Siakam was studying to become a priest and hadn’t even started playing basketball competitively.
Four years ago, he was an under-the-radar sophomore at New Mexico State. He wasn’t supposed to be a first-round pick, but the Raptors went off the board to take him 27th-overall.
Four years ago, his NBA career started off on the right track but he fell out of the rotation by mid-season because his limited shooting range made him an offensive liability. He went to the G League and won a championship with the 905.
A couple years ago, he wasn’t supposed to be a rotation player. He started the season as the 11th man and it took an early injury to Jonas Valanciunas to get him on the court. He would become a key part of the league’s best second unit.
Last year, he wasn’t supposed to be a full-time starter. The plan was for him to platoon at the power forward position. He went on to win the league’s Most Improved Player award.
Now, he’s an NBA champion, max contract player, and all-star starter. Few would have expected him to come this far.
“He was a toothpick to us in Memphis,” Raptors teammate Marc Gasol joked, looking back at facing a young Siakam when they were on opposing teams. “I think we played him maybe once [when I was] in Memphis and obviously he didn't have the confidence or the minutes that he [has now].”
As unlikely as his assentation once seemed, none of it happened by accident. Through it all, he worked and worked and worked. He trained with Rico Hines in Los Angeles every summer. Each time he was given an inch he took a mile, seizing every opportunity that was put in front of him. Siakam always believed this was possible, even when nobody else could see it.
“It's funny, I was [thinking I could be an all-star early in my career],” he said. “Like, I literally was. And probably looking at me play, you didn't think that. But I always had that. And I always talk about Rico and from the first day we got together, that was something that we thought about. After MIP we were thinking MVP, we were thinking All Star. That was always the mindset that we had going into that so I can't tell you that I didn't think that this was going to be possible. I mean, I knew I was going to have to put a lot of work in, but I knew it was something that was definitely reachable.”
“It’s special,” head coach Nick Nurse said. “This is a kid who two years ago was, I mean I think he started the season as our 11th man and he played in the D League the year before. That’s a hell of a rise up.”
Siakam has taken another big step in his fourth season. With reigning Finals MVP Leonard leaving as a free agent over the summer, Siakam inherited the lead role. Although there have been some bumps in the road – not unexpected, given this is his first time being the focal point of an NBA offence – and it’s taking him some time to get back to full speed after missing three weeks with a groin injury, he hasn’t looked out of place in the spotlight.
The talented forward is averaging a team-leading 23.5 points to go along with 7.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.0 steal and 1.0 block – all career-highs.
Most impressively, he continues to strive for more. Even after turning in a good – and sometimes great – performance, it’s not unusual to hear Siakam point to a few things he could have done better. Maybe he feels like he could have been more aggressive early in the game, or that he should have been more disciplined defensively in order to stay out of foul trouble.
He’s constantly looking to identify weaknesses in his game and working to turn them into strengths. That’s how he went from shooting 22 per cent on 1.6 three-point attempts per game as a sophomore – one of the worst three-point shooting seasons in NBA history – to hitting 37 per cent (above league average) of his 5.9 attempts this year.
Those are the kind of players that you want to bet on and one of the big reasons why the Raptors gave Siakam a four-year, $130 million contract extension just before the season.
Siakam has accomplished another one of his goals but, while he’s humbled, he’s far from satisfied. It’s not enough to make one All-Star Game or win one championship or earn one big contract. He’s come so far already, but if you ask him he’ll tell you this is still just the beginning.