Prior to checking in, he pounds the ‘4’ on his jersey four times — once for his late father and three times for each of his brothers. Three more touches of the adjacent ‘3’, for his mother and two sisters, and then it’s straight to business. Basketball is Pascal Siakam’s livelihood, but family has, and always will be number one.
Introduced to the game of basketball relatively late in life, Siakam’s journey is an interesting case study. It wasn’t until the age of 16 that he, following his three older brothers, moved to the United States to pursue a dream of being an NBA player — something his father always dreamed for his sons.
His basketball journey is littered with unprecedented realities. Too many to list and detail here, unfortunately.
Born in Cameroon, Siakam was the youngest of four boys, all of whom loved basketball (along with two sisters as stated above). Pascal preferred soccer, a much more common sport of choice for kids growing up in Africa. It wasn’t until he participated in a Basketball Without Borders camp that he discovered the gift that had been bestowed on him.
Today, he is a vital member of the NBA’s most exhilarating second unit (and may I say amongst the largest of snubs for the 2018 Rising Stars Challenge).
(As I transition into the ‘meat and potatoes’ of this piece, please check out this Players Tribune piece for a more in-depth look into Siakam’s journey from Douala, Cameroon to his present-day launchpad in ‘The Six’. A truly remarkable story. Encourage you to read if you haven’t already, as it’s from 2016.)
Amongst the myriad of unimaginable realities in Siakam’s journey, the most jaw-dropping one has to be the story behind the first NBA game he ever attended.
It just so happened to be his rookie debut, and Siakam was announced as a starter for the Toronto Raptors. Quite a first taste of live NBA action. Most of us are limited to taking in the sights and sounds while snacking on overpriced grub and sipping on exorbitantly priced beverages.
Understandably, his rookie season came with an appropriate dose of trials and tribulations, precisely what could be expected from a late first-round selection (27th overall). It would see him slam into the proverbial rookie wall around the 35-game mark — very apropos when you consider he was coming off two college seasons that saw him play 34 games in each. Having been relegated to a bench cheerleader — which he also excels at if you’ve watched him at all — by the midway point, Siakam would eventually finish the season in the G League. He would take home Finals MVP honours as the 905 went on to win the league title.
Through 53 games in 2017-18, he’s played as pivotal a role as anyone in the success of the Raptors’ Bench Mob. While his shot continues to be a work in progress, everything else about his game has improved by leaps and bounds since his ‘trial-and-error’ rookie season.
Removing Bebe and Bruno from the equation, Siakam is second on the team in defensive rating (103), trailing only JV (102) according to Basketball-Reference. Able to switch and guard smaller players in space, Siakam provides head coach Dwane Casey the mobility and flexibility coaches crave in today’s switch-happy NBA.
Switching to the offensive side of the ball, while his range is expanding, Siakam has shown an innate ability to create on the drive. Inside of 10-feet, he’s shooting just over 60% this season. Ultimately, he will need to add the 3-point shot to his game but for now, he’s doing just fine operating in the closer regions surrounding the rim. And do I need to go into detail about what a force he is in transition?
Perhaps the most overlooked and improved aspect of Siakam’s game is his passing. In his rookie season, he averaged one assist per 100 possessions. Fast forward to his sophomore season and he’s approaching five times that with 4.5 helpers per 100 (and that obviously doesn’t include the countless hockey assists that go uncredited in the nightly box scores). He ranks 5th on the team in AST% (amongst players with > 100 MP), trailing only Lowry, DeRozan, VanVleet, and Delon Wright — the four primary ball handlers (also, his chemistry with fellow Mobster Jakob Poeltl is uncanny — even off the court)
Finally, not discrediting what the likes of Wright, VanVleet, Poeltl (and even Miles) have done for the bench’s overall production and success, but it’s Siakam who truly embodies what this unit has been all about all season: hard work, high energy, and fast-paced basketball. He’s tied for third on the team in terms of his value over a replacement player, trailing the two players you’d suspect would lead that category for this team. Additionally, he ranks fifth on the team in overall box score +/- (after correcting for the Bebe outlier).
At this point, I feel like I’ve rhymed off enough numbers. By now, it should be abundantly clear just how valuable he is to the process of winning. And still, he and his fellow qualified bench teammates were snubbed from the league’s annual showcase of young talent. Rest assured, that slight will do little to affect Siakam’s continued development and the pursuit of his father’s dream. A dream he has already fulfilled but now continues to add to. Never one to let up, either on or off the court, Pascal Siakam is only going to get better.