It’s a month into the season and I’m still blown away by how quickly Pascal Siakam went from being a rookie with an 11 percent usage rate to a two-way superstar averaging 26 points on solid efficiency. It’s difficult to compare his rise from humble beginnings to any other player in the NBA. In fact, to find an apt comparison, I needed to delve outside of basketball entirely.
Since I mostly just watch basketball and play video games during my spare time, I did not have much in my knowledge base to compare him to. “Who or what improved year after year in a way that seemed impossible?” I asked myself as I pretended my phone was a skateboard, executing varial kickflips on my desk. Of course, the answer was right under my nose: the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater franchise.
In 1998, distribution giant Activision gave small developer Neversoft the green light to start work on a skateboarding game. Neversoft brought in Tony Hawk to do some motion capture work and stamp his name on the box. According to Neversoft designer Chris Rausch, there was a moment midway through development when everyone “knew right away that this was going to be fun.”
Like Siakam, however, the Tony Hawk series took a few years to realize its full potential.
2016-2018 Siakam: Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater
“So here I am / doing everything I can / holding onto what I am / pretending I’m a superman” - Superman by Goldfinger (featured on Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater soundtrack)
Siakam began his career a spot starter for a 51-win Raptors team. He could not shoot or dribble, but wowed fans with his athleticism and motor. Seeing him immediately contribute to a playoff-calibre team was like loading up Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater for the first time and starting the career mode in the Warehouse.
The Warehouse is a basic indoor skate park. It houses only a few ramps, a halfpipe, a ledge, and a rail, but it is a perfect introduction to the mercilessly addictive trick system that powered the franchise to success. Once you beat enough objectives in the Warehouse, be it to score 15,000 points in a two-minute run or find the secret tape, you unlock School. This is another simple training-style level, but is about ten times bigger than the Warehouse. It has rails, ledges, ramps, a few quarterpipes, and two drained outdoor pools where the school’s swim teams ostensibly practice.
After the first two levels, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater suffers an identity crisis. The Mall and Downhill Jam are straight downhill courses that automatically end your run at the bottom; Neversoft stopped making these types of levels after the first game. Streets and Minneapolis are too big and empty. Burnside, Skate Park, and Roswell are skate park-themed levels that do not expand much on concepts found in the Warehouse.
Bebe Noguiera replaced Siakam in the starting lineup in January 2017. A month later, Toronto traded for Serge Ibaka and assigned Siakam to the G League. He started only one game the next season, but played five more minutes per game than his rookie year. He comprised one fifth of the prestigious Raptors “Bench Mob” of Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet, C.J. Miles, Siakam, and Jakob Poeltl. Siakam showed improvement in year two, particularly in his ability to pass and make close shots from improbable angles.
However, like the last three quarters of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, Siakam’s path in his first two seasons was crooked and confusing. Did the Raptors want him to eventually start or was he seen as an energy big off the bench? Perhaps he would not even be on the team, but included in the impending trade for Kawhi Leonard.
The summer passed and Siakam was not one of the Raptors sent to San Antonio. Not only did Masai Ujiri choose to keep him over Jakob Poeltl, he saw Siakam as a key part of the Raptors’ future core. Nick Nurse did too as he started Siakam in his first game as Toronto’s head coach.
2018-2019 Siakam: Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2
“Turn it up / bring the noise” - Bring The Noise by Anthrax & Public Enemy (featured on Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 soundtrack)
Siakam’s game flourished in year three. He averaged a wildly efficient 17 points per game and played excellent defense en route to the Most Improved Player award. He made strides in almost every area of the game, but especially in his ball handling. Siakam had already showcased his passing, close-range touch, and quick leaping ability, but his newfound ability to comfortably put the ball on the floor pieced together these fragments of his game into a potent offensive package.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 introduced the trick that connected everything: the manual. For those not privy to skateboard terminology, a manual is when the skater lifts up the front wheels of their skateboard and rides balanced on the back wheels.
The manual allowed the player to link tricks together as part of the same combo. This along with improved level design and smoother transitions from one object to the next allowed for point totals in the millions, something unheard of in the previous game.
Whether it was the Hangar, School II, Marseilles, or Venice Beach, each level set up coherent combo sequences that you could follow for high scores. Tony Hawk himself credits the second game as the one that “put us on a map”. Siakam’s third season put him on the map.
2019-2020 Siakam: Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3
“I’m destroying the world” - I’m Destroying The World by Guttermouth (featured on Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 soundtrack)
Following Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 in 2000, Activision created a branch called Activision O₂ which published snowboarding, wakeboarding, BMX, and surfing games. They expected the upcoming Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 to headline this new brand. Neversoft also felt pressure from the console manufacturers; the third Tony Hawk game would be expected to show off the groundbreaking capabilities of the newly released PlayStation 2, Xbox, and GameCube.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 exceeded all expectations. The levels looked better and the object layouts were tighter, with even more trick lines crammed into each stage.
Coaches and fans alike penciled in Siakam to be the leading scorer for the Raptors in the absence of Kawhi Leonard. He started the season with a 34-point outing against the Pelicans and followed it up going 5-of-7 from three in a loss against the Celtics. Many of his three-point looks were self created above the break, a zone he shot 26 percent from the previous season. As of Tuesday, November 26th, Siakam is shooting 37 percent from that zone and is only assisted on 68 percent of his made threes (per Cleaning The Glass). His shooting ability has forced the defense to guard him differently, allowing him more space to attack the basket.
If Siakam’s dribbling was the manual, his improved shooting ability is the revert, a trick that Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 introduced. In Tony Hawk 2, your combo ended automatically if you landed on a quarterpipe. You cannot land back down on a vert ramp in a manual. However, in Tony Hawk 3, you could revert down a quarterpipe and then manual, continuing your combo.
With the addition of the revert, players now had total autonomy over where and when they could rack up high combos. Every object could flow into the next as part of a monster score. Much like current-day Siakam on offense, the possibilities for points in Tony Hawk 3 seem endless.
The third game’s success burdened Neversoft by setting the bar even higher. Activision now demanded a new and innovative release every year. In Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4 the developers did away with the level timer in career mode, allowing for a free roaming environment in which the player approached a different non-playable character to complete each goal. This seemed revolutionary at the time, but ultimately made the career mode needlessly long and clunky. The fifth game, Tony Hawk’s Underground took the Tony Hawk 4 formula and added a coherent story line. Underground is the favorite game of many fans of the series (I go back and forth between Underground and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 as my favorite).
Like Neversoft, Siakam will face highs and lows as he acclimates to being a superstar. In an interview with Rausch, he said Activision ended up hurting the Tony Hawk series by commanding too much creative control in later titles, though Underground 2 and American Wasteland were still great games. Siakam will have better guidance than Neversoft did, as Ujiri, Nurse, and Dwane Casey before him have built a stable environment for players before and after Siakam to flourish.
Much like how I could not wait to play the next Tony Hawk game as a kid, I am eager to see how Siakam’s career unfolds.