Pascal Siakam came into the NBA a "project".
Now, however, he is one of the star role players on the Toronto Raptors, instrumental to helping them get to the NBA Finals and helping them to a 2-1 lead against the greatest team of our generation, the Golden State Warriors, so far. Like Fred VanVleet, Siakam came into the NBA a relatively unknown NBA project who was lucky to make it into the NBA in the first place. According to Doug Smith of The Toronto Star, the two players and their way into the NBA allow them an uncommon affinity and friendship.
Siakam has dominated the NBA finals right now, matched up largely against one of the best defenders in the NBA, Draymond Green. He is incredibly athletic and able to make tough shots and taken advantage of double teams and tough defense on Kawhi Leonard.
Now, Siakam and his potential have arrived. His late father's dream has been fulfilled, and the exciting part of Siakam's story is that the only place he can go is up. While all of Siakam's brothers have played NCAA Division I basketball, only Pascal Siakam played in the NBA.
A possible explanation for why Siakam has made it this far is his intense dedication and hard work devoted to the sport. Siakam, one of his brothers, and Jakob Poeltl, another Raptors player, arrived at Toronto one night at 1 a.m. after a long day of charity and service Siakan would get to the facility at 1:30 a.m., and wouldn't leave until 6 a.m. The team had another practice scheduled in the afternoon, but it didn't matter to Siakam.
"It was unbelievable," Christian Siakam said. "That's his dedication. That's how much he wants to win — how much he wants to be better. The whole time I'm telling him he needs to go. And he just kept saying, 'I have to do more, I have to do more.'"
Siakam, despite his project status, when he first entered the NBA, was known for his athleticism as a defender and his ability to finish at the rim.
"His motor is an NBA skill. It's a gift. It goes, and goes, and goes," his former coach, Dwane Casey said.
Then, Siakam's energy level and explosiveness became accompanied by an ability to drive and make plays off the dribble. Then, Siakam could hit threes and go around threes and dish out assists. His improvement has made him a bona fide top two player on the Toronto Raptors.
Pascal Siakam, one of the top three finalists for the Most Improved Player this season, should be the righteous winner of the award. His statistics this season might pale in the comparison of his competitors, De'Aaron Fox, and D'Angelo Russell, but Siakam's impact goes far beyond the stat line.
Six years ago, the man barely played basketball, but he has evolved rapidly. In all things, Siakam, every game, has made the sign of the cross to God and pointed to the sky to remember his dad. When Siakam first played basketball, he was studying to be in the seminary. But he was in the seminary because his father wanted him to go, and Siakam never wanted to defy his father as the best person he's ever known.
The seminary, however, wasn't for him. "He turned from a very calm child into a very stubborn boy," Father Collins said of Siakam. "At times, I considered dismissing him, but his academic results were so remarkable, we kept him."
Despite his experience in the seminary, Siakam feels like it left a lasting impact on his life: the discipline instilled in him allowed him to succeed in college and then in the Raptors. Every day, at St. Andrews Seminary School, Siakam woke up at 5:30 a.m. to start morning chores. In addition, he loved soccer more than he loved basketball. At 15, he became a lot taller than his peers and attended a camp run by Luc Mbah a Moute. There, Siakam received an invitation to attend Basketball WIthout Borders, a camp in South Africa.
Later, basketball was the only sport that gave him the opportunity to play in the United States at New Mexico State University.
At that time, Siakam's father died. It was at this time that Siakam reflected that, although he spent so much time trying to kick out of the seminary, it was "the best thing that ever happened to [him]."
"I knew we would probably not be able to train him to be a priest, but I still hoped we could teach him to be a man," Father Collins said.
Now, it sounds like Siakam can do everything. "I'm just continuing to trust to my work - it's happening naturally." Siakam himself always saw himself as a guard, someone who loves to handle the ball and be mobile.
The voice that makes Siakam train as hard as he does isn't exactly a healthy one: it's a voice that is "telling him he's trailing his peers." All the time, Pascal Siakam feels like he's trailing his peers and needs to do better and more than everyone else because they have a head start. "I always think that - I'm late, I'm behind. I have so much to improve on, so much to learn," Siakam said.
Instilled in that work ethic were a drive and scrappiness that Siakam has that few other athletes do. "A willingness to chase every ball, to jump for every rebound, to go for things harder than the other guy." The most important thing in Siakam's game, according to his coach at New Mexico State University, was his motor, one that is uncoachable.
When Siakam first came to the United States in 2013, he didn't know much. The New Mexico State graduate assistant brought him to Chipotle, and Siakam's first question was "What's Chipotle?" At the time, he barely knew any English. But Siakam learned fast - in every respect.
"He would pick things up so quickly," the graduate assistant, Preston Laid said. "He has such high levels of intelligence: Emotional, social, basketball — just a really, really smart person. You show him something once and he immediately starts grasping it."
When Siakam's dad died in a car accident, Siakam stayed in his apartment all day with a picture of his dad next to him and cried for most of the day. But that day marked a shift in Siakam's purpose and the way he changed his game. Although they didn't see it at the moment, he played with a fierceness he never played with before. He never missed a game and improved so quickly in such a short period of time. After his sophomore year, he declared for the NBA draft.
Picked 27th by the Toronto Raptors, Siakam would call that night the best night of his life, "a step closer to realizing his father's dream." He yelled and cried with his brothers, and told them "I'll never forget this for the rest of my life!"
He started his league in the G League, but he eventually made it to the NBA. And before the start of his second season in the NBA, during the summer, Siakam only took one day off. During that summer, Siakam worked, particularly on his handles. "My rookie year, I just wasn't confident — I wanted to stay in my lane," he said. "I was so scared and wanted to fit in so much, to the point where I forgot about my game and what I can do. But now, I'm feeling like, why stay in your lane?"
According to Demar DeRozan when he was on the Raptors, Siakam was the Draymond Green of the team. He has led his team to the finals, and almost to the championship. And he's not done yet.