When Pascal Siakam ducks through the studio entrance, at six foot, nine inches tall, he does so out of practice, from years of run-ins with door frames. It’s a quiet entrance, dialed down from what most of us see on TV: the expeditious energy he brings when plucking lobs out of the air to throw down dunks, or the exhilarated cheerleader who whips miniature cyclones with his towel as he rallies his team from the bench.
As last minute adjustments are made to lighting and steam coils from the sleeve of a long, flamingo-pink linen suit hanging in wardrobe, the Toronto Raptors starting power forward stands still, waiting for someone to notice he’s arrived for his cover shoot. What we didn’t know when Siakam first entered the room was that he was just warming up.
Perhaps it’s the idea of warming up that’s central to Siakam’s story as a professional basketball player.
Siakam didn’t start playing the game until he was 17. It was an upbringing vastly different from some of today’s NBA stars. Like Stephen Curry and his brother Seth, for example, who practically took their first steps on the basketball court.
Siakam, on the other hand, was a seminarian from the age of 11; his family had originally hoped he would become a Catholic priest. In 2011, on a break from seminary school, of which he’d grown increasingly bored, Siakam tagged along with friends to attend fellow Cameroonian NBA player Luc Mbah a Moute’s basketball camp. Siakam’s three brothers, Christian, Boris and James, had all played college ball by then, so while his family was known at the camp, Siakam, the youngest of four brothers, was green as grass. This was his first taste of the game.
[When you’re] getting paid for playing the game that you love, you definitely have to add a little bit of joy into that.
The following year, Siakam returned to Mbah a Moute’s camp and stood out enough to get plucked for Basketball Without Borders Africa, an NBA development camp in Johannesburg happening that same summer. It was there that Raptors GM Masai Ujiri saw Siakam play for the first time.
The next few years were a whirlwind: a basketball scholarship to prep school in Texas, and subsequently to New Mexico State University, a 2015 NCAA team. Then came the big leagues: at the 2016 NBA draft, Siakam was picked 27th overall by the Toronto Raptors.
The first NBA game Siakam ever saw in person was his own NBA debut. If his late start and rapid ascension was any early indication, it isn’t a surprise that Siakam’s spent his short career improving. And not the gradual development that comes when a young guy’s spent close to three years in the league, but growth that matches the style of Siakam’s own game—explosive.
This season, only a month into his first go at being a Raptors starter, he was named NBA’s Player of the Week. What else has he accomplished in the 2018-2019 season? A career high of 44 points, an average of 17 points per game and a recently developed three-point game that sees him shoot 35% beyond the three-point line. The numbers speak volumes.
Like I said, he’s just warming up.
On the floor, Siakam is equal parts rocket and jackrabbit, moving with powder-keg packed agility and speed not often seen in big men like him. It was this frenetic energy that made him stand out to Ujiri in that initial camp, but the power of it then was still raw.
In his rookie season with Toronto, Siakam would frequently shuttle between the parent team and its developmental league affiliate, Raptors 905. With this double exposure to the game, Siakam gained experience from playing alongside the pros while also leading the 905 squad to a championship title. It was his first year playing professional basketball—he had one foot fixed firmly in the fundamentals, honing his skills, with the other already planted in the future.
In a league so spectacularly stacked with talent it can be difficult to stand out, some players create personas; larger-than-life caricatures that demand and hold media and public attention. But the most difficult route to fame is trusting what happens on the court to speak for itself.
In basketball, two feet firmly planted is the way you describe a defending player taking a charge, while the offensive player runs at them, full tilt. Fittingly, it’s also the way Siakam’s handled the velocity of his own career. As hype around the 25-year-old Cameroonian builds, along with the consistent climb in his nightly numbers, Siakam maintains the same mindset he’s had in seasons past.
“Going into [a] season I really don’t set goals like, ‘Okay, I’m going to make a list of things I want to accomplish,’” Siakam says. “My mindset has always been about trying to get better and being a better version of myself … every summer, I always think about [the] last year, thinking that I can do better.”
Siakam’s steady when speaking through the timeline of his personal progression. On his growth from freshman to sophomore year at New Mexico State: “The improvement was drastic,” he admits. To the approach he takes to being a starter: “Knowing that your team counts on you every second feels great,” he pronounces.
In tracing the timeline of what it took to get here, Siakam leans in; he’s comfortable in the territory of his own accomplishments. He’s the kind of jovial guy who easily breaks into a chuckle. What about your practice schedule? I ask. “My daily routine is sleeping,” he quips.
But steer him toward the more ambiguous idea of the next five to 10 years, and his eyes drift, while he leans back reluctantly. For someone who holds himself accountable for every proverbial “win,” projecting that far ahead without putting in real hours of work would be selling himself short. His goals have always been based on the tangible—facts. In this case, the year before and how to better it.
Being from Cameroon, and in Africa in general, we don’t really dream about a lot of things—we don’t dare dream about being in these positions.
Siakam looks at basketball the way he looks at life. A self-described “everyday person,” his mindset is to enjoy what’s happening now. Not for lack of foresight, but for the understanding of time—you don’t always have it. The first fall that Siakam was away at college, his father died from injuries sustained in a car crash. Waiting for his U.S. visa to come through, a 19-year-old Siakam wasn’t able to return home to lay his father to rest.
“I remember crying every single day the first weeks of being in boarding school because I’d never been away from my family,” Siakam recalls. “But being able to adapt in different situations [is] a lesson that I’m forever grateful for. And I definitely appreciate my parents now for doing that.”
This summer will be the first time he’ll travel home to Cameroon since he left at 18. He’s going to visit his father’s grave for the first time, with his entire family by his side. It’s undoubtedly heavy, but Siakam addresses the upcoming trip it with levity.
“It’ll be amazing,” he reflects. [I] carry [my dad’s] legacy every day on the floor, and now I’m able to go back, honour him, and be with my whole family,” he trails off. The smile that’s been growing on his face is so big he can’t form words around it.“It’s a blessing, and we’re definitely excited about that.”
Siakam’s been candid about fulfilling the dream his father had of his sons playing in the NBA. It’s something he seems acutely aware of with every move he makes on the court. Family is even written on his jersey: 43 (four for his dad and three brothers, three for his mom and two sisters), and he wears it with pride.
For someone who has such a grip on the importance of time, Siakam’s handle on it in-game might just be the reason he clinches the NBA’s Most Improved Player (MIP) title at the end of this season. While his quickness was always devastating, the 2018-2019 year saw Siakam pick his moments, and they were as savage as they were precise.
Part of the development was his own intuition. But from a broader sense, it was about never squandering a moment in the league. From starting on the bench and playing alongside franchise leaders like Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and this year, Kawhi Leonard, Siakam was complementary to the stars and in tune with what it took to support his teammates—when to floor it, and when to get out of their way.
Now he’s the one creating these moments. Whether it’s using his length for his signature spin move, or watching the outside lane for an opening and exploding full throttle into a downhill drive, Siakam plays an exacting game. And the league is finally noticing what Raptors fans have known all along.
When asked about why he’s deserving of the MIP title, Siakam reiterates that it’s a team sport—it’s not about him. “But I think I’m the definition of most improved, because that’s who I am as a person, and that’s who I am as a basketball player,” Siakam explains. “I get better every year and I think that would give me a little stamp [that shows the world] it’s who I am.”
MIP or not, the award won’t change the bigger picture for Siakam. Nor will it disrupt the quiet and consistent work he’s been doing since entering the league.
Looking back at his personal journey from Cameroon to Toronto, it makes sense that Siakam would build a bridge through basketball, allowing other kids to do the same. His recent work with Toronto charity Right to Play earned him the NBA’s Community Assist Award this past February. And in a felicitous full circle, Siakam’s also involved in the league’s Basketball Without Borders program.
“Being from Cameroon, and in Africa in general, we don’t really dream about a lot of things—we don’t dare dream about being in these positions,” Siakam says. “For me, being this example they can look at and see that it’s possible … that they can dream and accomplish everything that they want, [is] the most important thing.”
There’s one other question that causes Siakam to pause the same way he did when asked to pin down the less palpable parts of his future. Asked to help distill the Raptors rare, rich, and lasting chemistry despite the team’s preseason loss of DeRozan and Siakam’s best friend, Jakob Poeltl in a trade with the San Antonio Spurs, along with the mid-season shakeups that came later, he laments: “That’s a serious question, man!”
I’m the definition of most improved, because that’s who I am as a person, and that’s who I am as a basketball player.
It’s not unusual in a league as capricious as the NBA for teams to form and break apart regularly, especially in the midst of chasing a championship. What’s unusual is maintaining a sense of familiarity. And for the Raptors, amid blockbuster trades, pick-ups and injuries, the camaraderie has remained sound on—and off—the court.
Spoiler alert: Siakam doesn’t know why it’s this way, either. But he does have a good idea of what he brings to it.
“It’s just my personality. I’m always goofing around and being silly, and I think that a guy like that always helps in a group,” he says, grinning. “At the end of the day, it’s a business, but there’s also fun. [When you’re] getting paid for playing the game that you love, you definitely have to add a little bit of joy into that. So I think that’s kind of who I am on the team—[I] bring that energy and that joy to the game.”
Joy is a big part of what got him here. From the initial thrill of a scholarship to play basketball to the elation of being drafted to the satisfaction of going from bench to starter—every step he’s taken is a step towards more joy. And he spreads it around. You can see it in who he looks to after he’s picked those perfect, winning moments.
Usually, his gaze shifts towards the team engine and default cheerleader, Lowry, or another “Bench Mob” original, Fred VanVleet. On set, too, after serving several serious looks in that flamingo-pink linen suit, Siakam turns to find his brother Christian sitting just off to the side and they laugh, loudly, at one another. The pink suit was Siakam’s first outfit, in what was his first-ever magazine shoot.