Pascal Siakam is set to write another chapter in his remarkable basketball story this weekend, as he makes his debut as an NBA all-star.
The Toronto Raptors Cameroonian luminary narrowly missed getting enough votes to play in last year’s all-star game, but he wasn’t interested in being almost good enough. This year, Siakam earned enough votes to start, leaving no doubt that he belongs at the NBA’s glitzy annual showcase event with its biggest superstars.
“I said before, I want to be a starter, I want to be an all-star – not a borderline all-star,” Siakam said. “But now it’s like, I want to stay there. I don’t want to be there for just one year. So there’s always something bigger to fish for.”
In this, his fourth NBA season and fresh off his most-improved-player award, Siakam is putting up career-high stats, averaging 23.5 points and 7.5 rebounds. Toronto’s NBA defending champions are well represented in Chicago this weekend. The Raps coaching staff will lead Team Giannis, with both Siakam and Kyle Lowry, chosen a reserve guard.
“I’m going to be more happy for Pascal,” Lowry said when asked how it felt to get his sixth all-star nod.
Siakam has five older siblings, and four are going to Chicago – three brothers and one of his two sisters. Their mother, Victorie, will be there, too, although the Siakams realize he has little time to hang out.
In addition to Sunday’s game, Siakam has community-service appearances and interviews, plus he will play in the all-star skills competition. He will be one of five international NBA players to coach at a Basketball Without Borders global camp, which features the top 64 high-school-age boys and girls from around the globe. Siakam participated in a BWB camp in South Africa in 2012, and it helped launch his basketball career.
“It’s huge back home in Cameroon and all over Africa, Pascal and [fellow countryman] Joel Embiid both being in the all-star game as starters,” brother James Siakam said at a recent game in Toronto. “To see him helping out and being involved in all the other things, too – I love that he’s going to stand in front of those kids and say, ‘Hey, I made this thing happen and so can you.' I think he has become a real inspiration on the continent. That’s way more important than hanging out in Chicago.”
Siakam is very close to his family. His brother Christian lives with him in Toronto and has been by his side in Canada since he was drafted, even cooking for the Raps player, providing some of his favourite Cameroonian recipes. His brother James, recently married, also lives nearby.
“He doesn’t need me looking out for him. He’s 25 years old,” Christian Siakam said. “But it’s nice to have your family for mental support, no matter where you are. Pascal never changes. He is still very humble and doing the exact same daily routine today that he did when he got to Toronto.”
Siakam’s rise is one of the most fascinating player-development stories in the NBA. The soccer-loving Cameroonian kid didn’t find basketball until his mid-teens, then went to a little-known high school in Texas and needed just two years at New Mexico State University before the Raps selected him 27th overall in the 2016 NBA draft. It was in a predraft workout in Buffalo that Siakam impressed most with his high energy.
“He’s really special – there’s no other person I’d rather have my name attached to than that guy,” said Patrick Engelbrech, the Raptor’ director of global scouting and a native of South Africa who was scouting and coaching at that 2012 BWB camp Siakam attended in Johannesburg.
“Did I know he would be an all-star starter this early? Well I knew he would be someone who would play meaningful minutes for us and definitely impact winning because he did everything that other people didn’t want to do,” Engelbrecht said. “He sprinted the floor ... all energy and motor. That translates to winning because not everybody wants to play that hard all the time. Some outside the organization thought we reached on him taking him in the first round, but inside the team, we all believed in him.”
Siakam was thrust into a temporary starting role as a rookie in place of injured power forward Jared Sullinger. He was a starter for less than half that 2016-17 season and split that year between the Raptors and their Mississauga, Ont., affiliate, Raptors 905, leading them to a D-League championship as finals MVP.
In the following season, he became a key part of the Raptors bench mob. He was never voted to the NBA all-rookie team or Rising Stars Challenge. In 2018-19 season, he found his way back to the starting lineup and was an important cog in the championship campaign, shining brightest in the playoffs.
Siakam’s energy has been key to his success, but he has also benefited from the people around him. He was scouted by a team – the Raptors – who are keen and educated about African prospects. Once in the NBA, Siakam took advantage of every resource the Raptors offered.
He signed with an agent – Todd Ramasar – who actively helps his players find the extra training and resources they need. So Siakam put in lots of additional work outside the team, too, with highly respected player-development coach Rico Hines in Los Angeles. Siakam also took every opportunity to learn and work out with Kawhi Leonard.
“You feel good for someone who really deserves success, someone who worked and worked,” Engelbrecht said. “Anytime he got a door closed in front of him, he just kept going and going. He was defiant, like ‘I’m going to be really really good. I am.' The kid deserves it all.“
Siakam has embraced the responsibility of being a role model, especially to the kids of Africa. Growing up in Cameroon, he said his athletic idols were African soccer stars such as Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto’o. Standing before Cameroonian kids with the Larry O’Brien Trophy this past summer, and now shining as an NBA all-star, he is providing the portrait of an African basketball superstar.
“To be honest, I see more championships, I see MVP, I see so much more that I can accomplish,” Siakam said. “There’s no reason to be satisfied.”