Marc Gasol admits he never thought Pascal Siakam would amount to much when he first played against the Toronto Raptors’ wiry forward.
It was two seasons ago when Gasol was with the Grizzlies, and Siakam had yet to hit the gas on his lightning-fast rise up the NBA ranks. Siakam wasn’t exactly a focus of the Grizzlies’ scouting report for the game. And he scored just eight points.
“He was a toothpick to us in Memphis,” Gasol scoffed. “Obviously, he didn’t have the confidence or the minutes or the usage that he has [now]. I remember him going to his right, he didn’t trust his shot as much as he does now, obviously.”
Fast forward two seasons and Siakam wrote another page in his stunning NBA story on Thursday when he was named a starter for the Eastern Conference team for this year’s NBA all-star game.
“As a young player coming in and knowing my path and how I got here, to be in that competition, that’s crazy to think about,” Siakam said.
The starters were chosen by fan balloting. Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry is expected to be an all-star reserve. The reserves are chosen by the head coaches in each conference and will be announced Jan. 30.
The 25-year-old Siakam has averaged 23.7 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 3.5 assists a game this season — all career highs — and after virtually everyone counted Toronto out as a force in the Eastern Conference this season in the absence of superstar Kawhi Leonard, Siakam has kept them in the conversation. They’re just a point out of second place in the East and riding a five-game winning streak.
Siakam’s selection Thursday marked the sixth consecutive year the Raptors have an all-star starter. They’re the only NBA team during that time span that can say that. Leonard started last season. Kyle Lowry started in 2015 and 2016, while DeMar DeRozan started in 2017 and 2018.
“The kid that two years ago started the season as our 11th man and he played in the D League the year before that -- that’s a hell of a rise up,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “I think, again, credit to just our organization in general. Picks, scouting, player development, the whole thing. I think all those things kind of work together to make that possible.”
Siakam took an unorthodox path to the NBA. He’d only played two seasons of organized basketball before he arrived, a scrawny kid from Douala, Cameroon, at New Mexico State.
Paul Weir was an Aggies assistant coach when Siakam was there, and recounted how he walked into his office one day and asked to borrow a book on basketball.
“I’d give him a 300-page, 400-page textbook on basketball,” the Mississauga native told The Canadian Press during the Raptors’ championship run. “He’d come back two days later and say, ‘Do you have another one?’ He was just a very eager kid to be the best he could be.”
Siakam was drafted 27th over all by Toronto in 2016.
Nurse tells the story of the sponge-of-a-player showing up at the Raptors’ practice facility the day after Toronto was swept by Cleveland in the 2018 conference semi-finals.
“He said, ‘Listen, I need to learn how to shoot,’” Nurse said. “We literally walked him down to square one, three feet from the basket and tried to explain the process. … It’s not easy for anybody to change their mechanics, their form or whatever. He just took that as wholeheartedly as he could take it at that stage.”
Siakam’s hard work paid off — he won the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award last season. Gasol was happy his first impression of Siakam was so wrong.
“He’s a guy that can do so many things on the floor, a guy that can impact the game on the defensive end like very few can,” the Spaniard said. “And then offensively he can go left, he can go right, he can push you up, he can play you off the dribble, he can play mid-post, he can play pretty much 20 feet from the basket.
“And then he’s very unselfish at the same time. So, you see all the potential, and then I think coach gave him the freedom and the ultra green light and trusted him with a lot of actions in different positions on the floor. And he responded awesomely.”
If others doubted Siakam during the early days, he never counted himself out. Did he ever think he’d be an all-star? Sure, why not?
“I’ve always believed in myself and I’ve always put the work in to get to not only be an all-star, but be an all-star for a long time. That’s my goal,” said Siakam. “I think about these things and I feel like I have the ability to do it.
“It’s on me to go out there every single night and make sure that I’m the best player I can be and continue to work hard and not be complacent and do everything in my power to get out there.”
NBA all-star weekend is Feb. 14-16 in Chicago.