Determination fuels Raptors forward Pascal Siakam’s rise to prominence

Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam is seen in action in 2018. Keith Allison / CC BY-SA 2.0

Pascal Siakam will be a top-tier star for years to come.

Yes, his rapid maturation and development at the pro level and his boundless energy are a big part of his rapid ascension. What’s also a vital component of the narrative is the New Mexico State product’s fierce determination to get better.

He can play lock-down defense for long stretches, too. For instance, the Toronto Raptors macho forward stuck with his man, MVP candidate Giannis Antetokoumpo of the Milwaukee Bucks, without giving him any free space to operate in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Sunday in Toronto. Doug Smith of the Toronto Star observed that “the Greek Freak didn’t shoot at all in 17 possessions against Siakam.”

That’s just one sign of Siakam’s rise to prominence.

Siakam learns quickly. You can’t dwell on mistakes, especially during a playoff game.

Case in point: He missed a pair of big free throws with 7.4 seconds left in the fourth quarter in Game 3. The Bucks then tied it up, forcing overtime.

A chance for redemption

Siakam regained his composure.

With 16 seconds left in 2OT, he was sent to the line again. He made two foul shots, and the Raptors went on to win the game (118-112), cutting the Bucks’ series lead to 2-1. He also made a terrific block in the final minute of the second OT period, extending his long arm to swat Brook Lopez’s layup attempt. Siakam timed the play perfectly.

After the high-drama victory, Siakam, a native of Cameroon, talked about what was going through his mind in the roller-coaster game, including his missed opportunity at the free-throw line.

“This is what basketball is about. I know people always say that. But that’s where the game goes,” Siakam was quoted as saying by “You miss two free throws, but then you have an opportunity to redeem yourself. And if you spend the whole time crying about it, you don’t really have the energy to do what you did after. So, obviously, if I could have saved Kawhi (Leonard) from playing an hour of basketball, I would have. I tried. But, hey, it happened. And we’ve got to move on from that.”

Siakam’s competitiveness kept him focused. He also turned the metaphorical page, erasing the thought of the missed free throws.

“It’s tough. But you’ve got to try to make yourself understand that it’s OK. And that it’s still a game to play,” he said afterward, according to the Canadian website. “And you’ve got to continue to play…”

Siakam’s expanded role

This season, Siakam capitalized on his much bigger role with the Raptors. First-year bench boss Nick Nurse penciled him into the starting lineup in 79 of Siakam’s 81 games. (In his first two pro seasons, he started a combined 44 NBA games. He averaged 7.3 points and 4.5 rebounds last season.)

In 2018-19, he posted career-high averages in points (16.9), rebounds (6.9) and assists (3.1) for the title-chasing Raptors. He dropped a career-high 44 points on the Washington Wizards on Feb. 13. He grabbed a career-best 19 rebounds against the Wizards on Jan. 13. Siakam is one of three finalists for the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award. The others: D’Angelo Russell and De’Aaron Fox. (A rundown on all the award finalists)

Furthermore, Siakam had a spectacular game against the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference semifinals opener, dropping 29 points on the visitors in a 108-95 triumph. Of his jaw-dropping 12-for-15 shooting from the field, Siakam buried 3 of 4 3-point attempts.

Pause for a moment and remember this: Siakam was 1 of 7 on 3s for his entire rookie season. But he refused to accept that his outside shooting limitations would remain an obvious weakness.

And so a day after the Raptors’ 2017 playoff run ended, Siakam was back to work.

“It was the day after the (playoff) series, literally the next day, him coming in and saying, ‘Listen, I need to learn how to shoot,” Nurse told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “We literally walked him down to square one, three feet from the basket and tried to explain the process.”

This season, he made 79 of 214 3-pointers, expanding his offensive game.

Which is why Nurse recalls 2017 offseason workouts as a defining trait of his career.

“You knew it was a guy that was deeply hungry to become as good as he could become,” Nurse, then a Toronto assistant coach, told the Philly newspaper. “Then it just started translating to other things.”

Toronto’s smart decision

Siakam, who left NMSU after his sophomore season, will be remembered for years to come as one of the best selections of the 2016 NBA Draft. The Raptors picked him 27th overall. (Siakam averaged 20.3 points, 11.6 rebounds and 2.24 blocked shots in his final college season, and was No. 1 in NCAA Division I with 27 double-doubles.)

After Siakam was drafted, the Las Cruces (New Mexico) Sun-News reported on what made him an attractive option for Toronto.

“He’s the type of guy that he plays so hard, has such a great motor and energy,” Dan Tolzman, the team’s then-director of player personnel, was quoted as saying by the Sun-News.

Tolzman added: “He’s got the drive and the desire to continue getting better and better as a player. Where he’s come over the past two years even before he got to New Mexico State, the progression he’s made as a basketball player over the past two years in America, it’s a testament to how hard he works.”

The highs and lows of Game 3 of the ongoing Eastern Conference finals illustrate Siakam’s vital role for his team. The Raptors need him in the thick of things at both ends of the floor.

Sure, avid NBA fans know that Kawhi Leonard is a superstar, but now casual observers are starting to learn about frontcourt mate Siakam’s impressive all-around game.

It all starts with effort, something Siakam, who began playing basketball at age 15, is always willing and ready to do.