Pascal Siakam never dreamed of being an NBA hero growing up in Cameroon, but the lanky forward discovered in a youth basketball camp delivered a stellar performance in his NBA Finals debut.
Siakam scored a playoff career-best 32 points and powered the Raptors over defending champion Golden State 118-109 in Thursday’s opening game of the best-of-seven championship final.
Siakam, his homeland’s first NBA Finals player, sank 14-of-17 shots from the floor, attacking one of the NBA’s top defensive squads in moves unexpected when he was discovered in a Basketball Without Borders camp.
“At that time I didn’t even know if I really dreamed of being at this level,” Siakam said. “I couldn’t even think about this moment because it wasn’t reachable for me. But I think once I got to the point where I felt like I had a chance, I put everything forward and I just worked really hard.”
It paid off for Siakam and showed what talent Africa might yet produce for the NBA.
“It’s amazing. It just shows the growth of the continent,” Siakam said. “Being at this stage and representing the continent is amazing. I just want the game to continue to grow in Africa and for kids to see this and hopefully it inspires them.”
Siakam’s effort and journey drew praise from Golden State’s Draymond Green, the defender he outshined.
“You got to take your hat off to him of what he has been able to accomplish,” Green said. “He has become a guy. He put a lot of work in to get there and I respect that.”
Toronto’s Kyle Lowry was amazed by his teammate as well.
“Hard work and dedication and knowing the type of talent that he has,” Lowry said. “Never settling for anything but being the best basketball player he can be.”
– Super committed –
Raptors coach Nick Nurse remains stunned by Siakam’s journey.
“It’s pretty incredible,” Nurse said. “Two years ago when we got bounced out of the playoffs, he literally went in the gym the next day and he was like, ‘Listen, I need to learn how to shoot. I see that in playoff basketball you better be able to shoot.’ He took it and absolutely ran with it. He was super committed to finding a place in this league and improving his game.
“He believes in himself and he went to work at it. I think that’s a powerful statement.”
Raptors president Masai Ujiri, who never imagined his own career path when he was growing up in Nigeria, said he couldn’t have guessed Siakam would rise to NBA stardom.
“When I saw him in Basketball Without Borders, no,” Ujiri said. “That guy has been incredible. He’s been an unbelievable revelation for us.
“He doesn’t want to be one of those African players that’s labelled, whether it’s a shot blocker or a defender or rebounder or he runs. He wants to be a star. He wants to be a versatile player in this league and he wants to be able to do it all. And he has put the work into it.
“We all used to hold our breath when he went on the fast break. And now we can’t wait until he does that.”
Raptors centre Marc Gasol, a Spaniard, sets aside the obstacles and looks at the player Siakam is.
“He does a great job of using his body, attacking the angles that the defence is giving you. I just like when he plays that aggressive,” Gasol said. “Whatever happened in the past happened. Having a mindset of going for it and knowing that it’s going to be OK, your teammates believe in you, that’s all that matters and he knows that.”
Game 2 takes place in Toronto in the early hours of Monday morning (1am)