Pascal Siakam walked into Paul Weir’s coaching office at New Mexico State one day and asked to borrow a book on basketball.
It was a moment that spoke volumes about just how raw the scrawny rookie from Cameroon was. It also said plenty about Siakam’s boundless desire to be better.
“I’d give him a 300-page, 400-page textbook on basketball. He’d come back two days later and say ‘Do you have another one?”‘ Weir said. “He was just a very eager kid to be the best he could be.”
The 39-year-old coach from Mississauga, Ont., was an assistant at New Mexico State for the three seasons Siakam was there, and is cheering the Toronto Raptors forward from afar in the NBA playoffs.
The Raptors face Philly in Game 3 at Wells Fargo Center. Game 4 is Sunday, then the series returns to Toronto for Game 5 on Tuesday.
Few people can take much credit for Siakam’s meteoric rise in the game, Weir said. It’s been all about Siakam’s insatiable hunger to be great.
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The 24-year-old had only been playing organized basketball for a couple of years when he arrived “very thin” at Las Cruces, N.M. He red-shirted his first season to get bigger and stronger and develop his game.
“Pascal was a really driven young man, so whatever you would give him or whatever we kind of decided to work on, he would attack with the utmost intensity and perseverance,” said Weir, who’s now the head coach at the University of New Mexico.
“I don’t think anybody anticipated what is happening right now back then. But his drive was special and obviously he made the most of his abilities.”
The six-foot-nine Siakam, who was drafted 27th overall by Toronto in 2016, has been a revelation this season, a favourite to win the NBA’s most improved player award. He’s built a role for himself as the Raptors’ second option on offence behind superstar Kawhi Leonard.
Siakam struggled against fellow Cameroonian Joel Embiid in Monday’s Game 2 loss to Philadelphia that evened the Eastern Conference semifinal series at one win apiece. He shot 9-for-25 for 21 points.
No doubt the player known as “Spicy P” made a beeline for the gym afterward to put in more work.
Even after a win — Siakam had 29 points on an efficient 12-for-15 shooting in Game 1 — Raptors coach Nick Nurse mentioned Siakam’s penchant for working overtime.
“He’s probably out there right now or he was at some point today, trying to figure out a way to get a little bit better than he was yesterday and that’s a credit to him,” Nurse said Sunday.
Siakam averaged 20.3 points and 11.6 rebounds in his final season at New Mexico State, but it was his performance at the NBA draft combine that made Weir a huge believer.
“There were probably a lot of people who said he should stay in school, and I was trying to be as supportive as I could but also as honest as I could,” Weir said. “So I went to watch him (at the combine) and support him before the draft, and I remember watching him thinking ‘Oh my god, he’s good enough. This kid can really do it,”‘ Weir said.
“From that point, I’m not going to say nothing surprised me. But I started to realize it was really possible.”
Siakam is averaging 23.3 points in the post-season on 59.5 per cent true shooting — which measures a combination of field goals, three-pointers and free throws. Leonard is third in the league at 69.6.
Siakam’s sizzling shooting would have been a shock in previous post-seasons. But Nurse recounted the story about the sponge-of-a-player showing up at the Raptors’ practice facility soon after the team’s playoff sweep last season at the hands of Cleveland.
“Literally the next day . . . ‘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.”
Weir credited Siakam’s three brothers — Boris, Christian and James, who all played NCAA Div. 1 basketball — for providing a rock-solid base for Siakam, particularly after their dad Tchamo died in a car crash in October of 2014, the day before the Aggies’ pre-season opened. Because of potential visa issues, Siakam, with input from his family and college coaches, made the tough decision not to go home to Cameroon for the funeral.
“The support system around him with his brothers has been a major blessing for him,” Weir said. “A lot of kids get to the NBA, including Canadian kids who have gotten to the NBA, but they just weren’t mature enough or had the right people around him to make that transition.”
When the Raptors tipped off Game 1 of the first round of these playoffs against Orlando, Siakam arrived at Scotiabank Arena in a bright gold and pink flowered outfit. It was the ceremonial costume his family had worn to his dad’s funeral.
Weir has kept tabs on Siakam’s breakout season. After big games, he fires off a quick congratulatory text to his former player. And he hears plenty from Toronto players who went to New Mexico State, including Daniel Mullings and brothers Sim and Tanveer Bhullar.
“I recruited eight or nine Canadian players, and when (Siakam) got drafted by Toronto all of those guys were ecstatic so I usually get updates from them, they’ll text me ‘Hey, have you seen Pascal do this, or Pascal do that?’ They’re all obviously really happy for him as a former teammate and also just as because it’s Toronto.”
Weir will be cheering when Siakam takes the floor in Game 3.
“He’s a great kid. I wish him all the best,” the coach said. “I don’t know anybody who dislikes him. He’s got a lot of people rooting for him.”