It is the second week of January, and Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam has made one 3-pointer since the beginning of December. Nevertheless, early in the second quarter against the Brooklyn Nets, he launches from the wing, from straightaway and from the corner. The Nets call timeout after his third miss.
As the Raptors head back on the court, guard Fred VanVleet delivers a message to Siakam: "Hey, shoot the next one." On their next offensive possession, Siakam is wide open behind the 3-point line and his defender, Quincy Acy, is parked in the paint. The ball finds him, and, sure enough, he fires away. This time it splashes through the net, and Norman Powell is just one of several players on the bench to stand up and salute Siakam.
"We don't care if he misses 10 in a row," Powell says. "Shoot the 11th."
This is the rare instance where that is literal. Siakam had missed 34 of his previous 35 3s before that one went in, and he would finish that night 1-for-6 from deep.
Even in an era where the 3-pointer is ubiquitous, Siakam stands out as the only player who has taken more than 60 and made less than 20 percent. He has shot 20-for-104 from 3-point range this season, and yet Toronto is committed to letting him keep trying.
"I'll never tell Pascal not to take a shot," Raptors coach Dwane Casey says.
Casey is in charge of the team that is first in the Eastern Conference. Its franchise player hasand its offense has . The most ambitious experiment in Toronto, however, is happening every time Siakam holds his follow through.
From the beginning, the Raptors knew Siakam had a long way to go with his jumper. The Cameroon native grew up playing soccer much more than basketball, only falling in love with the sport after participating in a Basketball Without Borders camp in South Africa in 2012. At New Mexico State he went the 0-for-2 behind the 3-point line as a freshman and 3-for-15 as a sophomore. He shot with his right foot behind his left foot, and his knees pointed left when he bent them.
Toronto drafted Siakam No. 27 in 2016 anyway, on the strength of his sheer activity level. He competed like a maniac at a draft workout in Buffalo, outworking three other prospects in a 2-on-2 game and beating them to loose balls.
"He's got one of the best motors that I've been around," Casey says. "It doesn't take him two minutes to get going. That's a gift."
When Siakam first started shooting corner 3s with assistant coach Jim Sann at the BioSteel Centre, the team's practice facility, he got some weird looks. They focused on making his form more compact, and there were signs of progress. While he only went 1-for-7 from 3-point range all season with Toronto, he shot 5-for-6 from deep in a three-game stretch for Raptors 905, the team's G League affiliate, in March.
Sann always wanted Siakam to show he could be more than a hustle guy. In the G League, he did a bit of everything, most notably recording 32 points, 10 rebounds, three assists, five steals and two blocks in Game 2 of the Finals. When Raptors 905 won their first championship, he was named Finals MVP. Alongside Toronto's other youngsters, he laid the groundwork for what he is doing as part of the NBA's most dominant lineup this season.
"People think because he plays so hard and he plays with a lot of energy that that's all that there is to him," Raptors 905 coach Jerry Stackhouse says. "But he actually has skill. He has a really nice touch around the basket. He can handle the ball. He's not a primary ballhandler, but he's a guy that can get the ball from Point A to Point B and make plays for himself and make plays for others. Having that threat, just with his motor, it was a perfect recipe for the playoffs and what we needed at that time."
The 2016-17 Raptors did not enjoy the same sort of success, and Siakam only got on the floor in garbage time in the playoffs. Their season ended in a second-round sweep at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers, but Siakam was not ready for a break.
"I remember real clear, like, shit, we lost to Cleveland; on that weekend, everybody went in to clean out and stuff," VanVleet says. "The next day, he was already in there working, trying to change his shot a little bit."
Siakam spent most of his summer training with his teammates. There were workout sessions in Toronto, Los Angeles and at summer league in Las Vegas. "He sometimes beats me to the gym, and that's rare," Powell says, recalling early-morning sessions at UCLA.
This season, the Raptors started using a shot tracking and analytics system called Noah. No one uses it more than Siakam. When a person who deals with the data saw that he took 600 3s in a single shooting session, he had to check that the number was not a mistake.
"I just take as many shots as I can," Siakam says. "I shoot until I'm tired and then get out."
On an average off-day, Siakam will shoot more than 300 3-pointers. On game days, he will take at least 100. Sann is always there, often with his son, who has developed a friendship with Siakam.
"For the fans it's all about makes and misses, right?" Siakam says. "The ones that watch TV, you have to make that shot. And that's what it's always about. And I mean, I don't want to tell them what is fair or whatever, but as a player you understand that it takes a lot and you put a lot of work in. I started shooting 3s two years ago, so it's going to take time. And I know that."
Compared to when this process started, Siakam's body is significantly straighter as he shoots. His mechanics are more streamlined. This has not translated to consistent shooting in games, but he made both of his 3-point attempts in a 17-point, six-rebound performance against the Chicago Bulls just before the All-Star break, providing a glimpse of the kind of player he could be.
Casey calls Siakam a "semi-point guard" and describes his work ethic as "impeccable." Already a valuable part of the rotation, it is possible that his ceiling could be higher than even hardcore Toronto fans realize. In a late-January film session, players compared him to Draymond Green because he can guard any position and initiate the offense. Few big men are quicker in transition, and he is not only an excellent passer, but an enthusiastic one.
"He can be a star in this league," Poeltl says.
Poeltl might not be the most unbiased observer, given that he and Siakam are almost inseparable. They even vacationed together in Mexico over the All-Star break. From the Raptors' perspective, though, Siakam simply works too hard not to become at least an average shooter eventually. VanVleet doesn't even use the word if when discussing Siakam's future, saying that nobody will remember these struggles when he becomes a knockdown shooter.
"It's just a confidence thing," VanVleet says. "It's just a guy shooting, and does he feel like he's going to make it? Is he stepping up there with big balls and knocking 'em down? That's what you gotta do."
Siakam talks to his teammates about their footwork and how they prepare for shooting in different situations. If he has to sleep in the gym to take the next step, he says, that's what he'll do. In the meantime, it is his job to keep showing up at the BioSteel Centre in the morning and at night when nobody is paying attention. And when the lights are on and the ball comes his way, he cannot hesitate.
"At some point, those are going to go in," Casey says. "And then now you're going to be looking at a really, really special player."