NEW YORK -- If you were paying attention, you knew something like this was coming. You just might not have known it would be this sensational, this smooth or this sudden. In his third season, Pascal Siakam is more star than role player and the leading candidate for Most Improved Player. Kawhi Leonard may be the reason more people are tuning in and taking the Toronto Raptors seriously, but when you watch them, you cannot miss Siakam.
He is the guy racing from one end of the court to the other faster than any "big man" you've ever seen. He is the guy with the spectacular spin move. He is the guy who never gets tired despite defending every position and pushing the ball after defensive rebounds. He is all over the place.
"You buy a ticket and you come to a game and you walk out of there and say, 'Man, that guy was fun to watch. I'm not even sure what he did tonight, but I noticed him,'" Toronto coach Nick Nurse said. "He's running up and down the floor. He's after the ball. He's got a smile on his face while he's doing it."
Nurse went to Los Angeles last summer to watch Siakam work with his teammates and scrimmage against the likes of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Chris Paul at UCLA. Nurse saw improvement in his ballhandling, vision and decision-making. Most striking, though was Siakam's ferocity.
"He was taking every challenge and doing it with some, I don't know, just a lot of confidence and swagger," Nurse said. "Like, I'm here to play and I can play with the best of 'em and let me at 'em."
On opening night, Siakam entered the Raptors' starting five and changed the tenor of the team. Less than three minutes in, Siakam made a corner 3 and numerous members of the organization nodded their heads the way they always do when he makes a jumper, knowing he has spent an Cleveland Cavaliers star Kevin Love.. Siakam felt that same satisfaction, but didn't dwell on it, running back to defend
A few trips later, Siakam hit a little lefty hook over Love. By the end of the game, he'd scored a couple of times in isolation and beaten Love down to the floor for an easy bucket in transition. He did nothing that the Raptors hadn't seen before, but his 20 minutes were played with a sense of freedom and purpose.
A month ago, Siakam won Eastern Conference Player of the Week during a string of high-scoring and extremely efficient performances. Two weeks ago, he scored a career-high 26 points on 8-for-10 shooting in a win against the Warriors. He is averaging 14.6 points and grabbing 6.3 rebounds in 30 minutes per game, all massive leaps.
People love Siakam, and they don't love him because he's 18th in ESPN's real plus-minus. "He always stands out," guard Fred VanVleet told CBS Sports. Siakam plays like his life is on the line, and yet appears unfazed by mistakes and misses. His work ethic is revered, his hustle is infectious and his bandwagon is overflowing. When he put Paul Millsap in the spin cycle last week, VanVleet mimicked the move on the sideline.
Siakam himself doesn't know what he's going to do with the ball as he attacks the basket. The reason his spin is so effective -- and the reason he is shooting 67.9 percent on 2-pointers -- is that he keeps his options open and lets the defense dictate what he does. He has the feel and the touch to adjust at the last possible moment.
"If I feel like I have an advantage to go straight up, I go straight up," Siakam told CBS Sports. "If I feel like I have an angle, I spin or I do whatever."
The 24-year-old Siakam describes himself as "obsessed with development," dating back to when he first started taking basketball seriously. (This is not all that long ago -- he was almost 18 when he first played organized ball.) At New Mexico State, he redshirted his first year and started his freshman season coming off the bench. As a sophomore, he increased his scoring average from 12.8 to 20.3 points per game and won WAC Player of the Year. He loves feeling like he's making progress. In this respect, winning Most Improved Player feels like his logical next step.
"Obviously it would mean a lot because that's what I'm about," Siakam said. "I'm about improvement. So, like, that would mean a lot to me. But at the end of the day, I don't look at that. I'm trying to just focus on my game, continue to work and get to whatever the highest level for me is."
"We don't really talk about awards, but, shit, I'll put him at the top of the list," VanVleet said.
Growing up in Douala, Cameroon, Siakam did not fantasize about playing professional basketball. He did not even particularly like the sport, at least not compared to his three older brothers; Boris, Christian and James; who played college ball at Western Kentucky, IUPUI and Vanderbilt, respectively. The story, as told best by Jackie MacMullan, goes like this: At 17, Siakam went with some friends to Luc Mbah a Moute's camp, and coaches noticed him running around, causing chaos. He went back a year later and, unexpectedly, earned an invite to Basketball Without Borders in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he was discovered. Before his first college game, he learned his father, Tchamo, had died in a car crash. Tchamo's dream was to have a son in the NBA. Most of Siakam's Instagram posts include the hashtag #doingitforyou to honor his father.
Starting late has been an advantage, in Siakam's estimation. From God's Academy in Lewisville, Texas to Las Cruches, New Mexico and Toronto, he has felt like he is playing catch-up. This pushed him to the gym, he said, always aware that he can't get back the hours and hours he spent playing soccer as a kid.
If Anthony Davis' years as a point guard created a monster after his famous growth spurt, maybe Siakam's time on the soccer field inadvertently did something similar. Had Siakam played organized basketball his whole life, a coach might have discouraged him from freelancing. Instead, knowing that tall Africans can get typecast as role players, he went his own way.
"I think it's like a stigma with a lot of African players," Siakam said. "You come in, and we're just bigs. We're supposed to run the floor and do these things. But I always wanted to break that cycle."
It is fitting, then, that Siakam's nickname is P-Skills. He never liked being called an energy guy, even if it was meant as a compliment.
"I just wanted to show that there's more to that," Siakam said. "I can do more. I didn't want to be labeled as that."
Energy, after all, does not account for all this. As VanVleet put it, he has worked himself into "just a hell of a basketball player, man." Siakam's speed in transition wouldn't mean much if he couldn't catch an outlet pass in traffic and manufacture easy points.
"At the end of the day, the energy stuff is part of me," Siakam said. "I was born for that. That's the one thing I know how to do. I don't try to do it. I just do it."
For the record, the man who dressed as Usain Bolt for Halloween does not believe anyone in the league can keep up with him end-to-end: "To me, it's like, how long can a person do it? I think I can do it for longer." But while his motor inspires awe, his dedication inspires pride. Siakam is the crown jewel of Toronto's development program, and those most invested in him remember how different and inconsistent his shooting form used to be. They also remember him, as a rookie, asking for playing time in what was then known as D-League.
"From a coaching standpoint, he's done everything we've always ever asked him to do," Nurse said.
After the 2017 All-Star break, Siakam lost his spot in the Raptors' rotation. It was difficult to show up to the arena "knowing you're not going to play, just sitting there," he said. Raptors 905 made the D-League Finals, however, and Toronto sent him down for the championship push. He won Finals MVP and led the 905 to a title, an accomplishment that largely went unnoticed but served as a confidence booster. VanVleet, on the same D-League assignment, saw him dominate with his all-around game.
"As a teammate and as a brother, it's just fun to see his role expand," VanVleet said. "I mean obviously he's gotten better, don't get me wrong, but the stuff he's doing now, he could do two years ago. You're only as good as your role, and I think that they've put him in a position to where he can showcase all of his skills."
In Nurse's first season, Siakam's breakout is the coaching staff's most significant victory. Rather than keep him on the bench and slowly give him more responsibility, Nurse let Siakam loose. If he wasn't ready, Nurse could have changed course. The results, though, have been revelatory.
"We talked a little bit, but it wasn't like a defined role of what I'm supposed to do," Siakam said. "I think that's the great thing about him, too. We have the freedom to do what we can do. Obviously, he's seen me work, he's seen me and continued to watch me and he knows what I'm able to do and he trusts me."
Siakam has turned out to be the embodiment of everything the Raptors want to be under Nurse: hard-playing, unselfish, adaptable and aggressive as hell. Six years ago, Siakam's brother James laughed when he said he was going to Texas to play high school basketball. Now, all his brothers are enjoying the ride.
"They might be a little jealous, but …" Siakam laughed. "They're excited. They feel like a part of the journey. I feel like I'm living their dreams. They're living their dreams through me, too."
If Siakam were to tell his own story, he'd call it a "testament to hard work and dedication, somebody that came out of -- I don't want to say nowhere, but was off the radar and worked his way to the top." He then clarified: He is still trying to get to the top, still trying to prove himself.
Siakam said this at Barclays Center last Friday, and it was not the first time that week he had sat down with a reporter for a feature. It is cool that people are catching on, he said, immediately adding that he has to make sure he sticks to the habits that led to this attention. By all accounts, Toronto doesn't need to worry about that.
"He works his tail off," Raptors wing C.J. Miles said. "He comes in every day, he's energetic, he wants to play the right way, he tries to do the right things. He deserves it all."
It is not much of a stretch to argue that Siakam deserves an All-Star spot. The competition in the East is not exactly dizzying, and few players have been more efficient. Averaging just 9.5 shot attempts, he would be an atypical All-Star, but Toronto owns the best record in the league. His case rests on the team's success combined with the vital nature of his unconventional role. His ability to defend guards and battle on the boards with bigs allows the Raptors to shift shapes. When the ball is in his hands, his defining attribute is creativity.
"He's got speed, he's got some really neat agility," Nurse said. "His athleticism is more than just jumping and quickness. It's balance and pirouetting. He's almost like a dancer out there, dropping passes off."
Modern big men increasingly need to be able to roll hard to the rim and pop to the perimeter. Siakam can also initiate the offense and create open looks for his teammates. Teams still sometimes leave him open on the outside, but he has made 35.2 percent of his 3-pointers. Whether or not he gets real consideration this season, Miles sees All-Stardom in Siakam's future.
"He's P-Skills, man," Miles said. "Too many skills. Too much speed, too much size, too much. He's just a lot of everything. It's just good to see him be able to own it, have that confidence every night and impress his will on the game."
Miles couldn't come up with a proper comparison for Siakam because he believes that the NBA has entered a new realm. Some people have brought up his similarities to superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, Miles said, but they don't play the same way. What they have in common is that they could only exist in this era of positionless basketball.
It is not as simple as saying that Siakam might have been called a tweener in another decade. He is 6-foot-9 speed demon who posts up, shoots 3s and runs the occasional pick-and-roll. Try finding another player besides Draymond Green who has been described as both a hustle guy and a point forward.
"There have been guys who are his size that can handle and play, but they still had positions," Miles said. "Now it's to the point where he does whatever he wants, basically, and he's able to."
Miles said Siakam has no ceiling and predicted his next few summers will be even bigger than his last. It is hard to comprehend what he will look like when he has a bit more polish, a more consistent 3-point shot and a bigger role in the offense. Siakam wants to be himself, which means he doesn't love any comparison, even when it's to an All-NBA player like Antetokounmpo or Green.
"To be honest, I don't," Siakam said. "It's not to be cocky or anything, but I just don't. I feel like my game is unique. I feel like I don't see anybody that does what I do."
Siakam did not get this far by putting boundaries on his game. "I just want to experiment and continue to grow and see where it takes me," he said, adding that his playmaking, shooting and defense can all get better. If this is the attitude that was borne of his late start, it's hard to argue with his assertion that it was a blessing in disguise.
As attainable as awards and All-Star appearances may be, Siakam prefers not to set those sorts of goals. He only challenges himself to be better than he was before. Not even halfway through Year Three, he can picture himself in Year 10, still feeling like he's playing catch-up, still trying to round out whatever rough edges remain in his game. Siakam's rise to prominence has been fast, but he will not slow down.
"It's always been that," Siakam said. "I always want to get better. When I get better, I get just happy about improvement. It gets me going. I get into this zone. It's like, I want to see what I can do more. What's the next thing?"