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Pascal Siakam is seizing Raptors’ starring role: ‘I’m definitely up for the challenge’

The defending champs signed the Most Improved Player to a max extension

TORONTO – Pascal Siakam drove slower than usual to the Toronto Raptors’ practice facility on Monday morning, watching his blind spots and paying close attention to every traffic light. The fourth-year forward wanted to make sure he didn’t get into an accident with a life-changing, $130 million contract extension awaiting his signature.

“I was like, ‘Man, I just got to get there,’ ” Siakam told The Undefeated. “I was talking to my agent Todd [Ramasar] and he said, ‘Drive safely!’ It seemed like a long drive. I had to make sure I got there. Since we agreed on the deal, I said, I’m not really going out. I’m going to practice and coming back home. People asked, ‘When are you celebrating?’ I said, ‘I’m home until I sign this.’ ”

After signing the contract, Siakam reflected in the Raptors’ locker room. He got emotional thinking about his NBA journey and how proud his father, who died almost exactly five years ago in a car accident, would have been of this moment.

“I just thought about everything with my family, my journey, my dad,” he said. “Everything.

“It is hitting me slowly understanding that this is a big deal,” added Siakam. “It changes a generation of people in your family.”

The Cameroon native has come a long way in a short amount of time. Three years ago, in the spring of 2016, the Raptors brought the former New Mexico State star in for a draft workout. Siakam was on one-half of the court working out with projected late first-round picks, while the other side included more highly regarded prospects such as Jakob Poeltl, whom the Raptors would select ninth overall selection in the 2016 draft, and Skal Labissiere.

Raptors president Masai Ujiri said that’s when he first got a glimpse of what Siakam was about. He noticed Siakam was peeved.

“He felt that he was not in the lottery workout,” Ujiri said. “He’s always had that chip on his shoulder. You can tell he was pissed. He wanted to prove to us, and he did.”

The Raptors selected Siakam with the 27th overall pick that June.

“That is my favorite draft story,” Siakam said. “It just showed my heart and how I saw the game. It wasn’t about being normal. People saw me as a kid from New Mexico State who could be a second-round pick or go overseas. I had to prove people wrong every single time. … I was pissed off. I had to prove that I belonged.”

While Siakam was not regarded as one of the NBA’s future stars during his first two seasons, veteran Raptors guard Kyle Lowry witnessed Siakam’s drive to be great during his rookie year.

“If you go back and watch his film from the first 20 games he was starting, he was unbelievable,” Lowry said. “He dribbled the ball up the floor, got layups, easy buckets, energy was great and rebounded the ball. He just understood not to be satisfied with this. He wanted to change the narrative of who he could be.”

Last season, Siakam earned the NBA’s Most Improved Player award after averaging career-highs of 16.9 points, 6.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists in 31.9 minutes per game as a full-time starter. He played a major role in helping the Raptors win their first NBA championship, including scoring 32 points in Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors. Now the Raptors have rewarded him with a maximum contract extension.

Pascal Siakam (center) hoists a replica of the Larry O’Brien NBA Championship Trophy as the Toronto Raptors hold their victory parade after beating the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals in Toronto on June 17.

Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

“He has gotten better every year we’ve had him,” Ujiri said. “He has a great mentality. And the mentality is winning. I always say, ‘We play sports to win.’ And Pascal plays basketball to win. He’s a winner. And that’s what you want.”

Siakam is also humble. Although he’s proud of his lucrative contract, he declined to make it a bigger deal on the eve of the Raptors’ season-opener, which will include a ring ceremony and the unveiling of the first title banner at Scotiabank Arena. At his request, Siakam treated the press briefing about his contract just like it was any ordinary post-practice media scrum.

“I wanted to make sure it was something that didn’t take away from the team,” Siakam said. “We have a big day [Tuesday] with the ring ceremony and the banner. … I just wanted to make sure I signed it and we moved on to team things. That is why it was low-key. It was just me.”

Siakam’s teammates, however, enjoyed making a big deal out of his new contract, telling the 25-year-old he’d have to pay for team dinners going forward. Siakam, though, quickly made it known that his new contract doesn’t kick in until the 2020-21 season, so they’d have to wait a year on those expensive meals.

Siakam will actually be the ninth-highest paid Raptor this season at $2.35 million. That said, Ujiri has already made it known to the budding star that he will still be viewed like a max player even though he is a season away from actually being one.

“[Ujiri] said, ‘You are a max player now.’ I am a max player now. But the money doesn’t hit now,” Siakam said. “We were talking about money. But in terms of expectations and being a leader for the team. That is something that starts now. It is going to be a process for me in terms of being a leader, being that person. But I think I am more than capable.

“There is always something to do [to improve]. And being an African, a lot of people are going to challenge me being at this level. Maybe some people don’t agree that I am a max player. They are always going to be coming for you and I’m always ready for that. And I love the challenge of proving people wrong.”

Siakam has been motivated by slights in the past – not being considered a first-rounder, coming from a mid-major school, hailing from a non-basketball hotbed in Africa and playing in the G League. The expectation for greatness from a player still under his rookie deal will be his new motivating factor.

Siakam also received motivation when Kawhi Leonard, the 2019 NBA Finals MVP, opted to sign with the LA Clippers this offseason rather than return to Toronto. Siakam remembers having dinner with his agent, Todd Ramasar, at Maggiano’s in Las Vegas during NBA summer league when he got the news from Leonard that he was going to Los Angeles. While Leonard’s news caught Siakam somewhat by surprise, it also brought him an immediate boost of energy, knowing he would be asked to step up in a major way.

“[Leonard] texted the group chat saying, ‘Yeah, I’m going home. I appreciate you guys and what we did was special.’ That’s how I found out,” Siakam said. “We all knew that he wanted to go home, for sure. But when we won the championship, we were like, ‘OK, there is a chance [he stays].’ I felt like there was a real chance after we won that maybe he would consider us more. But we all knew the way Kawhi is. Home was really important to him. I thought it could go either way. But I wasn’t surprised he went home.

“But it was excitement being a competitor and someone who strives for greatness. There are more opportunities. The door is open. The window is open. That’s exciting. I’m definitely up for the challenge just like everyone else on the team is up for the challenge.”

While the star of the Raptors’ championship team is gone, Toronto still has Siakam, Lowry, Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet, Marc Gasol, Norman Powell and a healthy OG Anunoby returning. The team also added veteran forwards Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. But for the Raptors to remain a power, the Most Improved Player will need to bring his game to an All-Star level for the first time.

“We are good,” Siakam said. “We have the core people. We’ve been together for a while. We work hard. We have that underdog mentality. If you look at our roster, every single one of us, we’re at a point where we were an underdog. We have a good group together to show people that we are still here.”

Siakam also has not forgotten where he came from. During his news conference on Monday, he mentioned developing the game of basketball in Africa several times. He has received motivation from the likes of Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Dikembe Mutombo, and NBA journeyman Luc Mbah a Moute. Siakam showed the kids of Cameroon what the game of basketball can do for them by bringing the Larry O’Brien NBA Championship Trophy home this summer.

Africa has been known for developing shot-blocking big men. But the skilled and versatile Siakam is a game-changer for a continent that will be debuting its own league-sanctioned Basketball Africa League next year.

“Masai and I have always had this conversation about making sure we change the culture,” Siakam said. “This is bigger than me. The first time I started playing basketball, I was a big [man] no matter what. I was tall. That was what you are. I always wanted to have the skills. I always wanted to work on those things. Now, I can show kids and people from Africa that, ‘Hey, you can be more than a [big man]. You can have all the tools.’ ”

Siakam said he was able to take a deep breath after he signed his new contract with the Raptors. But his emotions will soon return as the 2019 NBA champions open their season by getting their title rings from NBA commissioner Adam Silver and raising their banner to the rafters.

“That is something where people that played 20 years in the league don’t get,” Siakam said about winning a title. “I am in year three, and I’m getting that. And I was part of it. It was more than just getting the ring. That in itself is a huge accomplishment. But also, for me what makes it more exciting is that this is something that a country and a city has been waiting for, for a long time.

“I can anticipate the excitement. I saw the trophy. But having the ring is another reminder that we actually did this thing. Every time I go to the arena now I am going to see that banner and say, ‘We did that. I was part of that.’ That was something special and something you’ll never forget the rest of your life.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.