Raptors forward Pascal Siakam named an all-star starter for the first time

NEW YORK—The journey has been unfathomable for a kid who didn’t even pick up a basketball until about a decade ago. But that skinny unproven talent from Cameroon can now count himself among the very best players in the very best league: Pascal Siakam is an NBA all-star starter.

The 25-year-old, who didn’t begin playing the game until his mid-teens, was named one of five Eastern Conference starters for the Feb. 16 game in Chicago in just his fourth season in the league.

And his thoughts immediately went to his late father, Tchamo, who had big dreams for his children.

“I think you’ve just got to think back to the journey, think back on my dad, you know, just kind of taking the chance and being like, ‘Man I’ve watched these guys on TV, they play with this orange ball, and it’s super fun, people are excited to watch them play, and it’s so exciting,’ ” Siakam said Thursday.

“And him wanting and hoping and dreaming that one of his sons could do that. And working so hard to send his sons to the U.S., get an education, play college ball … hoping to get to the NBA, and there I am.”

Siakam learned of the honour after making an appearance at the NBA Store, where he was surprised by a visit from one of his older brothers, Christian. It made the family feeling even stronger.

“I kind of hate, like, every time there’s a big moment, it feels like there’s something missing,” Siakam said. “But I know, I know (my father is) here, I know he’s watching me. I can feel his presence.

“But I think it would be kind of nice to be able to look him in the face and just tell him, like, ‘You did it. And we did it. And whatever you put your mind into and whatever you’ve worked so hard for is here and we do it at the highest level.’”

It has been a storybook rise for Siakam, the 27th pick in the 2016 NBA draft who was toiling in the D League just four seasons ago.

He is the focal point of the Raptors offence most nights. He is averaging career highs in points (23.5 per game), rebounds (7.7) and assists (3.5) and he continues to find new ways to use his formidable talents. After the departure of Kawhi Leonard last summer, the Raptors basically gave the keys over to the six-foot-nine forward, complete with a four-year, $130-million (U.S.) contract extension he signed just before this season began.

It hasn’t been a seamless transition but Siakam has handled it as well as can be expected given the attention he draws from opponents every night, not to mention the 10 games he missed with a groin injury.

“I think for me, from the first day I got to the NBA, I’ve always wanted to achieve more,” he said. “I felt like it was there … the league was wide open for me to come in and be one of the better players and we worked really, really hard. It wasn’t easy … it’s not easy.”

Siakam continues a string of all-star starters for the Raptors that began in 2015, a six-year run that is the longest in the league right now. Kyle Lowry, who is expected to be added as a reserve next week, started in 2015 and 2016, DeMar DeRozan started in 2017 and 2018, and Kawhi Leonard started last year’s game.

“I guess that was about when it got really special for us,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said, “when Kyle and DeMar got in there and they obviously had that great run with us. But the Pascal one is even more special. This is a kid who two years ago was … I mean, I think he started the season as our 11th man. He played in the D League the year before. That’s a hell of a rise up.

“Give credit to our organization in general — picks, scouting, player development, the whole thing. All those things work together to make that possible.”

Siakam will be joined on the East team by Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid, Atlanta’s Trae Young and Boston’s Kemba Walker.

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Teammates LeBron James and Anthony Davis of the Los Angeles Lakers, the Clippers’ Leonard, Dallas’s Luka Doncic and James Harden from Houston will start for the Western Conference.

After coaches determine the seven backups from each conference in voting to be revealed next Thursday, the team captains, Antetokounmpo and James, will draft teams on Feb. 6.

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