TORONTO (AP) — The path to the best NBA Finals debut in seven years began in Cameroon and has stretched from New Mexico to the suburbs of Toronto.
Pascal Siakam had to emerge from some small settings before he could reach the big time.
That made Siakam’s 32-point performance in Game 1 even more impressive. The players who often stand out this time of year are the can’t-miss prospects who seemed destined for greatness from the time they were kids.
Siakam hadn’t even started playing basketball by then.
But there he was Thursday night, shooting 14 of 17 from the field to spark Toronto’s 118-109 victory over Golden State.
“I’ve never seen anything like that before,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “That’s a pretty big stage for a guy to put that kind of performance on, almost with any background.”
It was the most points in an NBA Finals debut since Kevin Durant had 36 for Oklahoma City in 2012, and it made Siakam the first player to score 30 or more on at least 80 percent shooting in a finals game since Shaquille O’Neal did it in 2004.
Those players were top-two picks, as were Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon and Tim Duncan, the other players since 1970 with 30 points in an NBA Finals Game 1 within their first three pro seasons.
Siakam was way down at No. 27 in the 2016 draft. Golden State’s Draymond Green — a second-round pick — said there’s a different level of admiration for players who have played themselves into starring roles from what are considered supporting spots.
“You come into this league and there’s really no space for you,” Green said. “You’re essentially someone who kind of comes in — I mean, you can be out in a year, you can be out in two years, you can be out in four years. And to gain that respect and to, as I said before, become one of those guys, I think it’s special. Siakam has done that.”
The 6-foot-9 Siakam was already a good athlete, having played soccer as a boy in Cameroon. But it was his desire to become a good basketball player that’s kept him in the gym long hours to make up for his late start in the game.
He took part in a Basketball without Borders camp in South Africa in 2012 at 18 and was soon on the way to the U.S. to embark on a basketball career. He ended up at New Mexico State for two seasons, winning Western Athletic Conference player of the year in his second one, before the Raptors drafted him.
Siakam was MVP of the 2017 NBA G League Finals after helping Raptors 905 win the title, but success with the big club would have to wait. He didn’t have a reliable shot yet, certainly not reliable enough to be a regular contributor on a 50-win team. But he’s developed one over the summers and unleashed it on opponents during this season, when he averaged 16.9 points and played well enough to be a finalist for Most Improved Player.
“He works, works, works,” Nurse said. “He takes care of himself. He’s really got a burning desire to be a very, very good player in this league.”
But the biggest change for Siakam came off the court.
He was in college when his father, Tchamo, died. Siakam, who still writes “RIP Dad” on his sneakers, called it the hardest moment of his life but said it was a turning point into making him into the person he has become.
“Thank God I had the support of my teammates and coaches in college that helped me go through it. But it was definitely one of the toughest moments in my life, and not being able to go home for the funeral and all that,” Siakam said.
“So it was definitely a moment where it kind of tested me as a man. Just being able to go through that and for me using that as a motivation and something that’s going to push me to do better things for my family and for myself, for my dad.”
Green, a former Defensive Player of the Year, blamed himself for the poor defense on Siakam and vowed to be better Sunday in Game 2. Siakam knows there will be adjustments, but he might make some, too.
“I think I always say, I learned a lot and I know I have a lot to learn,” Siakam said. “I think that’s one of the advantages for me. I know I have so much to learn. I have to grow. It allows me to look at my mistakes and evaluate them and try to see how I can do better.”