The Raptors' 25-year-old breakout player who was studying to become a priest 10 years ago carried them to a massive Finals win

Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesPascal Siakam was the hero for the Raptors in Game 1.

  • The Toronto Raptors won Game 1 of the NBA Finals over the Golden State Warriors.
  • Third-year Raptors forward Pascal Siakam played the hero, scoring 32 points with 8 rebounds, 5 assists, a steal, and 2 blocks.
  • Siakam has had an incredible journey, from studying to be a priest in Cameroon 10 years ago and playing organised basketball for the first time at 17, to breaking out after being the 27th pick in the draft.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

On a night when the Golden State Warriors swarmed Kawhi Leonard, forcing him into a rare off-night this postseason, Pascal Siakam stepped up to help the Toronto Raptors win Game 1 of the NBA Finals.

Siakam’s journey to this point has been unlikely, and it took another turn on Thursday, as he scored 32 points on 14-of-17 shooting, with 8 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 steal, and 2 blocks.

Siakam, 25, has only been playing organised basketball since he was 17. He grew up in Cameroon and was “hand-picked to embody his family’s Catholicism” by his father, according to ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan. While Siakam’s three older brothers played basketball and earned scholarships to U.S. schools, Siakam studied in a seminary until around 15, when he began to rebel because he was no longer interested in becoming a priest.

Siakam began playing basketball at fellow Cameroon native Luc Mbah a Moute’s basketball camp, then two years later, got invited to the Basketball Without Borders program. There, he impressed scouts and executives with his size, athleticism, competitiveness, and overall potential.

Siakam eventually earned a scholarship to New Mexico State, and after three years in college, was taken with the 27th pick in the 2016 NBA draft by the Raptors.

Pascal siakam 2Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesPascal Siakam.

After growing steadily over his first two seasons, with the help of the G League, Siakam exploded this season, averaging 16.9 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 3.1 assists per game while playing versatile, lockdown defence. He’s considered the favourite to win Most Improved Player.

Siakam rose to new heights in Game 1, carrying the Raptors while Leonard was smothered.

Andre Iguodala was Leonard’s primary defender in Game 1, but the Warriors had the luxury of also being able to switch Klay Thompson and Draymond Green onto Leonard. When they didn’t outright double-team Leonard, they crowded his space, leaving shooters to make sure any path Leonard tried to take would be crowded.

via ABC/NBA

Because the Warriors sold out to stop Leonard, Siakam often got mismatches. He took advantage whenever Stephen Curry got switched onto him, bullying Curry in the paint for leaner-floater-hook shot hybrids.

The Raptors also made it a point to get out in transition, where Siakam feasted.

Siakam showed off other aspects of his game, too. He was 2-of-3 from three-point range, but more impressively, he knocked down a pull-up mid-range jumper off of a crossover.

He made a fancy, touch-pass assist to Leonard.

And he came up with a big, clutch block on Green in the fourth quarter.

After the game, Siakam was asked how he would have reacted if someone told him years ago that he would key an NBA Finals victory. He said he would tell that person that they were “crazy.”

Raptors reserve guard Fred VanVleet (another steal for the Raptors, as he went undrafted), shared a funny anecdote with MacMullan after Game 1 about how poor Siakam’s shooting used to be.

“I was joking with him the other day,” VanVleet said. “We used to shoot together in my rookie year, and me and the guy rebounding used to duck sometimes because his shots would come off the rim so hard. He had some bad misses.

“But what you are seeing now is the result of a lot of hard work. You can just see his confidence soaring.”

With the win, the Raptors are just three wins away from the NBA championship, with home-court advantage still intact. The Warriors looked bothered by the Raptors length, and Kevin Durant may not return until Game 4. Leonard figures to get untracked at some point, and while the Raptors can’t rely on Siakam to give them 32 points on 82% shooting each night, he got them a crucial first win.

Raptors GM Masai Ujiri, who scouted Siakam, admitted to MacMullan in 2017 that he did not know they had unearthed a gem.

“I will tell you honestly, when I saw Pascal in Basketball Without Borders [in 2012], I couldn’t even tell you if he was an NBA player,” he told MacMullan. “That’s how incredible his story is.’

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