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It’s Lobo vs. Aggie in NBA’s Eastern Conference final

Ex-Lobo Tony Snell, left, now with Milwaukee, and ex-Aggie Pascal Siakam, now with Toronto, will be meeting in the Eastern Conference Finals Wednesday. (AP PHOTOS)

For years, Brandon Mason held one former New Mexico State basketball teammate in slightly higher regard than the rest – a player to this day the now-UNM Lobos assistant coach can’t understand never getting his NBA opportunity.

“James Moore. Man, I always thought that James Moore was one of the best Aggies I ever played with,” said Mason. “I always had that much respect for him.”

Then came the summer of 2015.

Mason, the former Aggie who had just been hired as a special assistant at his alma mater by Marvin Menzies, remembers going to the practice facility in Las Cruces.

“When I walked in my first day on the job (at NMSU) and I saw Pascal Siakam in a workout, man,” Mason recalls. “I called James Moore that day and I said I finally found somebody that’s going to be better than you.”

Four years later, Siakam’s unlikely path from playing college basketball in southern New Mexico to NBA stardom with the Toronto Raptors has landed the former Aggie in the Eastern Conference Finals, which start Wednesday.

The Raptors’ opponent features another player Mason insists he saw an NBA future for when he played college basketball in New Mexico – former Lobo wing Tony Snell.

It is believed to be the first time since UNM’s Luc Longley and NMSU’s Randy Brown were Chicago Bulls teammates in the late 1990s that a Lobo and an Aggie are playing in the same conference final.

Snell has grown to be like a younger brother through the years with Mason, who was a video coordinator at UNM when the two first met.

“The first week I was at UNM,” Mason insists is when he first thought Snell would be in the NBA.

“I told (former UNM assistants) Drew Adams and Craig Snow after watching (Snell playing in) open gym.”

Mason, who talks to Snell daily – “we play dominoes every day … I’ve beat him probably seven or eight times in a row now,” – says seeing Snell and Siakam play at this level is a great example for players at both of New Mexico’s Division I programs.

“They’re similar people in how they work and how they live off the court,” Mason said. “You know, hard work. No drinking. No smoking. Living the right way. They’re both at the same point. It shows that living the right way and that hard work they put in pays off. Both of those guys are where they are for a reason.”

Snell left UNM early after the 2013 season and was a first-round draft pick of the Chicago Bulls. This season with Milwaukee, Snell played in 74 games, starting 12 and averaging 17.6 minutes per game. He’s in the third season with Milwaukee and second of a four-year, $46 million contract that began last season.

Siakam, meanwhile, is in his third season with Toronto after also being a first-round draft pick in 2016. He bounced back and forth as a rookie between what was then the D-League and the Raptors before emerging as a regular player last season and a rising star this season, averaging 16.9 points and 6.9 rebounds after having starting 79 games for the Raptors in the regular season.

“I was actually texting with Pascal after the game (Sunday night). I’m happy for him, obviously,” said Lobos coach Paul Weir, who was the associate head coach at NMSU when Siakam played there.

“And I’ve gotten to know Tony a little bit since being the coach (at UNM). It’s really cool for both of them. … Hopefully those two go at it and have a great series. I think it’s great exposure for the state of New Mexico and players coming to play here.”

NMSU coach Chris Jans, who has five former players of his own on NBA rosters, said he sees the benefits of Siakam’s monster season on the recruiting trail.

“Pascal Siakam’s emergence in the NBA is a great story in and of itself,” Jans said. “The fact that he and three other former Aggies played minutes in the NBA this past season has been remarkable for our program’s exposure to potential recruits across the country.”

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