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For a team that claims to always draft for upside rather than fit, 22-year-old Christian Koloko fits an awful lot of needs for the Toronto Raptors.
The 33rd selection in the 2022 NBA Draft, Koloko hails from Duala, Cameroon, the same city as Raptors forward Pascal Siakam, where he similarly grew up playing soccer and only fully committed himself to the game of basketball five years ago.
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) June 24, 2022
Koloko participated in the 2017 Basketball Without Borders Africa and the 2018 Basketball Without Borders Global Camp, where the Raptors first saw a “long, skinny, lanky kid,” as general manager Bobby Webster described his first impressions. But Koloko has come a long way since then, playing three seasons at the University of Arizona (with Canadian Bennedict Mathurin) and improving dramatically each year, breaking out in 2021-22 when he started all 37 of the games and averaged 12.6 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.8 blocks in 25.4 minutes per game.
The 7-foot-1 centre with a 7-foot-5-plus wingspan and a 9-foot-5 standing reach was awarded the 2021-22 Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, Most Improved Player and was an All-Pac-12 First Team choice. Koloko led the Pac-12 (and ranked 14th nationally) in blocks per game, and tied a University of Arizona single-season record for total blocks (102). He was one of 10 semifinalists for the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year Award.
“I think what happened [this season] was just me being confident; me believing in myself,” Koloko said about his breakout year. My first couple years at Arizona were really tough with COVID and everything. I never really had a chance to work on my game during the summer.
"This year we had a new coaching staff. I came in and talked with the coach and he told me how he wanted to use me and how he was going to help me get better. I just needed to commit to work hard and that’s what I did, and I think I was more confident this year.”
Obviously, Koloko fits the Raptors defence-first mentality, with his defence being far ahead of his simple yet effective offensive game at this point in his career. But that’s about where his similarities with other Raptors end, and where his ability to fill some holes on the roster begins.
Koloko is the only Raptor listed above 6-foot-9, and he is an elite rim protector that thrives playing drop coverage and lingering in the paint, where he can rely on his elite footwork as well as his length and verticality to block and deter shots. In fact, teams shot a poor 45 percent at the rim when he was on the floor last season, and they took fewer shots there, too. For a Raptors team desperately lacking rim protection, allowing opponents to shoot 66.3 percent at the rim against them last season (ninth-worst in the league), Koloko represents a huge upgrade in that regard.
Plus, Koloko is a good pick-and-roll player with huge 10 ¾ inch hands and a big catch radius that makes him an ideal lob threat who can put pressure on the rim. He’s also good at timing his movement to the rim in the pick-and-roll and, when he is not involved in the primary action, is good at timing his cuts towards the basket along the baseline. While Koloko’s offensive game is simple, as he is purely a play-finisher right now, he made 70 percent of his shots out of rolls to the basket, which is valuable for a Raptors team that hit just 45.8 percent of their shots when the roll man finished in the pick-and-roll last season, third-worst in the league.
“Good shot-blocker. Really good defensive numbers. Ranks really highly in all of college basketball last year in a lot of categories. Pretty decent pick-and-roll player. And he’s got good feet. He’s a big that’s a rim-protecting shot-blocker, but I think he’s not without the ability to do some switching on the perimeter as well,” Nick Nurse said about Koloko. “Certainly kind of slots in possibly in a position of need with roster balance, too.”
Add in the fact that Koloko is a really good rebounder, using his long frame and big hands to out-jump fellow bigs and average 7.3 rebounds in just 25.4 minutes per game, and that’s another thing that Koloko already does well that the Raptors struggled with, ranking as the eighth-worst defensive rebounding team in the league last season.
That’s why Koloko is a significant selection for the Raptors, giving insight into their team-building philosophy. Sure, it’s the 33rd pick in the draft, and it’s rare for a player picked that low to carve out a long career in the NBA, with Webster estimating that three in every 10 players picked in that range will make it. But regardless, selecting Koloko shows the Raptors are not confined to the centreless, 6-foot-9, wing-dominant vision they ran out last season, and they believe last year’s team was missing some key characteristics such as rim-protection, rim-running and rebounding. We had long speculated the Raptors were simply making the best out of what they had and were not opposed to the idea of rostering a more traditional centre, but now we have proof that is in fact something they felt they were missing.
“I think there were certain situations that we were playing with what we had and making due and making defensive schemes and adjustments out of necessity (dictated by) the roster,” Nurse said about last season. “I always like flexibility. If the things we’re doing we can’t do with our main guys for whatever reason, or a certain matchup calls for something else, then maybe this will give us the chance to do that.
"If he protects the rim as well as I think he does, I think that always gives you a chance, if it’s possible, to be even more aggressive out on the wings… if you gamble and make some mistakes, maybe you can have someone save some of those mistakes at the goal.”
Nurse also mentioned that while Koloko can do a bit of switching, “you’re probably not gonna want him in constant switching.” That alludes to the possibility of the Raptors playing drop coverage with Koloko, something they rarely did last season because of their lack of rim-protecting bigs. While it doesn’t sound like that will be their primary defensive scheme, having it in the back pocket and playing it for shorts spurts allows them to be more versatile and therefore less predictable. Plus, it helps over the course of a long 82-game season to be able to play some drop, since it is usually less physically taxing than the switch-everything scheme the Raptors typically deploy, since that often leads to double-teams and rotations.
The Raptors could still add a big in free agency, as Webster said they “try to look at the draft independently of [free agency]” and immediate needs, but Koloko gives them a different look for years to come, and he could be able to slot in as the backup centre as soon as next season due to his defensive abilities.
“Christian is a great fit for the Raptors and the city of Toronto,” Jack Murphy, the associate head coach at Arizona, told Yahoo Sports Canada. “On the court, Christian’s defensive versatility was possibly the best in this draft class and then off the court the maturity and worldliness of Christian will fit in perfectly in the international city of Toronto. Coach Nurse and the front office got a great one last night.”
While it’s true that Koloko happens to fill a lot of needs for the Raptors, it’s also true the Raptors took who they believed to be the best player available and selected him more for his upside than his immediate fit. As previously mentioned, Koloko only fully committed himself to basketball five years ago after hitting a growth spurt, so he is in a relatively early stage of his development despite his age.
But the real reason the Raptors believe in his upside and are comfortable putting a lot of resources into his development is because of the progression Koloko has made in recent years, putting in the work to go from an extremely raw freshman who contributed just 2.3 points per game at Arizona to scoring 5.3 points per game as a sophomore and 11.8 points per game last season as a junior, averaging just six more minutes per game and yet doubling his scoring average. A one-time 43 percent shooter, Koloko evolved to 63 percent this year despite tripling his field goal attempts. Once a liability at the free-throw line, shooting just 35 percent as a freshman, Koloko was a serviceable 73 percent from the stripe this year. While Koloko had more turnovers than assists last season, he has come a long way in almost every facet of his game.
“Christian came to Arizona as a raw, skinny young man with limited skill, but high upside,” Murphy said. “Through his hard work and consistent effort he has been able to transform himself into someone who can truly impact the game on both ends of the floor.”
“I saw some footage online and he's probably 15 or 16 there, and then to see where he's come not that long later at 22. To me, it's just the hard work, the commitment, the want and ability to grow,” Webster said of Koloko’s development. “So I think the culmination was a really incredible year at Arizona where he probably even got better from the beginning of the season to the end of the season. So more of that, which is what we love here.”
Webster said “the sky is the limit” for Koloko, who they will meet in Las Vegas in early July, where he will be a key fixture on the Raptors’ Summer League team.
Koloko believes he has a lot of room to grow and is excited to get to work with the Raptors. “My goal for my rookie season is to just be the best version of myself,” Koloko said. “Just to be a star and starring in my role.”
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