For a team that claims to always pick up rather than fit, 22-year-old Christian Koloko suits a host of needs for the toronto raptors.
The 33rd pick in the 2022 NBA Draft, Koloko hails from Douala, Cameroon, the same city as Raptors forward Pascal Siakam, where he also grew up playing soccer and only fully committed to the game of basketball a few years ago. five years.
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 games and averaged 12.6 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2 rebounds. .8 blocks in 25.4 minutes per game.
The 7-foot-1 center with a 7-foot-5 wingspan and 9-foot-5 foot reach was awarded the 2021-22 Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, Most Improved Player and was an All-Pac-12 Choice of the first team. 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] it was just that I was confident; me believing in myself,” Koloko said of his great year. My first two years in Arizona were really tough with COVID and everything. I never really got a chance to work on my game over the summer.
“This year we had a new coaching staff. I went in and talked to the coach and he told me how he wanted to use me and how he was going to help me improve. I just needed to commit to working hard and that’s what I did.” I did, and I think I was more confident this year.”
Koloko obviously fits the Raptors’ defensive mindset, with his defense far ahead of his simple but effective offensive game at this point in his career. But that’s where his similarities to other Raptors end, and where his ability to fill some gaps in the roster begins.
Koloko is the only Raptor listed above 6-foot-9, and he’s an elite rim protector who thrives on playing drop coverage and staying in the paint, where he can rely on his elite footwork as well as in its 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 that desperately lacked rim protection, allowing opponents to shoot 66.3 percent at the rim against them last season (ninth-worst in the league), Koloko represents a vast improvement in that regard. .
Additionally, Koloko is a good pick-and-roll player with huge 10 ¾-inch hands and a large receiving radius that makes him an ideal threat who can put pressure on the rim. He’s also good at timing his movement to the rim on the pick-and-roll and, when he’s not involved in the main action, he’s good at timing his cuts to the basket along the baseline. While Koloko’s offensive game is simple, as he is purely a play finisher at the moment, he made 70 percent of his shots with spins to the basket, which is valuable for a Raptors team that made only the 45.8 percent of his shots when the spin. man finished in the pick-and-roll last season, third-worst in the league.
“Good shot blocker. Very good defensive numbers. He ranked very high in all of college basketball last year in many categories. A pretty decent pick-and-roll player. And he has good feet. He’s a great shot-blocker who protects the rim, but I think he has the ability to make some changes on the perimeter as well,” Nick Nurse said of Koloko. “Certainly there are also slots in a position of need with the balance of the roster.”
Add in the fact that Koloko is a really good rebounder, uses his long frame and big hands to out-jump other bigs and average 7.3 rebounds in just 25.4 minutes per game, and that’s another thing Koloko already does well and that the Raptors struggled. , ranking as the eighth worst defensive rebounding team in the league last season.
That’s why Koloko is an important pick for the Raptors, which gives insight into their team-building philosophy. Sure, he’s the 33rd pick in the draft, and it’s rare for a player picked that low to carve out a long NBA career, and Webster estimates three out of 10 players picked in that range will make it. But regardless, Koloko’s selection shows the Raptors aren’t limited to the no-center, 6-foot-9, dominant wing vision they were without last season, and they believe last year’s team was lacking. some key features like rim protection, rim protection. running and bouncing. We had long speculated that the Raptors were simply making the most of what they had and weren’t opposed to the idea of forming a more traditional center, but now we have evidence that they, in fact, felt they were lacking.
“I think there were certain situations where we were playing with what we had and making the defensive schemes and adjustments because of the necessity (dictated by) the roster,” Nurse said of last season. “I always like flexibility. If the things we’re doing we can’t do with our main guys for some reason, or if a certain matchup requires something else, then maybe this gives us a chance to do it.
“If he protects the rim as well as I think he does, I think that always gives you the opportunity, if possible, to be even more aggressive on the wings … if you play and make some mistakes, maybe you can have someone “. salvage some of those mistakes in goal.”
The nurse also mentioned that while Koloko may change a bit, “you probably don’t want him constantly changing.” That hints at the possibility of the Raptors playing coverage with Koloko, something they rarely did last season due to a lack of bigs to protect the rim. While that doesn’t seem like his main defensive scheme, having him in the back pocket and playing him in short bursts 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 a little bit, as it’s generally less physically demanding than the switch-everything scheme the Raptors typically implement, as that often leads to double teams and rotations. .
The Raptors could still add something big in free agency, as Webster said they “try to see the draft regardless of [free agency]” and immediate needs, but Koloko gives them a different look in years to come, and he could slot in as the backup center as soon as next season because of his defensive skills.
“Christian is a perfect fit for the Raptors and the city of Toronto,” Arizona associate head coach Jack Murphy told Yahoo Sports Canada. “On the court, Christian’s defensive versatility was arguably the best in this draft class and then off the court, Christian’s maturity and worldliness will be a perfect fit in the international city of Toronto. The nurse trainer and the front office had a lot of fun last night.”
While it’s true that Koloko fills a lot of the Raptors’ needs, it’s also true that the Raptors took who they thought was the best player available and drafted him more for his edge than his immediate fit. As mentioned above, Koloko only fully committed to basketball five years ago after reaching a growth spurt, so he is at a relatively early stage of his development despite his age.
But the real reason the Raptors believe in his silver lining and feel comfortable putting a lot of resources into his development is because of the progression Koloko has made in recent years, working his way from being an extremely raw freshman to he put up just 2.3 points per game in Arizona to 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. Koloko, who shot 43 percent on just one occasion, improved 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 had a useful 73 percent from the fringe 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 skinny, raw young man with limited skills, but many advantages,” Murphy said. “Through his hard work and constant effort, he has been able to transform into someone who can really impact the game on both ends of the floor.”
“I saw some pictures online and he’s probably 15 or 16 there, and then seeing where he’s gotten to not too long after 22. For me, it’s just the hard work, the commitment, the desire and the ability to grow.” Webster said. of the development of Koloko. “So I think the culmination was a really amazing year in 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 face in Las Vegas in early July, where he will be a key player on the Raptors’ Summer League squad.
Koloko believes he has a lot of room to grow and is excited to work with the Raptors. “My goal for my rookie season is to be the best version of myself,” Koloko said. “Just to be a star and star in my role.”
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