Quick defensive scout:
*Good timing defensively around rim
*Improved dramatically year-over-year (again, developmental capacity)
*Big time motor
*They'll embrace his wild closeouts/scrambling to correct mistakes as they work to iron them out.
— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) June 24, 2022
Quick offensive scout:
*Effecient in moderate-usage role
*Range to 17 feet, could extend to 3FG in time
*Should be a good rim-run option, finishes really well on dunker/dump-offs
*He's gonna require some patience with turnovers and limited handle/counters
— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) June 24, 2022
Could see a scenario where Koloko is up and down Raps to 905 as injuries/rotations dictate. They'll want him getting ample reps down there to expand the offensive package and confidence, but his defense could help in the near-term, to where he can fight for minutes.
— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) June 24, 2022
— Ron Harper Jr. (@__RHJR) June 24, 2022
The most telling indicator of the Toronto Raptors’ intentions as the NBA Draft approached was offered well before they made Arizona big man Christian Koloko their second-round pick.
Leading up to the draft there had been persistent rumours or speculation that Raptors forward OG Anunoby was in play and trading him was the means by which Toronto would obtain a pick in the lottery while adding some additional roster depth, presumably, and that the fifth-year forward would find a path towards becoming a primary offensive option and potentially increase his contract value in the process.
It didn’t matter that most of that speculation was being driven by the teams looking to add the skills that make Anunoby so valuable to Toronto: size, quickness, defensive versatility, quality three-point shooting and the possibility of more offensive punch to come.
In particular, the Portland Trail Blazers were pushing hard to convince the Raptors to give up Anunoby in exchange for the seventh pick in the draft, the full-court press being made on Wednesday, per sources.
But on Thursday morning the Raptors’ answer was being played out in real-time at the OVO Athletic Centre as Anunoby was working out with rookie-of-the-year Scottie Barnes and all-NBA forward Pascal Siakam. In theory it was concerns about not having enough opportunity to flourish behind Siakam and Barnes that was behind reports that Anunoby was unhappy in his role in Toronto and could be open to a change of scenery.
But none of that was on display Thursday.
It wasn’t a coincidence that three of the Raptors’ most important players were on the floor together, training. If finding ways for them to thrive individually and as a group is part of the plan, working out together is one small plank in it.
“I think that there has appeared to me this summer, not only today but a lot of these weeks here since we’ve broken up there’s a pretty good closeness with this group,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “[Thursday] we have Pascal and OG and Scottie all on the floor today working out with each other at the same time and that was exciting to kind of watch them kind of go at it a little bit… but mostly it’s just our guys, rightly so, they’re proud to be Raptors, they love the organization… so team spirit feels really good right now. So it’s exciting to see.”
Needless to say as the lottery ticked along and as the Trail Blazers pick came and went at No. 7, the Raptors stood pat, and Anunoby remained on the roster. Any concerns he may have about his role or concerns the Raptors might have about him are yesterday’s news.
“I always like flexibility. If the things we’re doing we can’t do with our main guys for whatever reason, or certain matchup calls for something else, then maybe this will give us the chance to do that,” coach Nick Nurse said after the pick. “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, funnel things (toward the rim) and be even more in lanes and more handsy and more turnover-driven and not have to pay for it if you gamble and make some mistakes. Maybe you can have someone save some of those mistakes at the goal.”
Specifically, maybe Koloko can turn back shots if there is a breakdown on the perimeter. He blocked nearly 2.8 shots per game in his junior year at Arizona, winning defensive player of the year and most improved player in the Pac-12. In Precious Achiuwa and Siakam, the Raptors have some fairly gifted shot blockers, but they don’t present the type of frame that makes the best athletes in the world think twice before attempting a shot in the restricted area. Koloko, with a — say it with me now, Raptors fans — 7-5 wingspan, has the chance to be that type of player. With the 33rd pick, addressing an obvious player-type hole, even if the path to him being a serious contributor is longer, that’s not a bad play.
However, it’s hard for any one-dimensional player to become a consistent rotation player, so the Raptors will have some things to work on with the 22-year-old. Nurse was optimistic about Koloko’s ability to guard on the perimeter when necessary, while ESPN’s Jay Bilas said the same on the network’s draft coverage. On the other hand, The Athletic’s own Sam Vecenie was pessimistic about that ability, which has seemed so essential in the last few years.
“(He) occasionally gets out-anchored on the block,” Vecenie wrote in our 2022 NBA Draft Guide. “Also doesn’t have a ton of quickness. Will not be a switch guy. Has a chance to get cooked a bit on the perimeter because he doesn’t play with much bend (in his knees).”
“His feet look good (enough) that he should be able to do some switching,” Nurse said. “You’re probably not gonna want him in constant switching, but you want to know that if there’s an emergency or if there’s a certain time in the game that something happens, he’ll be able to handle himself adequately.”
One of the knocks against Koloko is he’s already 22 years old, suggesting there might not be as much developmental runway to squeeze out of him. However, he came to basketball later in life, so there could still be some development time there.
Regardless, however, Koloko figures to be someone who can step in and contribute for the Raptors immediately because, for one, he fills a clear need for the team at backup centre, and also because this isn’t someone the Raptors don’t have any familiarity with.
Shortly after Toronto made its selection, Nurse spoke about the selection of Koloko and mentioned the fact the Raptors have had their eye on the young man for a while now, giving him familiarity and comfort to already begin making a call on his role heading into next season.
The Raptors have had their eye on Koloko ever since they first spotted him at a Basketball Without Borders Camp in 2017.
“I’ve seen quite a bit of him. I’ve seen him play quite a bit,” said Nurse. “It’s always hard to tell. I’m hoping so. I think that there’s probably positionally a chance for him to fight his way in there and get some time.”
For one, he’s big — like, an actual big. He’s 7’1”! The Raptors leaned into length last year, but this is a whole ‘other story: he’s got a 7’5.25” wingspan!
By all accounts, Koloko is an athletic shot blocker, rim-runner and dunker; he can shoot a little, but not from range (yet); he’s a high-energy player.
That all sounds appealing! Well, OK, maybe not the “can’t shoot from distance part,” but hey, that’s what the NBA G League is for!
Koloko played three seasons in Arizona, and averaged 12.6 points, 7.3 rebounds, and an insane 2.8 blocks in 25 minutes per game for the Wildcats last season. He also shot the ball well from the floor and the line (63.5% and 73.5%, respectively) but again, nothing from deep.
He’s also from Doula, Cameroon — Pascal Siakam’s hometown! Also like Siakam, he picked up hoops later in life, so he’s still raw — a real unfinished product.
Size, quickness, shot-blocking, energy. What more can you want? (Oh, yeah. Shooting.) Well, we can’t have it all, right?
An athletic 7-footer with a ginormous wingspan and defensive chops who is a raw talent with a mere 10 years or so of basketball experience who hails from the same hometown as Pascal Siakam?
I don’t know who precisely Christian Koloko is but he’s basically the poster boy for what the Raptors are and want to be, isn’t he?
His name would have verily jumped off the page had I done a lot of research and applied Toronto’s philosophy to this year’s draft.
A total no-brainer and I’m shocked that no Irregular seems to even have mentioned his name in passing over the last month or so.
Now, I have no idea if the kid can play at the NBA level – the highlights I saw last night were impressive but anyone who got drafted could put together a minute or two of “wow” moments to titillate fans
But if you know, you know.
A year after having the fourth overall pick and turning it into rookie of the year Scottie Barnes, the Raptors have selected a far more long-term prospect in Koloko.
The 22-year-old seven-foot-one power forward was the Pac-12 defensive player of the year last season at Arizona.
The Raptors just missed out on a chance to select a Canadian for the second year in a row after Andrew Nembhard of Aurora went 31st to Indiana and Mississauga’s Caleb Houstan was taken 32nd by Orlando.
With the draft now in the rearview mirror, the real work for Toronto begins next week heading into the July 1 opening of free agency and that will have a significantly bigger impact on the 2022-23 season than Thursday’s draft will.
Vice-chairman Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster have two unrestricted free agents to deal with — Chris Boucher and Thaddeus Young — and will have the so-called “mid-level” salary-cap exception of about $10.5 million (U.S.) to offer a free agent or a number of them.
As a prospect, he’s more of a traditional big man than anyone the Raptors had last season. After two middling years at Arizona, he developed into a dominant inside presence for the Wildcats as a junior, earning the Pac-12’s Defensive Player of the Year award while averaging 2.8 blocks per game to go with 12.6 points and 7.3 rebounds.
“Good shot-blocker, really good defensive numbers, ranks really highly in all of college basketball last year in a lot of categories,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse following the selection. “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.”
That defensive switchability is going to be the big question for Koloko in Toronto’s complex system. Don’t expect him to be an impact player right away, but with some development and time with the Raptors 905, there’s certainly defensive potential, Nurse said.
“His feet look good [enough] that he should be able to do some switching. You’re probably not gonna want him in constant switching but you wanna know that if there’s an emergency or if there’s a certain time in the game, that something happens, he’ll be able to handle himself adequately,” Nurse said.
Ultimately, Koloko gives the Raptors the ability to change things up defensively when their small-ball lineups aren’t working. Toronto was able to make due at times last year without a traditional big, but in certain matchups, it would have been helpful to have a true center on the roster who could at least eat some minutes against the league’s supersized centers.
“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,” Nurse said. “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, funnel things in and be even more in lanes and more handsy and more turnover-driven and not have to pay for it if you gamble and make some mistakes. Maybe you can have someone save some of those mistakes at the goal.”
Harper, a 6’6” forward, comes from Rutgers, and played all four years for the Scarlet Knights; he averaged 16 points, 6 rebounds and 2 assists last year, on 44/40/80 shooting splits. A forceful scorer and strong defender, Harper Jr. led Rutgers to two NCAA tournament appearances (it would have been three, but COVID canceled the 2020 appearance); despite his 6’6” height, Harper often played power forward, using his broad frame defending larger players. The comp that comes to mind for me, then, is PJ Tucker — which is not a bad way to start your NBA career.
Harper, of course, is the son of former NBA first round pick Ron Harper, who won five championships with the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers. Harper was selected 8th overall in 1986 by then-Cleveland Cavaliers GM Wayne Embry, who serves as a Raptors special consultant to this day.