Christian Koloko has improved massively during his rookie year

Christian Koloko has thrived as a rookie, despite a shifting and malleable role.

The following piece is a guest post by Callum Flesher.

Drafting Christian Koloko, a gigantic center from Arizona, with the 33rd pick was in some way an admission from the Toronto Raptors’ front office that the team needed a big man.

The 2021-22 Raptors were an experiment in positionless basketball, playing an entire season without a true center and relying on players switching and swarming to fill the void in the middle. The starting five were already overloaded on offensive production, each averaging over 15 points a game on the season. Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam led the NBA’s minutes per game table, both clocking 37.9 minutes a night. The rest? 35 minutes. Heavy minutes coupled with overcompensation on defense, in particular for Siakam — who regularly started at the traditional center position, matching up with taller players.

The strategy was innovative and effective, as Toronto clinched the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference by winning 48 games. It was a 13-game improvement on the season prior. However, flaws were visible in the six-game playoff defeat to the Philadelphia 76ers: Fred VanVleet extracted everything he could from his knee, earning a first-time All-Star accolade while firing the Raptors into the playoffs. Yet he was injured in the latter part of the season and couldn’t play in the series beyond Game 4. 

The draft would have been an opportunity to take the load off the starters and move to a more traditional style. The issue? Toronto had only one second-round pick to play with because of a midseason trade to acquire Thad Young from the San Antonio Spurs. Without a high pick, Toronto’s best hope was to bolster a bench that featured Chris Boucher, Precious Achiuwa, and Thad Young in the playoffs. 

Pre-draft, Raptors general manager Bobby Webster downplayed expectations on the sole second-round pick the Raptors owned: “Historically, I think about 20 of the 60 in a draft become real players. Three out of 10 make it.”

Teams are limited to 15 roster spots a season, and the pool of talent from which to pick is endless. The Raptors especially have adopted the strategy of playing their best players for the most possible, meaning the opportunities for second-round picks are slim. The Raptors have developed some gems since their inaugural season in 1995, but it’s still a rarity.

Koloko moved to California as a high school junior and was a four-star recruit out of Sierra Canyon in 2019. He came off the bench in his freshman year in college, developing into Arizona’s starting center by his junior season. That season, Koloko led the team in rebounds with 7.6 per game, and he was a consistent inside scorer, averaging 12.6 points a game, which was third on a Wildcats team that reached the Sweet 16 in March Madness.

Perhaps most importantly for the Raptors, he stands 7-foot-2 with a 7-foot-5 wingspan — their tallest listed player in 2021-22 was D.J. Wilson, standing 6-foot-10. Koloko could fill a gaping hole in the Raptors’ roster. Beyond the size, Toronto didn’t really have anyone with Koloko’s rim protection and shot-blocking qualities. Koloko had some trouble with fouls in college, averaging three fouls per game in a setting that only allows five before fouling out. Yet on offense, Koloko boasted impressive efficiency in college, shooting 63 percent the season before being drafted and improving his free-throw percentage to 73.   

Nearly a season in, and Koloko’s time with Toronto has been fragmented. The rookie has played in 52 games, starting 19, and he’s mostly been used sparsely when the matchup has been right. Yet the impact has been palpable. Before Toronto acquired big man Jakob Poeltl from the San Antonio Spurs at the deadline, Koloko felt like a shiny toy for the Raptors’ defense in his few minutes. Someone who could guard the rim and have center instincts with a long wingspan was a layer of protection for Toronto, and it was working.

His career-high six blocks against the Chicago Bulls in a beefy 31 minutes may have been a loud declaration of success, but he’s been quietly great much more often. Teams shoot at a lower clip with Koloko on the floor, equating to fewer points. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Raptors allow 9.5 fewer points per 100 possessions when Koloko is on the floor (which ranks him in the 98th percentile). Koloko is tied for the lead among the rookie class in plus-minus, at plus-136 on the season (Keegan Murray is his counterpart at plus-136). At the same time, Koloko has frequently been in foul trouble, sometimes struggling to get in the right position ahead of the play. Per 36 minutes, Koloko ranks second in the NBA with 6.0 personal fouls (minimum 50 games played). As well as the fouls, Koloko also only grabs 43.9 percent of his rebound chances, the fourth-worst mark in the league among players who’ve played in at least 50 games. He has the speed and length to get to his spots, it’s now about having the instinct to get there on time and the physicality to battle without crossing the threshold for fouls.

Despite a few issues in his game, Koloko’s first three to ice the game against the Phoenix Suns was a pivotal moment. The modern NBA is trending towards bigs who have range beyond the perimeter. Sure, Koloko plugged a hole for the Raptors with the defense, but if his 3-ball becomes stable, he could fill the role of Brook Lopez for the Raptors. In the NBA Draft combine, Koloko was reportedly 16-of-25 from deep, tied for second in the entire class. In Nick Nurse, he plays for a Head Coach that knows how to develop a range for centers, evolving Jonas Valančiūnas from a complete non-shooter (only one three-pointer made in his first five seasons) to a career-average 35.6 percent and a career-best 40 percent on 74 attempts in 2017-18.

Koloko had clearly been practising the 3-pointer, and to see the pass come from Gary Trent Jr. — a gunner — shows the trust the team has for Koloko. The moment was heartwarming, especially as Koloko was mobbed by the whole roster as a timeout was called. It gave Koloko vindication, in a late-game situation, that something he is doing worked. In a year of brief moments, Koloko found one that lasted. 

Koloko spent much more time with the Raptors 905. There, he logged 27 minutes a game — 13 more than his current NBA allowance. Blocks, more blocks, and even more blocks are on the agenda when Koloko suits up for the 905. His mark of 2.9 blocks a game isn’t far away from the all-time G-League record, held by Kurt Looby who blocked an average of 3.3 shots per game in the 2009-2010 season (of the then D-League). If that portends his future with the big club, the Raptors chose the right man to solve their problem with center depth. Indeed, with Toronto’s other centers behind Poeltl floundering recently, especially on the defensive end, Koloko has recently filled a consistent niche as a back-up center who stands up opponents at the rim.

He may not become the G-League Finals MVP like Pascal Siakam as a rookie in 2017 — the 905 didn’t qualify for the playoffs — but Koloko is slowly climbing up the ladder to consistent NBA minutes. He scored double figures in all but two of his G-League outings, so the consistent playing time is equaling consistent production. G-League minutes are helping improve his current flaws. One noticeable improvement from Koloko’s G-League stint is his defensive positioning. His length and quickness are even more of an outlier in the G-League environment, where centers rarely stand 7-feet tall, and he’s done a great job of using his strengths to navigate himself into the right positions. While still averaging over three fouls a game, he’s evolving in his nose for positioning and timing.

Right now, Koloko is entrenched in the Raptors’ development program, working to improve as his salary is non-guaranteed in a few summers’ time. Development isn’t identical for every player. Koloko has started 19 games for the Raptors, played off the bench in some, and has gone through long stretches of not playing at all. Second-round rookies don’t usually have consistent roles on teams that want to contend for the playoffs, but at least they usually are consistently sitting on the bench. Koloko has had a variety of different roles thrown at him through the year. Yet his defense has been perhaps the most consistent component of his year. He’s well on the way to becoming one of the ‘three of 10’ players that make it to a second contract in the NBA. His own unique way.

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