For all the success the Toronto Raptors had with their unorthodox, so-called "Vision 6-foot-9" roster of versatile wings last season, there were times when it felt like Toronto became a little too fastball reliant, if you will. As good as the versatility was, it wouldn't have hurt to have some flexibility and little something else to keep opposing teams off-balanced.
Adding something different wasn't the goal for Toronto coming into Thursday's NBA Draft. As Raptors general manager Bobby Webster always says, take the best player available and figure out the rest later. Fortunately for Toronto, the best player available when the Raptors' No. 33 pick rolled around just so happened to be Christian Koloko, a 7-foot-1 shot-blocking behemoth out of Arizona.
Toronto has been keeping tabs on Koloko for a while now. It was Masai Ujiri who first noticed the Cameroonian center, originally from Douala, Pascal Siakam's hometown, at the 2017 Basketball Without Borders event in South Africa.
Back then, Koloko was still relatively new to basketball, a "long skinny lanky kid," as Webster recalled Thursday night.
"I think that’s why you follow the development. Now five years later you see the progression," Webster added.
It's been a remarkable journey for Koloko who was virtually unknown when he showed up in Arizona as a three-star high school recruit out of Sierra Canyon. From there, the progression was slow and steady before a breakout 2021-22 junior campaign that saw him take home the Pac-12's Defensive Player of the Year award along with the conference's Most Improved Player honors.
"To me, it's just the hard work, the commitment, the want and ability to grow," Webster said of Koloko who averaged 12.6 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 2.8 blocks per game.
For now, the 22-year-old Koloko is more of a developmental project than a player who's going to help the Raptors next season. He's a skilled inside scorer who should provide Toronto with a much-needed lob threat presence and his interior defense was among the very best in college basketball last season, but his touch around the rim, shooting, and perimeter defense are going to need a lot of work.
"His feet look good [enough] that he should be able to do some switching," Raptors coach Nick Nurse said following the selection Thursday night. "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."
For now, that's OK. Koloko's 7-foot-5 wingspan and 9-foot-5 standing reach, both of which ranked second longest in the draft, will give Toronto an opportunity to get a little more aggressive on defense, Nurse said. In the past, the Raptors' hype-aggressive scheme allowed teams to create buckets inside if they got past Toronto's first line of defense. With Koloko roaming the paint one day, that should change.
"I always like flexibility," Nurse said. "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. 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. ... Maybe you can have someone save some of those mistakes at the goal.”
That was something Fred VanVleet was hoping the front office would address this summer. It wasn't that Toronto's defense last season had serious problems by any means, but a little something different in certain situations certainly would have helped.
"Basketball is such a flexible sport that you’ve got to have different options," he said during his season-ending media availability. "Different things call for different matchups. Different series. Having options never hurts.”
In Koloko, the Raptors hope to have found that. It won't make much of a difference next season, but with time, Toronto thinks it has the kind of player who can give them the flexibility to do a little bit of everything on the court.