TORONTO — In the corner of the Raptors’ training facility, Christian Koloko faced a familiar opponent shortly after a team practice session late last month.
For about 15 minutes Koloko started dribbling again and again at the free-throw line, drove to the basket and tried to pass assistant coach Jamaal Magloire, who tried to stop him by any means necessary.
Magloire works with all the big men on the team, but Koloko has become a priority for him since the club picked the 22-year-old center with the 33rd overall pick in the draft last summer. A 6-foot-11 former All-Star center who turned manager in 2012 after a 12-year playing career, The Big Cat — as he’s known — is a fitting sparring partner.
The two compete against each other after almost every practice session and before almost every game. They were even on that October afternoon, with Koloko dipping into Magloire on one drive and being blocked on the edge on the next. They weren’t what you would call clean defensive plays. Magloire, now 44, has been known to commit a foul or two during these drills, but that’s the point.
“This is my house,” Magloire barked at the newcomer. “My house, my rules.”
“Big Cat helped me a lot to just go out there and be strong with the ball,” Koloko said in a recent interview with TSN. “I need to get stronger. I need to get stronger I’ll keep working on it and having someone like Big Cat, who was an incredibly big man, with me every day I think will really help me.”
Koloko’s NBA career got off to a promising start. He has appeared in all of Toronto’s 12 games to open the campaign and started seven of them. He ranks first among all rookies in blocks and 10th in minutes played — he’s logged more of them than any other second-round pick in his draft class.
With his massive 7ft 5 wingspan protecting the rim, Koloko made an immediate impression defensively. The Raptors only allow 97.1 points per 100 possessions on the floor with him. Not only is that the best grade among regular rotation players, but it’s also almost nine points better than the next best player, OG Anunoby, who is an early contender for Defensive Player of the Year.
To keep his defense grounded, Nick Nurse and his coaching staff are trying to find ways to use Koloko’s abilities offensively. Lacking a reliable jump shot — he’s missed all three of his three-point attempts as a pro after going 5-0 from afar in Arizona in three college seasons — it’s all about exploiting the things he’s mastered.
With his length and athleticism, Koloko is already the best praise threat Toronto has had since Lucas Nogueira. Yes, that’s how long it’s been since Raptor Wardens have had the luxury of teaming up with a bouncy 7-foot vehicle capable of catching passes over the edge.
Koloko also has pretty good hands for a big man, his teammates are learning. He’s converted all four of his alley-oop passes this season, including one from Scottie Barnes against San Antonio last week and another from Fred VanVleet in Sunday’s win over Chicago – a career evening for the rookie, who won that game with personal bests of 11 finished points, seven rebounds and six blocks in 31 minutes.
According to NBA.com/stats, Koloko has made 11 of his 15 dunks this season. However, he’s only 6-for-20 on layups. The Raptors rookie shoots 46 percent within eight feet of the basket, the worst rank among centers with at least 20 attempts from that distance. Koloko is 17-to-37 and has been blocked on eight of those attempts.
Magloire is one of several people in the organization tasked with helping the rookie grow stronger and grow stronger through contact on the fringes. Koloko weighs 230 pounds and works with the team’s nutritionist to optimize his diet and the trainers to curate his routine in the weight room. But similar to most first-year players, adding muscle to his lean physique will take time.
Until then, Magloire has given him some tips including going up strong, showing your elbows, protecting the ball and embracing contact – and selling. The nurse also encourages him to use his size to dunk the ball rather than lay it down.
Those last few competitions – Monday’s loss in Chicago and Wednesday’s win over Houston – have been full of learning moments for the rookie. He shot 3-of-12, including 2-of-8 layups, and committed nine fouls in a total of 25 minutes.
Early in the second quarter of Wednesday’s game, Koloko caught the ball on the reel just yards from the bucket. When Rocket’s big man Usman Garuba came over to challenge, Koloko tried to lean in a layup but missed the front of the rim. He got his own rebound and turned up another shot but was blocked by Garuba before Dalano finally tipped Banton on the put back. Sure, Koloko thought someone made contact with his arm in the attempt, if not Garuba then his colleague Tari Eason, who challenged the shot from behind. But such is life for a young player in the NBA.
To his credit, Koloko went high when he caught the ball from a Barnes pass to open the third quarter. He missed the dunk but drew a foul.
“It’s definitely tougher [than it was in college] because here everyone is taller, everyone is stronger, everyone is more athletic,” said Koloko before the 116:109 win over the Rockets. “But at the end of the day, I just have to remember that it’s basically on me. I just have to get better at it.”
The valuable reps he gets should help speed that process up. Instead of learning in practice or at the G-League level where the bulk of his preseason minutes should be, Koloko was thrown into the fire.
It’s not just that he’s playing, it’s who he’s playing against. Koloko starts games in the absence of Pascal Siakam and faces some of the NBA’s best and most physically imposing big men.
On opening night, he faced Cleveland’s elite frontcourt duo Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley. His first start was opposite Bam Adebayo in Miami last month. He’s gone toe-to-toe with Joel Embiid, a longtime MVP candidate and fellow Cameroonian. Recently he has started games against Atlanta’s Clint Capela, San Antonio’s Jakob Poeltl and Chicago’s Nikola Vucevic.
“It’s a process,” VanVleet said. “It’s not like you can give a guy a manual and it’s a magic pill. You just have to learn how your body feels from game to game. The five is probably the position that changes the most from night to night. You have traditional [centres], [modern bigs] how [Alperen] Sengun [on Wednesday]. He played against it [Vucevic] for two games. It will continue to change for him. He will see different looks. It’s just a good experience for him.”
And despite his ups and downs, Koloko should continue to gain that experience, at least for now. Siakam will be out for at least two weeks with his groin strain, although it’s more likely to be three or four. Precious Achiuwa is out indefinitely after suffering a partial tear of ligaments in his right ankle in a hard crash late Wednesday night. Khem Birch remains sidelined with knee pain.
So after three bigs, the Raptors will lean on their rookie center and hope there are more peaks than valleys. In any case, Koloko will be better off.
“It’s trial and error,” VanVleet said. “He’s going to screw it up. He’ll look crazy out there sometimes. He just needs to get stronger. It is his first assignment in the NBA. He gains valuable experience. But he needs to learn to be a pro and take care of his body and try to freshen up and prepare for the next game, get the pop back and dunk some of that [layups].”
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