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With Christian Koloko, Raptors add rim protection to their roster

TORONTO — Apparently, there is room for a 7-footer in “Project 6-8.”

For good reason, the Raptors were defined by their seemingly endless supply of guys between 6-foot-7 and 6-9, with only Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr., cracking the rotation regularly from outside that height range — both on the low end. The Raptors never added a big man, even to serve as a means to absorb six fouls against a star big man.

To be abundantly clear, that isn’t what is going to be expected of Christian Koloko, whom the Raptors took with the 33rd pick in Thursday’s NBA Draft, either. He is not going to spend time pushing out the brutes of the world, given his relatively thin frame and high waist. But the Arizona centre, from Douala, Cameroon, just like Pascal Siakam, is going to hang around the rim and act as a stationary deterrent.

“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.”

As you would expect, there is also the question of strength. Even if Koloko only figures to be a lob threat early in his career, he will have to be able to set meaningful screens and finish through some lower-body contact in the air for him to be able to fulfill that role. The rest of his offensive game will have to develop over time, with Nurse pointing out that he likes his big men to be able to facilitate on the perimeter, as Jonas Valanciunas started to do near the end of his time with the Raptors.

For a while, then, the Raptors will still likely be operating as a comparatively undersized team in the frontcourt. If Koloko develops, he could change that in the years to come.

Notes

• Due to a visa issue, the Raptors could not bring Koloko into Toronto for an individual workout during the pre-draft process. Jakob Poeltl and Siakam, whom the Raptors picked with the ninth and 27th picks in 2016, had similar issues, but the team was able to organize a workout in Buffalo for them. Not so this time with Koloko, although they sat down with him during the draft combine in Chicago. They first saw him at Basketball Without Borders in South Africa in 2017, so they are hardly without information on him.

• Raptors general manager Bobby Webster added that because the Raptors only had the 33rd pick in the draft, they did not receive a call from another team for a long while to start off the night. It does not sound like they were particularly close to making any meaningful trade.

• Webster did not confirm the ESPN report that the Raptors have signed Rutgers swingman Ron Harper Jr. to a two-way deal but called it the coolest story of the night — when it becomes official, of course. Why? As the general manager in Cleveland, Raptors senior adviser Wayne Embry drafted Harper’s father with the eighth-overall selection in 1986. The younger Harper averaged 15.8 points and 5.9 rebounds in his senior season, improving his shooting numbers dramatically, hitting 39.8 percent of his 3s and 79.5 percent of his free throws.

• Any realistic chance the Raptors could take a Canadian was spoiled by the two picks just before they were up, with Andrew Nembhard going to Indiana with the 31st pick and Caleb Houstan going next to Orlando. Nurse mentioned that Nembhard had an “almost flawless” workout with the Raptors, and he wasn’t surprised to see him move up draft boards during the draft process.

It was the second time in the draft that Canadians went back-to-back, with Bennedict Mathurin and Shaedon Sharpe going sixth and seventh to Indiana and Portland, respectively.

• After so many rumours centred on veteran players were percolating leading up to the draft, there were very few established players traded on Thursday. That included OG Anunoby, whom the Portland Trail Blazers were not able to acquire for the seventh-overall pick or anything else. That was always the safe bet: With two years plus a player option left on his contract, the Raptors can afford to give their core another year to coalesce and establish its ceiling. Trading a well above-average starter on a team-friendly deal for a mid-lottery pick when you are actively trying to be good in the present did not make much sense. Anunoby, Siakam and Scottie Barnes were all at OVO Athletic Centre working out on Thursday.

Atlanta drafted AJ Griffin, the son of Raptors assistant coach Adrian Griffin, with the 16th pick. Nurse said he did not anticipate giving the coach the job of preparing the video scout on the Hawks this season.

(Photo: Orlando Ramirez / USA Today)

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