Quick! Which NBA General Manager do you think of first, when you think of draft picks? You likely answered Sam Presti of the Oklahoma City Thunder, considering they own enough first round picks over the next seven years to field an entire NBA roster.
But, what if I asked you which GM you thought about when you think of good draft picks? Draft steals. The front office that almost every year pulls away from the draft with a player of a much higher caliber than the pick they selected them at.
Then you may answer Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster of the Toronto Raptors (because both of them deserve love).
Dating back to 2015, the Raptors have had many notable draft picks, including a couple of of lottery selections; but for the most part, players who they drafted late, and developed into stars, championship level role players, or elite trade pieces.
Pick 46 - Norman Powell
Pick 9 - Jakob Poeltl
Pick 27 - Pascal Siakam
Undrafted - Fred VanVleet
Pick 23 - OG Anunoby
Pick 4 - Scottie Barnes
Pick 46 - Dalano Banton
What do you think about the potential of adding Christian Koloko to this list of notable draftees by the Toronto Raptors?
To the surprise of many, Koloko has received valuable minutes in each of the Raptors’ first six games. At first, it seemed that it was due to injury, with three of Toronto’s key bench pieces starting the season injured. Two of them being big men, Chris Boucher and Khem Birch, and the other, Otto Porter Jr. who is expected to play a crucial role in the Raptors’ rotation once he returns.
However, even as Boucher and Birch have returned to action, we have continued to see Nick Nurse entrust Koloko with rotation minutes against strong opponents. All of whom are expected Eastern Conference playoff teams.
Even though it hasn’t always been pretty, and Koloko likely still isn’t ready to play in crunch time, or at points in the game where the Raptors’ would need a strong lineup on the court, there are sparks of potential that allow you to see why Toronto jumped all over Koloko when he fell to pick 33.
Six games into the season, Koloko stands with more personal fouls than points (17 fouls to 14 points). He is only shooting 45.5% from the field, which is rough considering over 72% of his shots have come between zero and three feet away from the basket. His defended field goal percentage within six feet is also 69.2%. Yet, I say all of this to say, I still believe in him, and you should as well.
One of Koloko’s biggest weakness’ is his reactiveness defensively. At 22 years old, playing less than 10 NBA games, and being a second round pick, this is expected.
The NBA game is much quicker than college ball, even at the highest level. The players move faster, are much stronger and smarter, and are overall better basketball players.
Guarding in the half court as a center is difficult enough. Look at Rudy Gobert and Joel Embiid, who are two of the best defensive centers (and defenders as a whole) in the league. Teams will often still try to attack them, and scheme against them offensively, because of the human nature that a seven-footer, will often move slower than someone who is shorter than 6-foot-5.
Transition defense is a whole other ball game.
Koloko's defensive instincts, especially in transition will come with time. Instead of getting to the rim, and staying in front of Harrell, he gets caught ball watching for just a second, which causes him to get to Harrell late, essentially just running into him pic.twitter.com/tSPtHBhk93— Zach Wilson (@ZachWilsonMH) October 31, 2022
In this play, Koloko turns to back pedal slightly early, and glances over at the ball for just a brief second. This allows Montrezl Harrell to run directly past Koloko, and as much as Siakam likely should have also stepped up sooner, Koloko reacts a little late, and isn’t able to see any other option aside from running directly into Harrell.
However, we also see moments, where if Koloko isn’t put into the action, his help instincts are quite amazing. Pairing that with his length, and pretty insane mobility for his size, he is able to cover a lot of ground to contest shots.
This is OG's play to make, and to be fair, he made a good effort help wise with PJ's illegal moving boxout screen. But the fact that Koloko read this and then covered this much ground... MY GOODNESS pic.twitter.com/cLPImXgCu8— Zach Wilson (@ZachWilsonMH) October 27, 2022
In this play, Koloko stays in perfect guarding position: see man, see ball. Tyrese Maxey, an extremely quick guard, is essentially one step outside of the paint when Koloko starts to move from the elbow. Utilizing his 7-foot-5 wingpsan, Koloko is able to cover enough ground to jump from the top of the restricted arc, and pin Maxey’s baseline drive against the backboard.
This is one area that allows Koloko to stay on the floor, despite his growing read for NBA offenses. His length and height give the Raptors an element that no one else on the team really can.
Boucher is likely recognized as Toronto’s best rim protector, and even he is listed at 6-foot-9.
His length, is also what allows him to be a little slow on plays, and still recover.
The defensive read and play is great and all, but look how smoothly and quickly Koloko runs down the court with the ball. That is rare for a guy his size, let alone a rookie pic.twitter.com/56D1scbVfc— Zach Wilson (@ZachWilsonMH) October 27, 2022
It also makes up for any potential mismatches. Embiid is one of the most difficult covers in the league. Being a 7-foot, 280 pound monster who can shoot, handle and move in ways like a guard, is what makes him a perennial MVP vote-getter.
In this play, Koloko stays battling as Embiid attempted to post him up from the elbow. In a lot of ways, there is nothing most guys can do at this point. With the strength, and size of Embiid, this is a situation where he would either shoot over top of the defender, or muscle is way to the net.
OG Anunoby actually does a fantastic job of coming from the weak side, and I think would likely get this steal if Embiid had gained possession. However, this hypothetical will never be answered, as Koloko uses his reach to completely wrap around Embiid, tip the ball and get out and running.
This was a great defensive play, but the one thing that stood out to me about this play was how smooth Koloko looked dribbling down the court. Yes, it was a wide open lane all the way from half court. But I have never seen guys like Embiid, Gobert, or even Nikola Jokic move down the court that smooth and that quick with the ball.
They can certainly do other elite things, and being the superstars that they are, quite often get opportunities to show us their freakish nature. However the ease and speed that Koloko runs with is unique to NBA big men.
I’m not saying Koloko will ever be like two-time MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo, but if Koloko can grab the ball off the rim, and push it down the court himself, à la Antetokounpo, this takes him to a whole new level of player.
Offensively, Koloko will likely be relegated as a pick-and-roll center, and that is perfectly fine. A lot of elite big men like Gobert and Jarrett Allen are placed in these roles, not because they’re incapable, but because an elite roll-man can open up the offense so much with the help they draw around the rim.
We have seen many moments where Toronto has used Koloko in the pick-and-roll with Fred VanVleet, because it plays to both of their strengths, and gives VanVleet just that slight bit of space to get inside the arc and create.
However, if Koloko can stretch his game into the 3-10 feet range, as a weapon offensively, he could be dangerous.
Also if Koloko's offense can stretch anywhere past just outside of the rim consistently, watch out, cuz that could be dangerous pic.twitter.com/IdHAq5hjd2— Zach Wilson (@ZachWilsonMH) October 31, 2022
Little bunny’s like this is a perfect way to start. Most big men, you would think don’t have a hope of getting their game away from directly beside the rim, but with Koloko’s natural touch, and form there is a legit path.
Koloko will likely continue to see minutes this season, because as much as Toronto wants to make the playoffs, development is still just as important. Toronto’s roster isn’t currently constructed in a way that they have to win now-or-never. Their team is young, and steadily improving, while still capable of competing right now.
Also, do not judge Koloko off his current production, as that will take away from the joy and potential that you can see through the current cracks of his game. Koloko is a beneficial piece to the Raptors’ future, and in spot minutes, can be right now. As I said before, he continues to bring a new element to the Raptors rotation, that they just don’t have in anyone else.