“Versatile, defensive mindset... if they can make a shot, great”
That’s what Toronto Raptors GM Bobby Webster said during his pre-draft availability the other day when asked what the team was looking for in the 2022 NBA Draft. While the roster constructs and known workouts point toward drafting another big wing, the Raptors do like to zig when the consensus expects them to zag — and did so again by drafting Christian Koloko 33rd, a Junior from Arizona and coincidentally, from Doula, Cameroon, just like Pascal Siakam.
While many wings remained available after the Raptors made their selection, the front office stood pat, waiting for the undrafted talent pool. They picked up Ron Harper Jr as a two-way contract player, and I can already tell you that the incoming Raptors 905’s Filipino Heritage Game in Mississauga will be lit.
Harper Jr’s addition as a two-way contract player means that the Raptors will have to either let go or convert at least one of Julian Champagnie and David Johnson. Given Champagnie’s progress last season, I doubt he’ll be cut. If anything, perhaps he’s improved well enough to make the regular roster. We will probably know more about the Raptors’ roster movement leading to the free agency period.
Let’s look at the new Raptors:
Ron Harper Jr, Wing
- Age: 22
- Height: 6’ 4”
- Wingspan: 7’ 1.25”
- Affiliation: Rutgers (Senior)
- Stats: 15.8 PTS, 5.9 REB, 1.9 AST, 1.0 STL, 0.6 BLK, 1.6 TO
Let me first get this out of the way: I got to admit that Harper Jr is one of the few collegiate athletes I have been following for multiple years because of the Filipino connection.
Up until his Senior season, Harper Jr’s game was a bit like that of that 90’s/00’s guards that can and will try to score anywhere on the floor, and however which way. The likes of Jamal Mashburn, Glen Rice, Paul Pierce, etc., that’s often “the man” on their team and will ISO or post-up and use their physicality to either get to their spot or the basket.
I was skeptical when Harper Jr withdrew from the draft last season and chose to come back for his Senior season. The decision might not have affected his draft stock, but he fixed one of the holes in his game — Harper Jr finished his Senior campaign shooting a blistering 39.8% from the perimeter on 5.3 attempts per game.
Harper Jr doesn’t have the elite speed or quickness one would expect from a guard, but he makes it up with his craftiness, physicality, length, and effort. His length and physicality allow him to hit the boards hard, averaging almost six rebounds per game.
An AP All-American Honorable Mention and Second Team All-Big Ten, Harper Jr. leaves Rutgers as a three-level scorer capable of hitting clutch baskets.
Areas of Concern
Harper Jr played as a ball-handling scorer at Rutgers, but his natural position, for the most part, was as a power forward. At 6’4” without shoes, he’ll need to transition into a bonafide wing that can hang defensively against quicker guards/wings. To do that, Harper Jr would need to transform his body a little bit, as he’s not the quickest and fastest person in his draft class. He measured at 14.3% body fat and was in the bottom half of the Combine Agility testing, where mostly bigs reside.
It’s been two seasons, but the Raptors’ deep end of the bench still lacks the scoring punch, and Harper Jr is a natural scorer. But first, he will have to take his talents to Paramount Fine Foods Centre, where he will likely be the featured player for the Raptors 905.
If he can rework his body and show that he can keep up defensively, I won’t be surprised if coach Nick Nurse gives him a look here and there, as the Raptors’ bench still looked offensively challenged. His scoring instinct and the ability to score even off the ball may come in handy. Oh, I forgot to mention, his wingspan is 7’1.25”
Grade: B+ Other prospects like Dominick Barlow and Justin Lewis’ were higher on most draft boards, but Ron Harper Jr might be on a fast track if things go well.
Christian Koloko, C
- Age: 22
- Height: 6’ 10.75”
- Wingspan: 7’ 5.25”
- Affiliation: Arizona (Junior)
- Stats: 12.6 PTS, 7.3 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.8 STL, 2.8 BLK
The Raptors brought around 72 players for their pre-draft workouts, and only two of them were centers around the Raptors’ pick range: Jaylin Williams and Ismael Kamagate. Since the Raptors didn’t have a workout for Koloko, but did with Kamagate (who’s younger and seems to have a higher upside), I had Koloko as my third big on my shortlist, behind Williams and Kamagate.
The Raptors didn’t have a private workout with Koloko. Met with him in Chicago at the combine.— (((Eric Koreen))) (@ekoreen) June 24, 2022
Turns out, the Raptors did not work out Koloko at all. In his post-draft presser, Webster mentioned that Koloko was in their top 20-25 and that they first saw him in South Africa in 2017. Considering how active President Masai Ujiri and the Raptors are in Basketball Without Borders, this is not a surprise.
The reigning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the year had a breakout Junior season and has shown flashes of untapped ceiling offensively. That’s just how the Raptors roll: looking at weaknesses and turning them into opportunities. In Koloko, the Raptors see a low-mileage prospect that can potentially have levels of development yet to be unlocked. I mean, he was playing soccer until he was 17 and only started playing basketball at the age of 12 — sounds familiar, eh?
After years of lusting over the likes of Jarrett Allen and Myles Turner — heck, it was so bad that even Moses Brown was a fantasy — the Raptors finally got their big. Koloko brings size with his 6’ 10.75” height (without shoes) and a massive 7’ 5.25” wingspan. For comparison, Robert Williams III was measured at 6’10” in shoes and a 7’5.5” wingspan.
Koloko’s calling card is his defense, averaging 2.8 blocks per game his Junior year. But unlike traditional bigs, his nimble feet and quick reaction show promise that he can provide some switchability in certain matchups. His defensive IQ is getting better as well; watching his later games, you can tell that he’s making better reads on switches and as a help defender, especially around the basket.
Koloko’s offense is still raw, but he’s a lob threat with great hands, good touch, and good vertical pop. He’s also aware of his physical gifts and will try to dunk more often than not if he can, instead of finessing for a layup. Koloko’s got excellent mobility, motor, and athleticism for a big, and he gives excellent effort all the time. With his mitts and fluidity to catch the ball on the move and finish in one motion, Koloko can be an ideal target as a cutter.
Areas of Concern
Because of the Raptors’ complex defensive schemes, I found it hard to imagine that any traditional centre in this draft might be able to crack the rotation. That hasn’t changed when looking at Koloko. While he’s got the tools and shown flashes of great defense, he’ll be stepping onto a defensive scheme like no other, and if he is sitting on the bench, for the most part, it’ll be a slow learning curve for him. Arizona played mostly drop coverage, and he might look like fish out of the water when he’s nowhere near the rim.
Defensively, Koloko is still learning. His physical gifts gave him a bigger margin for error defensively at the collegiate level, as he could recover from many of his mistakes. At the NBA level, that margin of error will be smaller, and if the Raptors have depth at the centre position, he’ll be operating on a tight leash. We all know coach Nick Nurse and his “standard.”
While Koloko’s added muscle mass every year he’s in Arizona; he’s still not in a position (who is?) to bang with the likes of Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, and Jonas Valanciunas. For now, he projects to be a defender similar to the younger Robert Williams/Jarrett Allen-type of defenders until he gets stronger.
The Raptors don’t necessarily have a Vision 6’9” for the full 48 minutes. Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr will be on the floor for approximately 35 minutes, and their minutes will be staggered. That means, for the most part, the Raptors are really employing 80% of their big wing platoon.
That’s Pascal Siakam posing for a picture a few years back with newest Raptor and fellow Douala, Cameroon native Christian Koloko. pic.twitter.com/7arsvBS7Vo— Michael Grange (@michaelgrange) June 24, 2022
Having a “near traditional” centre on the fold should relieve the pressure from the likes of Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, Scottie Barnes, and Precious Achiuwa from eating up too many minutes at the 5-spot. At the same time, Koloko’s addition should give the Raptors different looks on both ends of the floor. Offensively, having a big, that’s a vertical lob threat with a budding post-up game, and decent touch around the paint can be a game-changer for the Raptors if Koloko develops to his potential. If anything, he should have, at the bare minimum, similar utility to Celtics C Robert Williams, with his big catch radius, good hands, and quick hops.
Given Koloko’s timing and ability to read and quickly react, the Raptors can be even more of a problem defensively. Just imagine someone trying their best to get by Pascal Siakam/OG Anunoby/Precious Achiuwa only to be rewarded with a shot blocker flying at them when they think that the coast is clear.
Christian Koloko has much more mobility and potential as a switch defender on the perimeter than he gets credit for.— Eric Shapiro (@eric_shap) June 21, 2022
Koloko, aided by his length, blocked opponent shots on 10(!) of the 39 isos he defended this season (25.6%) pic.twitter.com/0M6u7vwwYZ
Chris Boucher’s free agency will dictate Koloko’s usage next season. As it is, he’s already put on more muscle mass than last season, and it looks like he’s going to fill out a bit more. If Boucher stays, Koloko will be a fringe rotation player that will earn frequent assignments with the Raptors 905. If the Raptors lose Boucher and don’t add any experienced big, we will see Koloko get anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes per night.
Cracking the rotation and staying on the floor will probably be tough for Koloko to start, as the Raptors’ defensive system is more complicated than what he’s seen so far. Still, at the very least, he’s played on a higher level and more pressure-packed games than someone like Kamagate and should be able to figure the system out faster.
Since I cover the Raptors 905, I would prefer to see him in Mississauga as often as possible. His face-up game and perimeter shooting will need plenty of reps and the opportunity to “lab” additional moves to his arsenal. I trust the Raptors’ development team and might be ahead of myself. Still, if the Raptors can develop Achiuwa and Koloko, we could be looking at coach Nick Nurse fielding a jumbo+long lineup of Barnes-Anunoby-Siakam-Achiuwa-Koloko at times.
Grade: A- The Raptors filled a need without compromising their identity, but Koloko might not have an immediate impact this season. When he does, the Raptors will put the league on notice.