Christian Koloko has big dreams, but also plans. He couldn’t be more excited about them unfolding while wearing a Toronto Raptors uniform.
The second-round pick by the Raptors believes in himself and is confident he can out-perform his draft position as the 33rd player taken on Thursday night.
“My goal is to be a long time NBA player, to be a really good player in the NBA,” he said Friday in media conference call. “Being mentioned for multiple time all-star and just having the best career possible, because you know I kind of started playing basketball kind of late so I think the sky is the limit for me and I will continue to get better.”
But first, baby steps. Having grown up in Cameroon and finished high school in Southern California and then spent three years at the University of Arizona, he’s already ear-marked a portion of his first NBA pay cheque towards a big winter jacket, his first.
He’s seen snow once but living in a northern climate will be a new thing for the long-armed, 7-foot-1, 22-year-old.
Fortunately, Koloko has proven remarkably adaptable throughout his athletic career. Like most kids in Cameroon, Koloko grew up playing soccer – flipping between striker and goalkeeper. He played basketball only recreationally and like Raptors star Pascal Siakam, who – like Koloko — also comes from Douala, only began playing seriously in his late teens, arriving in California for his last two years of high school.
His first language was French, but he pushed himself to become quickly fluent in English, and over his career at Arizona he pushed himself to grow as a player too. He barely saw floor time as a freshman, came off the bench in his second year but in his junior year was a starter, a star, and earned multiple all-conference awards in the Pac-12.
“I think what happened was just me being confident, me believing in myself,” he said. “My first couple years at Arizona were really tough with COVID and everything. “I never really had a chance to work on my game during the summer. My first year at Arizona during the summer I was home and couldn’t do anything with the California rules, so I think I really lost that period of time.
“This year we had a new coaching staff. I came in and talked with the coaches and he told me how he wanted to use me and how he was going to help me get better. I just needed to commit to work hard and that’s what I did, and I think I was more confident this year.”
Koloko is confident he’ll be able to contribute in the NBA sooner than later, with his ability to defend at the rim and — hopefully — hold his own on the perimeter as his calling card. He’ll get his first chance when he joins the Raptors summer league team next month.
“I think I’m a really good defender,” he said. “During the game I can switch one through five and contain my guy in front of me. I probably can’t guard the point guard the whole game, but I feel comfortable during the game switching on a guard and making it hard for him to score on me. I feel like I still have room to improve, and I’ll continue to get better with that, for sure.”
He’ll have a ready-made role model and possible mentor at hand in the form of Siakam, who was an unheralded selection at No.27 in 2016 and has since turned himself from an energizing defender and chaos agent to one of the best all-round forwards in the game, twice earning all-NBA recognition.
The two have met in the previously though only in passing, but Siakam made a point of calling his new teammate on Thursday night, sharing some words of congratulations and encouragement in French.
Koloko considers Siakam’s path to the NBA from Cameroon as a template that he and others back home want to replicate.
“He [Siakam] means everything,” said Koloko. “He’s the first person from Douala to go to the NBA, to get to that level. He’s an NBA champ. He’s an NBA All-Star. This year he was in one of the All-NBA teams. He just means a lot, showing people like me that anything is possible. I think he said when he won the MIP, everything seems impossible until it’s done. That’s what he just shows people … even this year, he had the injury and came back. [He had a] pretty slow start and kept working on his game, and he showed people who he is. Just that perseverance he showed, he just means everything to the city of Douala, for sure.”
The Raptors are obviously heavily invested in Koloko reaching the upper limits of his potential. They have been tracking him since he was a 17-year-old at a Basketball Without Borders camp in South Africa in 2017 and told him that he was available with the 33rd pick they would take him.
For Toronto, Koloko represents something different in that they haven’t had: a prototype of the modern big man – someone who can challenge shots at the rim defensively and be a lob threat offensively, while having the quickness to contain the ball on the perimeter.
“I mean, he’s seven foot, I’m not sure what his wingspan or standing reach is but it definitely is something that we do not have,” said Raptors general manager Bobby Webster. “We probably won’t know [when he can contribute] until we get to be around that a little bit more. But yeah, I think as far as like a seven-foot rim protector? We don’t have that.”
Koloko wants to be more than that – he wears No.35 in honour of his favourite player, Kevin Durant – but he understands that he’s got to prove his ability as a defender before his offensive responsibilities will be fully explored. That he improved so dramatically as a free-throw shooter – from 35 per cent as a freshman to 73.5 per cent as a junior– and that he has shown some dashes of playmaking while recording six assists in one game and four in two others provides room for optimism.
He watched the draft in Los Angeles, with his family, a night he won’t soon forget. To make to the NBA is one thing, but to do it while playing for Raptors vice-chairman Masai Ujiri, a legend in African basketball and alongside Siakam, a giant figure in their hometown makes it even more special.
“It was amazing. It was crazy. My family was really happy. I was happy for myself,” he says of his draft experience. “Where I’m from, it’s only me and Pascal from that city to make it this far. Even when I got to college, it was a big thing for me to get to that level. To get to the NBA, it’s just surreal. I’m just going to embrace it and continue to get better and show people that you can achieve anything if you put the work in, for sure.
“… I’ve built a really good relationship with Masai and every time I saw [people from the Raptors] they always showed love to me and having them pick me in this draft just means everything, man. I’m forever going to be thankful for them and I’m going to go out there and give everything I have for them.”