Pascal Siakam figured Christian Koloko was so nervous it was better not to bother the kid before the game. In his third year, Precious Achiuwa seemed to battle his own nervousness or overexcitement in the first half before putting it together in the final frame. Heck, a season ago when the hoopla of not having played a home game in 600 days surrounded the team, they all seemed overwhelmed by the moment in trailing by as many as 29 points and eventually losing by 15 points to a Washington Wizards team that ultimately didn’t even sniff the Play-In tournament.
Koloko could have looked like a deer in the headlights on this opening night and no one would have batted an eye. He’s a second round pick that the front office has repeatedly spoken of as a long-term prospect and head coach Nick Nurse has indicated will need his share of time with the Raptors 905.
Over the 15 minutes Koloko saw between when he checked into the game midway through the first quarter to when he last checked out with 1:47 remaining in the third quarter, though, it was he who didn’t flinch and left everyone else re-evaluating their expectations.
There’s hardly a more imposing physical challenge in today’s NBA than going up against the size of Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley. When healthy, the duo make the rim seem like Mordor’s Mount Doom, yet Koloko’s size and intimidation factor on a roster that sorely lacks it was a sight for sore eyes and gave the team a puncher’s chance at giving back at least some of what they got.
“The best thing I thought he did, he got on the glass but he also got switched off onto some of their perimeter guys and he made them, kept them in front, and challenged with his length,” Nurse said after the game. “That was a pretty good game for him for a rookie first time out.”
In his first couple possessions, he battled hard with Allen to deny him the ball, then showed roll gravity with Fred VanVleet seemingly almost elated to throw a lob at his first opportunity to the rookie. Even there, under the basket with Cavaliers jerseys surrounding him, there was no panic as he accepted there was no room to go up and promptly kicked the ball out to Siakam.
Dynamic guard Darius Garland later got him in the air with a pump fake, but Koloko was smart enough to jump straight up and down and force Garland to lean in to create any sort of contact. That’s when suddenly you see the can’t teach stuff, the fast twitch muscles supporting the mind’s desire to rise up a second time in lightning quick fashion and block the shot.
Offensively, he’s a soldier and that’s exactly what the team needs. Setting screens for the ball handler, rolling hard to the rim, diving for a loose ball, battling to tap misses to teammates. There was his Welcome to the NBA moment, too, when he was swatted away on a dunk attempt by Allen when he thought the all-star was too far for a contest. He’s a rookie, after all.
“Sky’s the limit,” VanVleet said after the game. “He’s been impressive. He’s getting better everyday, every time he steps on the court. He continues to grow and get better. He could be a huge addition for us. He’s gotta keep getting his legs under him, getting stronger, getting used to the NBA game and the pace and physicality. He’s a promising young player for sure. Having him be really the only big we’ve got, it makes it stand out when he’s out there. We’re definitely gonna lean on him when he’s out there.”
Defensively is where Koloko’s talents suggest he has focal point potential. Besides the block on Garland and the battles with Allen and Mobley, there was an absolutely scintillating shot contest by Koloko on the Cavs’ newest star Donovan Mitchell, the likes of which haven’t been seen since Serge Ibaka roamed these streets.
With under a minute remaining in the first half, Mitchell drove to the rim with the intent of throwing down the ball but a Raptor along with it. As soon as Koloko rose up, though, Mitchell was forced to adjust and opted for an off-balance layup around the Cameroonian instead which fell short and Koloko gobbled up the rebound. Again, no nervousness, no fear of the moment, just sheer stage presence.
“When you start playing basketball, you always think about playing at the highest level,” Koloko said. “Sometimes, you don’t even think it’s possible until you make it and I’m here right now. I know I still have a long way to go but I’m gonna continue to work and it’s a dream come true.”
After the game, Koloko’s phone was filled with well wishes and loved ones expressing their pride over seeing him make his NBA debut, and it being that much more special having come alongside someone from the same city of Douala in Siakam. The senior member recognizes his role in keeping Koloko grounded having gone through these exact same experiences as a rookie and they’ll surely have some conversations to share not just in the days but months to come.
When speaking before the game, Nurse explained how his expectations for the season were just to get this team to the ceiling he envisions by the end of it, without detailing what he actually feels the ceiling is. This was only one night for Koloko and there will surely be that deer in the headlight moment that will curb some of the excitement, there will be nights where Chris Boucher and Otto Porter Jr. will both be available and give Nurse options that leave Koloko learning through osmosis, but it is hard to ignore the feeling that through Summer League and pre-season and now this opening night, this is a kid that’s just scratching the surface of what he can be at his best.
Koloko’s got the physical tools, the feel, the smarts, it’s about continuing to nudge those attributes along in the right direction. No matter how long it takes, it’s safe to say Koloko belongs.