Raptors' Koloko raising eyebrows early in pre-season

Pascal Siakam, Precious Achiuwa, and Josh Jackson all scored a team-high 13 points to help the Toronto Raptors defeat the Boston Celtics in overtime.

The Toronto Raptors are 2-0 in the pre-season, which is nice. But we probably don’t know much more about them than if they were 0-2.

That’s just the nature of exhibition play in the NBA, when playing time for any single lineup is sporadic, each team is very much trying to get their own kinks worked out, without, say, scouting an opponent, and the big guns -- the guys who will be looked on to impact the bulk of games when the lights go on for real -- are either trying not to pull a hamstring or playing hard for short bursts only.

But the games are being played and they shouldn’t be ignored entirely. It’s just dicey to draw conclusions.

For example, what should be made of the fact that the Raptors were 3-of-22 from deep through the first three quarters against the Boston Celtics on Wednesday night, which was also the stretch of the game that the starters and key rotation pieces played the bulk of their minutes?

It’s mildly concerning -- and in fairness the same group was a respectable 7-of-17 in the first half against the Utah Jazz on Sunday in Edmonton -- given Toronto’s shooting woes last season, but hardly anything to panic about at this stage.

Similarly, both the Raptors' starters and the second unit looked a bit jumbled against their Boston counterparts. It's something to put in the file under ‘hmmm’, rather than flag with a big red dot.

All that said, the impressive comeback from 18 points down to start the fourth quarter was fun to watch. And it certainly will make the choices of who among Josh Jackson, Gabe Vincent, Dalano Banton, Justin Champagnie, and DJ Wilson will win the competition for the Raptors' final two roster spots even more interesting than it was, Meanwhile, point guard Jeff Dowtin Jr. looks like a very smart use one of their two-way roster spots. But it’s unlikely any of the players who helped engineer the overtime win will have essential roles once the season begins.

However, there’s no harm in noting the good and track it to see if it’s real or not. Like, let’s see more of Dowtin Jr. who ran the team expertly down the stretch against Boston, if only to keep the pressure on Malachi Flynn, who is out for the moment with a fractured cheek bone. More of Jackson -- the No. 4 overall pick in the 2017 Draft who may have been the Raptors' best player over the past two games -- also would be a good thing.

Maybe Wednesday night’s win where they combined for 23 points and six assists (five by Dowtin Jr.) in 30 total minutes will be their high-water mark, or maybe there’s more to come.

Which brings us to Christian Koloko, the rookie centre the Raptors drafted 33rd overall last summer. Reports from Summer League, summer workouts and training camp were all positive, though with the caveat that it’s both early and there is still a lot of work to be done before the 22-year-old seven-footer can be part of an NBA rotation, even in Toronto, where he’s the only seven-footer.

But so far? He looks more like someone who might be able to contribute sooner rather than later. He may be a project, but his due date might be sooner than first thought.

“That’s everybody’s kind of first look at him and that’s what we’ve seen: making some plays, doesn’t really make a lot of mistakes, a good screener, really good feet on the perimeter as you saw, he switches out a lot and … can move his feet side to side [and] has a good understanding of what he’s doing,” was the scouting report Raptors head coach Nick Nurse offered when Toronto was in Edmonton to face the Jazz. “One of the things that I like about him is he’s got a pretty good engine for work each day and that’s really important … not everybody has that capacity to work that hard and he does and if you have that, it almost always equals getting better quickly.

"There’s some positives there for sure.”

Koloko’s NBA career got off to a nice start when he scored on a lay-up assisted by fellow Cameroonian Pascal Siakam, who – like Koloko – hails from Doula.

The feedback was instantaneous. “I saw a lot of people posting about it: ‘Cameroonian connection’ and all that stuff, and people from back home sent me videos and they were just happy, proud,” said Koloko. “That’s a good moment, proud moment, to be Cameroonian and my first basket in the NBA is assisted by someone from the same city as me. It was really nice to see.”

There were even more highlights to come against Boston, where Koloko made the most of his 13 minutes, most of which in the second half. He got started by posting up the smaller Derrick White early in transition and scoring on a tidy left-handed jump hook. He canned a tricky little floater from just outside the paint on the baseline a moment later and then drifted to the other baseline to make himself available for 15-foot jumper.

None of his makes were spectacular, but all came from areas on the floor and in situations he’s most likely to earn his touches. He also looked good sliding down the lane with Celtics guard Malcolm Brogdon before rising up for a blocked shot, and generally looked like the NBA game – the pre-season version at least – isn’t moving too fast for him.

How any of that projects to the regular season is too early to tell, but Koloko is doing all he can at this stage of his career to prove himself credible and reliable as the Raptors' lone shot-blocking seven-footer on the roster.

“Everything is new for him,” says Siakam, who has tried to offer his countryman some guidance in his rookie year. “I think the more we try to be there for him and continue to help him through everything [it will get easier].

“But I like what I see. He’s just gotta continue to work on getting stronger, continue to just say set screens hard, block shots, like literally like the simplest things, like just keep the game simple. And I think as he goes, he's gonna continue to grow.”

Koloko is determined to do just that.

“I mean, I'm here to play,” he said earlier this week. “I'm here to do whatever the coaches want me to do. I didn't put my name in the draft to come in here and just sit on the bench, so I'm going to be ready whenever the coach wants me to do whatever they want to me to do and help the team.”

Like the Raptors, Koloko is off to a good start.

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