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Koloko experiences growing pains as Raptors losing skid reaches five games

Golden State Warriors Toronto Raptors Kevon Looney Christian Koloko - The Canadian Press

TORONTO – When the Raptors selected Christian Koloko with the 33rd-overall pick in June, the odds of him leading the team in games played by Christmas would have been low, if not zero.

Initially, the plan was for the talented but raw seven-foot big man to hone his craft in the G League early in his rookie season, with the hope that he might be ready to play meaningful minutes at the NBA level later in the year. Instead, Koloko is the only Raptors player to appear in the team’s first 30 games. On Sunday, he eclipsed 500 minutes and made his 17th start of the season – tied for sixth among first-year players and most among freshmen drafted in the second round.

Koloko earned a spot in Nick Nurse’s opening-night rotation with his strong training camp, and thanks to a never-ending series of injuries and ailments to the club’s frontcourt players, he’s been able to hang onto it – for better or for worse.

He’s a great story, having picked up the game as a teenager in Douala, Cameroon – the same hometown as teammate Pascal Siakam – and he’s shown flashes, especially on the defensive end. But, more and more, the growing pains you might expect from any 22-year-old who’s been thrown right into the fire are starting to show.

Therein lies the dilemma for Nurse. As the lone seven-footer on the roster, the Raptors could use his size, especially in matchups against some of the league’s bigger teams. On most nights, the head coach has been happy with what Koloko has giving them defensively and on the boards. And even if he wasn’t or when he’s not, he doesn’t have many alternatives at the position. Precious Achiuwa has missed a month with his ankle injury and is still weeks away from a return. That Khem Birch isn’t considered a better option than the struggling Koloko tells you how much faith they have in the veteran centre and his wonky knees.

So, they are trying to do one of the toughest things in professional sports: develop on the fly while simultaneously winning games. How’s that going? With Sunday’s ugly 126-110 loss to the Golden State Warriors – who came in with a record of 2-14 on the road and were missing Stephen Curry and Andrew Wiggins – the Raptors dropped their fifth straight game. While Koloko is far from the only issue, or even their biggest, it’s clear he’s not the answer at the centre position, at least not yet.

The Warriors were not the least bit deterred by his presence at the rim. When they weren’t draining wide-open three-pointers – they hit 8 of 14 attempts from long range in the opening quarter and were 18-for-39 on the night – they looked to attack Koloko in the pick and roll. First, it was Kevon Looney setting a screen for Jordan Poole and finishing over the rookie big man. Then, Draymond Green did the same.

The Raptors, who allowed Brooklyn to shoot 18-for-20 at the rim on Friday, rank 27th in opponent field goal percentage from inside five feet. That’s not necessarily an indictment on Koloko, who’s their best rim protector, but it does speak to why a rookie second-rounder shouldn’t be their best rim protector.

On Sunday, they weren’t stopping anything from anywhere, which has been a reoccurring theme throughout their recent skid. If anything, it puts even more pressure on Koloko and the second line of defence when guys aren’t containing dribble penetration. After a pair of disappointing but hard-fought losses to Sacramento and Brooklyn, both of which came down to the final possession, this felt like a definitive step back for a team that’s on the ropes.

“We have to guard better,” Nurse said afterwards. “I don’t think we’ve shown that this group of guys can play the way we want to play.”

“This is a terrible stretch,” Fred VanVleet added. “You don’t want this, you don’t expect this and you can’t accept this. It’s where we are. There’s a lot of basketball left to be played and a lot of time to fix it. We’ve gotta start that tomorrow.”

Steve Kerr and the reigning champs have faced a similar challenge this season. Having lost some valuable role players in recent years – the by-product of committing to an expensive core of veterans and spending deep into the luxury tax – they’ve had to turn to a youthful supporting cast. They have some intriguing pieces, to be sure – centre James Wiseman, forward Jonathan Kuminga and guard Moses Moody are all former lottery picks under the age of 22. However, they’ve also learned that there’s no substitute for experience.

With their vets on the floor, the Warriors have mostly looked like the Warriors. When Green is out there, they’re scoring more efficiently than the league’s best offensive team (Boston) and allowing fewer points than the league’s stingiest defence (Cleveland). Green, Wiggins and Curry all rank among the NBA’s top-20 in net rating. When Green or Curry are off the court, they’re getting outscored by more than 11 points per 100 possessions. It’s resulted in a disappointing 15-16 start to the season.

“It’s hard because obviously you’re trying to win games while you’re [developing],” Kerr said ahead of Sunday’s game in Toronto. “With our record we clearly haven’t done what we’ve hoped that we can do, but it’s still early in the process. And for sure there are growing pains anytime you’re trying to raise a number of young guys at the same time.”

Prospects don’t get more confounding than the seven-foot Wiseman, who didn’t see the floor until the final two minutes of Sunday’s blowout win. At 21, he still posses the elite upside that made him the second-overall pick in 2020, but after missing all of his sophomore season with a knee injury, he remains a long way from reaching it. Coming into Sunday, the Warriors had been outscored by 83 points in his 163 minutes. So, after a shaky start to the season, Golden State sent him to the G League, where he could play more minutes, work on his game and get his confidence back up. In 10 games with Santa Cruz, Wiseman averaged 18.8 points and 10.3 rebounds on 68 per cent shooting before re-joining the NBA club this week.

It begs the question: could Koloko benefit from some G League seasoning? An extended stint or two with the 905 may still be on the table later in the season, provided they’re able to get healthy – O.G. Anunoby is expected back from his hip and hand injuries over the coming week, which is a step in that direction.

“He’s gotta play through those mistakes,” VanVleet said of Koloko. “It’s not necessarily his fault that we need him at his mature self right this second. He’s gonna go through some growing pains, some ups and downs. But as long as he goes up there and he fights and he plays as hard as he can and he doesn’t keep making the same mistakes, I’m rocking with him.

“We’ll keep supporting him and keep helping him grow. The faster the better obviously for the team, but everybody’s path is different.”

The Raptors are high on Koloko and the player he can become. There’s a lot to like. With his size and length, he’s already got the physical tools to be a good NBA big man. The next step is to both get and finish stronger – he’s last among all NBA centres in field goal percentage at the rim. But for every play in which he gets a layup blocked or misses a dunk, he does something spectacular on defence.

Although he finished Sunday’s loss with more fouls (four) than points (three) and came off the bench behind Malachi Flynn to start the second half, he flashed that defensive upside late in the second quarter. After Looney beat him off the dribble, Koloko recovered and blocked his shot from behind. Those are the plays that get Nurse and the coaches excited.

But with the losses continuing to pile up, how patient can they afford to be? The hope is that Koloko can mitigate the growing pains, or at least learn from them and grow as a result of them.

“We probably would’ve liked to have him get a few 40-minute nights in the G League up until now, but we haven’t been near healthy enough,” said Nurse. “We’re missing key guys that probably would be getting some of his minutes or playing at his position. So, he’s the beneficiary of that and hopefully we will be down the road as well.”

“I feel like it’s going to help me a lot,” Koloko told TSN. “I think you learn by playing against the best players and I’m going to continue to learn by playing against the best players every day, and playing with the best players. I feel like so far I’m doing a pretty good job. I’m getting used to the NBA game.”