The Toronto Raptors are 2-0 preseason, 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 a single lineup is sporadic, each team tries very hard to solve their own problems without, for example, exploring an opponent and the big guns — the guys you look at that they affect the majority of games when the lights really come on – either trying not to tug or just playing hard for short periods of time.
But the games are being played and shouldn’t be completely ignored. It’s just tricky to draw conclusions.
For example, what to make of the fact that the Raptors were 3-of-22 from deep in Wednesday night’s first three quarters against the Boston Celtics, which was also the stretch of the game that the starters and key figures played the majority of their minutes ?
It’s mildly concerning – and in fairness that same group was a respectable 7-17 in the first half against the Utah Jazz in Edmonton on Sunday – given Toronto’s shooting problems last season, but little reason to panic at this point.
Similarly, both the Raptors starters and the second unit looked a bit muddled compared to their Boston counterparts. It’s something you put in the file under “hmmm” instead of marking it with a big red dot.
Still, the impressive comeback, 18 points down, early in the fourth quarter was entertaining to watch. And it’ll certainly make the choice of who, from among Josh Jackson, Gabe Vincent, Dalano Banton, Justin Champagnie and DJ Wilson, win the contest for the Raptors’ final two roster spots even more interesting as point guard Jeff Dowtin Jr. looks like a very smart user of one of their two-way roster slots. However, it is unlikely that any of the players who contributed to the overtime win will play a significant role at the start of the season.
However, there’s no harm in noticing the good and following it to see if it’s real or not. For example, let’s see more of Dowtin Jr. expertly guiding the team down the stretch against Boston, if only to keep up the pressure on Malachi Flynn, who is out at the moment with a broken cheekbone. More of Jackson — the 2017 draft pick, who may have been the Raptors’ best player in the last two games — would also be a good thing.
Perhaps Wednesday night’s win, in which they totaled 23 points and six assists (five by Dowtin Jr.) in 30 minutes, will be their highlight, or maybe more is yet to come.
Which brings us to Christian Koloko, the rookie center the Raptors drafted 33rd overall last summer. Reports from the Summer League, summer practice sessions and training camp have all been positive, albeit with the caveat that it’s early and there is still much to do before the 22-year-old seven-footer can be part of an NBA rotation, even in Toronto, where he is the only seven foot.
But until now? He looks more like someone who could contribute sooner rather than later. It may be a project, but its due date may be earlier than first thought.
“That’s everyone’s first look at him and that’s what we saw: he’s making some games, doesn’t really make a lot of mistakes, a good screener, really good feet on the edge as you’ve seen, he changes a lot and … can his feet to move back and fourth [and] has a good understanding of what he’s doing,” was the scouting report that Raptors head coach Nick Nurse offered when Toronto was in Edmonton to face Jazz. “One of the things I like about him is that he has a pretty good motor for work every day and that’s really important … not everyone has the ability to work that hard and he has it, and when When you have that, it almost always means getting better fast.
“There are definitely some positive aspects.”
Koloko’s NBA career got off to a good start when he scored with a layup assisted by fellow Cameroonian Pascal Siakam, who – like Koloko – is from Doula.
The feedback came immediately. “I saw a lot of people posting about ‘Cameroonian Connection’ and all that stuff, and people from back home were sending me videos and they were just happy, proud,” Koloko said. “It’s a good moment, a proud moment to be Cameroonian and my first shot in the NBA will be assisted by someone from the same city as me. It was really nice to see.”
There were even more highlights against Boston, where Koloko made the most of his 13 minutes, most of it in the second half. He started by setting up the smaller Derrick White early in the transition and scoring with a clean left-handed vault hook. A moment later, he threw a tricky little floater from just outside the paint on the baseline, then drifted to the other baseline to make himself available for a 15-foot jump.
None of his makes were spectacular, but all came from areas on the floor and in situations where he was most likely to earn his touches. He also looked good slipping down the lane with Celtics guard Malcolm Brogdon before getting up for a blocked shot, and in general it looked like the NBA game — at least the preseason version — wasn’t about to move forward quickly for him.
It’s too early to tell how this will affect the regular season, but Koloko is doing what it takes at this stage in his career to prove himself as the Raptors’ credible and dependable seven-footer as the only shot-blocking seven-footer on the roster.
“Everything is new for him,” says Siakam, who has tried to orientate his compatriot 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 just has to keep working to get stronger, keep saying it easy, set screens hard, block shots, like literally like the simplest things, like just keep the game simple. And I think as he goes he will 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 what the coaches ask me to do. I didn’t put my name on the draft to come here and just sit on the bench, so I’ll be ready whenever the coach wants me to do what he wants and help the team.
Like the Raptors, Koloko is off to a good start.