TORONTO – Christian Koloko could barely peel his eyes away from his phone in the Raptors locker-room after Wednesday’s game.
Toronto’s rookie had just made his NBA debut, and although it was 3 a.m. back home in Cameroon, his friends and family were still wide awake. And the messages of congratulations were pouring in.
“When you start playing basketball, you always think about playing at the highest level. Sometimes, you don’t even think it’s possible until you make it,” the 22-year-old said. “I’m here right now, I know I still have a long ways to go but I’m going to continue to work. Yeah, a dream come true.”
With both Khem Birch and Chris Boucher sidelined with injuries in Wednesday’s season opener — an entertaining 108-105 win over Cleveland — Koloko played 15 minutes.
“It felt amazing,” Koloko said. “When coach called my name, I was like ‘Wow, it’s actually happening.’ I was excited and anxious at the same time but when I stepped on the court, it was basketball.
“I’m living a dream but the game, we won, and that’s the most important thing.”
Koloko had six rebounds and three points, including a huge dunk that had the crowd roaring, and provided something Toronto has been sorely missing.
“Someone tall,” Siakam said, straightfaced.
At seven-foot-one, Koloko is the only Raptor over 6-9.
The Raptors selected the centre from the University of Arizona with the No. 33 pick, creating an intriguing storyline around the team’s two Cameroonians.
Koloko and Siakam, who was drafted 27th by Toronto in 2016, are both from Douala, a city of nearly six million on the southeastern shore of the Wouri River estuary, on the Atlantic Ocean coast.
Both grew up playing soccer, and were relatively late to basketball, joining the league after four years of university.
The Raptors have eight international players this season, the most of any teams in the league. The players have the flags of their respective homelands above their lockers at Scotiabank Arena.
Siakam appreciated the outpouring of messages for Koloko after his debut.
“That’s dope,” the 28-year-old all-star said. “I remember those times, being in that moment where everyone is excited for you. Who would have thought we’d both be here. That’s crazy. . . he’s a great kid too.”
All-star guard Fred VanVleet was asked what fans can expect of Koloko this season. Sitting at his locker, Koloko peered around VanVleet’s legs and grinned expectantly.
“Sky’s the limit. He’s been impressive,” VanVleet said. “He’s getting better every day, every time he steps on the court. 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.
“Having him be really the only big we’ve got, (he stands out) when he’s out there. We’re definitely gonna lean on him when he’s out there.”
Koloko appreciates the support from his veteran teammates.
“That’s all you need as a rookie. You want people to believe in you, people that trust you when you get out on the court, and I feel like I’ve got that here,” he said.
Koloko finally gives VanVleet a true pick-and-roll partner.
“Well, he’s a big, right? Been asking for a big,” VanVleet said during the team’s traditional season-opening media day last month.
Koloko is happy to play his part.
“I feel like it’s amazing because Fred is a really good pick-and-roll player,” the rookie said. “He knows when to pass me the ball, he knows when to attack the big man. My goal is to get him free so when I set the screen every time I’m trying to get him free.”
Raptors coach Nick Nurse has been impressed with his rookie, saying Koloko is “extremely bright.”
“He’s got a pretty big motor, which enables him to make an effort, right?” Nurse said. “Playing hard and making an effort still goes a long way in contributing to a team’s success.”
It’s also not lost on Nurse that Koloko, Siakam and VanVleet, who also played four years at Wichita State before jumping to the NBA, carry themselves with a similar maturity. Nurse said taking up the game later in life can be beneficial.
“They’re all three really good players and especially know what they’re doing on the defensive end,” Nurse said. “But I think there’s a lot of things that applies to in life.”
Koloko could see more significant playing time on Friday at Brooklyn (0-1), since both Birch (knee swelling) and Boucher (hamstring strain) are listed as questionable.
Otto Porter Jr., who has yet to play a minute for the Raptors, even in pre-season, remains out with a strained hamstring.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 21, 2022.