Khem Birch came into this season as a man on a mission, ready to reassert himself as someone who could contribute to the Toronto Raptors. Unfortunately, his spot in the Raptors rotation might be in jeopardy a bit sooner than later because of Christian Koloko and his play in the preseason.
Koloko scored 12 points in the Raptors’ final preseason game against the Boston Celtics. Koloko also had four rebounds, one steal, and two blocks. In five preseason games, Koloko made 13 of his 19 shot attempts and recorded 1.4 blocked shots per game. Not bad for a rookie.
The highlight of the night for Koloko was his fastbreak dunk after Jayson Tatum tripped and fumbled the basketball. The rookie picked up his dribble behind the 3-point line, and threw down a one-handed dunk after two giant steps. His overall play throughout the preseason suggests he could potentially be a better player than Birch.
At 7-1, Koloko brings something different to the Raptors organization full of athletic 6-7 to 6-9 players last season, and that could be bad news for center Birch. The coaching staff might want to take it slow, but Koloko will earn extra time if he keeps impressing.
How was his NBA debut? Nothing short of marvelous. Koloko may have only had three points, but his six rebounds and one blocked shot were sensational.
Playing against Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley is as difficult a frontcourt matchup as you’ll find in the East this year, and Koloko came out of it smelling like a rose. The hype is real, and it isn’t going anywhere.
Christian Koloko will threaten to join the Toronto Raptors rotation.
The Raptors traded DeMar DeRozan, so they will by no means stay blindly loyal to Birch. According to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, the Raptors are primed to make a midseason trade. Koloko’s play in the preseason could make the Raptors more comfortable with adding Birch in a hypothetical deal.
Head coach Nick Nurse didn’t play Koloko and Birch at the same time throughout the entire preseason. However, Koloko was on the court at different times with Chris Boucher, Pascal Siakam, and O.G. Anunoby. If this is an indication of anything, Nurse may want Koloko to get some run time alongside the rotation players.
Koloko will have to earn his minutes every time he steps onto the court. The gargantuan Arizona alum averaged 12.6 points, 1.4 assists, and 7.3 rebounds in his last season with the Wildcats, so those numbers suggest that he can make a lasting impact.
Birch is a veteran that knows how to play NBA basketball. However, Koloko has youth and potential on his side. The Raptors will have to decide when to give young players like Koloko a chance to develop and shine. Koloko’s upside alone might cost Birch some minutes this season if the rookie plays well when he is given opportunities.