It's fitting that one of the first people to reach out to Christian Koloko after he was drafted by Toronto on Thursday was new Raptors teammate Pascal Siakam.
The two come from the same town of Douala in Cameroon. They both played soccer, their country's more popular game, growing up. Koloko played striker or a goalie. His favourite team is FC Barcelona, and favourite player Lionel Messi. Neither Cameroonians played basketball seriously until late in their teens.
"(Siakam) means everything," Koloko said on a virtual availability from Los Angeles, where he'd celebrated with his family on Thursday night. "He's the first person from Douala to go to the NBA, to get to that level. He's an NBA champ. He's an NBA all-star. This year he was in one of the All-NBA teams. He just means a lot, showing people like me that anything is possible.
"I think (Siakam) said when he won the MIP (NBA's Most Improved Player Award), everything seems impossible until it’s done. That’s what he just shows people . . . he just means everything to the city of Douala, for sure," added Koloko, who said they spoke in French on their phone call.
The Raptors selected Koloko, a seven-foot-one centre from the University of Arizona, with the No. 33 pick. Six years ago, Toronto took Siakam at the 27th spot in 2016.
The 22-year-old would love to experience the same ascension to all-star and NBA champ in his career.
"My goal is to be a long time NBA player, to be a really good player in the NBA,” he said. "Being mentioned for multiple time all-star and just having the best career possible, because you know I kind of started playing basketball kind of late so I think the sky is the limit for me and I will continue to get better."
Koloko played high school basketball at Sierra Canyon in Chatsworth, Calif. He's only seen snow once.
"That's going to be one of my first purchases when I get my first cheque, buying a big jacket," he laughed.
Koloko gives the Raptors something they haven't had in a while, an athletic seven-foot centre. Asked if he tried to model his game after a particular player, he said he's been a Kevin Durant fan since he was young, which is why he wears No. 35.
"But I watch a lot of NBA games and I try to take different pieces from each player," he said. "Defensively I watch a lot of guys like Rudy Gobert, just the way he protect the rim and the way he, the impact he has on defence. A lot of Draymond Green, just the way he talks and communicates on defence, the way he's like the captain of the defence. Offensively I watch a lot of guys like Joel Embiid, Giannis (Antetokounmpo), Nikola Jokic . . . all those guys, but they have different pieces of the game."
The Raptors have had Koloko on their radar since he played in a Basketball Without Borders camp in South Africa in 2017.
After his name was called on Thursday at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., Koloko told Raptors president Masai Ujiri: "Thank you for believing in me."
"It means a lot because what (Ujiri) is trying to do for basketball in Africa is huge," Koloko said. "He sees the potential in African basketball, and he believes in African players and what he's doing I think is really amazing.
"Just getting drafted by him means even more to me. It means he believes in me, he sees potential in me and I'm going to try to do everything to give it back to him."
The Nigerian-born Ujiri founded Giants of Africa in 2003 when he was a scout with the Denver Nuggets. Ujiri has served as director of the NBA's Basketball Without Borders Africa program, which promotes basketball throughout the continent.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 23, 2022.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press