Enter 2019, Tucson is buzzing again for college basketball's two top-10 recruits in the country; Nico Mannion and Josh Green are coming to McKale Center. It was the best recruiting class in five years and Mannion was the highest-rated prospect since Deandre Ayton.
Mannion was an elite shooter, passer and scorer alongside Green, who had an NBA-ready body with great athleticism. But this class also had a 7-foot-1 powerhouse at the basket.
That is Christian Koloko, originally from Cameroon, but when he joined the Wildcats, he had most recently won a high school championship at Sierra Canyon in Chatsworth, California.
Koloko came into Tucson as a 19-year-old freshman with a ton of talent and incredible build, but this was clear: if he was going to become an all-conference player and then an NBA player, he needed to improve his offensive game.
Many players grow up playing basketball their whole lives since they were very young, but that wasn’t the case for Koloko. He first touched a basketball when he was 15 years old, because soccer was his sport of choice growing up.
Does that story sound familiar?
It is similar to fellow NBA All-Star from Cameroon, Joel Embiid. Basketball wasn’t a staple in his childhood either because soccer was his favorite sport to play too.
When former Arizona men's basketball head coach Sean Miller recruited Koloko, he said he knew it was going to be a developmental project and would take a few years until the public saw the player he knew he could maximize.
Some players take a big leap from year one to two, but throughout Koloko’s first two seasons in Tucson, we saw a similar player. A guy who is a premier shot-blocker, a phenomenal dunker and a good rebounder. There was still room for him to grow with his shooting, touch around the rim and consistency.
Sometimes people forget, but it takes each player a different amount of time to reach their maximum potential.
And for Koloko, that happened to come during his third season as a Wildcat under new head coach Tommy Lloyd.
During the Red-Blue game, his heightened and improved skills really started to shine through. As he caught the ball, he took a dribble and did a post move finishing at the basket.
While he was a good offensive player before, this game saw Koloko as almost an entirely different player.
It wasn’t that he just looked the same from a performance standpoint, his body changed since the last time anyone has seen him a few months ago.
Koloko added 15 pounds of muscle to his frame in the offseason, and he had grown significantly since he arrived on campus as a freshman over two years ago.
He went from averaging 5 points, six rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game to now totaling 12.6 points, seven rebounds and three blocks per contest.
On paper, that is a dramatic change, and one that by itself could take a team from being average to a top-15 team in the country.
But with Koloko, the numbers don’t tell the entire story.
While having a great basketball team, the big man is the centerpiece and the thing that makes an offense run smoothly.
During his first two seasons, Koloko was seen as a liability at times because he was not confident in himself at all times on both ends of the floor.
Because when the game slows down and Bennedict Mathurin or Kerr Kriisa cannot get anything going, but then Koloko on the block is able to finish over anyone is a huge difference.
For example, when Arizona traveled to Champagne, Illinois, to play the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Koloko displayed his dominance against a top-3 big man in the country with Kofi Cockburn.
Throughout Koloko’s first two years in Arizona, he would show stretches of dominance on the defensive end of the floor but in year three, he finally put it all together.
Arizona then traveled to Las Vegas for the Pac-12 Tournament, and Koloko showed why he should be a first-round NBA Draft pick. He averaged 15 points, eight rebounds and two blocks throughout the three games in the tournament on an incredible 72% shooting from the field.
During the championship victory against UCLA, Koloko put on a show while putting together a double-double with four blocks.
But there was a feeling inside this Wildcat team that they had more to give and more to achieve in the coming weeks and Koloko continued to display his dominance on both ends of the floor.
Arizona made it to the Sweet 16 by defeating Wright State University and Texas Christian University before being eliminated by the University of Houston. Koloko averaged 18 points, 9.6 rebounds and three blocks per game during the tournament but his best performance came in an overtime win against TCU.
This was one of his best performance as a Wildcat throughout the last three seasons. He was 12-13 from the field along with scoring 28 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks.
Dominance is a great word to describe his work in the arena that night.
Although Koloko’s time in Tucson and as a Wildcat has come to an end, he definitely left an outlasting impact on the program and the Tucson community.
Koloko shortly entered the 2022 NBA draft after the season ended, and it has been a mystery where he will end up in the draft come Thursday night.
Some mock drafts have him in the top-20 picks and others do not have him being selected by a team until the second round.
But one thing is for sure, wherever Koloko is drafted by whatever team selects him, they are going to get a very hard working player with incredible defensive ability and an offense game that continues to improve every year.
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