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Christian Koloko's Rim Protection | The Friday Screener
Christian Koloko was one of the most controlled, consistent, and impactful rim protectors in the country.
Christian Koloko was one of the most impactful defenders in the entire country this season. The third-year center had a breakout season as he became a true defensive stalwart. After spending his first two seasons as a valuable role player for the Arizona Wildcats, Koloko’s dominant rim protection propelled him towards the top of the list of available centers in the 2022 NBA Draft.
Defensive metrics are still a bit iffy, especially with college, but rim protection numbers have proven to translate to the NBA pretty consistently. This season, Koloko had the 10th highest block rate in the country at 10.3, per Barttorvik, when filtered to True High conferences. Additionally, the disparity in what opponents shot at the rim with Koloko on the floor compared to when he was off was one of the largest gaps in the country. When Koloko was on the floor, opponents shot 49.9% at the rim. This number jumped to 59.4% when Koloko was not on the floor. Additionally, opponents only attempted 31.3% of their shots at the rim when Koloko was on the floor, which ranked 340th in the country. Not only did Koloko hold opponents to under 50% at the rim and prove to be worth a ten percentage point difference, but opponents also didn’t even want to try to challenge him at the rim.
There are plenty of factors that go into high-level rim protection, and one of the most important is controlled, timely rotations. This is the driving difference between good shot-blockers and good rim protectors. I know those may seem like the same thing, but there is a meaningful difference. Great shot-blockers do just that. They block a lot of shots, but it is often a result of them chasing blocks, which results in careless fouls or messing up their positioning and conceding offensive rebounds. The best rim protectors are the ones who are more concerned with not allowing interior scorers and less concerned with their block numbers. Elite rim protectors know how to stay vertical, have great awareness, know when to detach from their man to contest a shot, and avoid unnecessary fouls.
Here, Koloko is preparing to defend middle out of the pick-and-roll when his teammate easily gets beaten baseline. Without hesitation, Koloko detaches from his assignment and corrals the baseline drive. As Koloko does so, he keeps his hands up, which makes a kickback pass unlikely and forces the ball-handler further under the rim, where his reverse layup gets turned away easily.
Here, we see Koloko make a similar rotation, but he has a lot more space to deal with this time. As he defends the pick-and-roll, Koloko is playing closer to the level of the screen than a more traditional drop coverage would position him. This provides more length and disruption to the ball-handler at the screen, but it also has a high possibility of exposing the big in space. The ball-handler attacks downhill, and Koloko doesn’t have a chance to keep up with him step for step. Instead, Koloko’s positioning forces the ball-handler to take more of an arced route to the rim, allowing Koloko more time to use his length to recover. Koloko shows off his solid mobility skills at his size, recovers on the drive, and pins it on the glass.
Even though the NBA continues to move away from traditional post-ups as a primary scoring option, we continue to see it be used as a playmaking device. Centers are quickly becoming highly skilled passers as well as scorers, so defenders now have to be more vigilant about defending the scoring opportunities for the opposing big as well as cutters.
Here, Koloko is facing one of the better post scorers and passing big men in the Big Ten in Hunter Dickinson. As soon as Dickinson gets the entry pass, the double comes, initiating the baseline cut. Dickinson makes the correct read, but Koloko sniffs it out immediately and switches. After the switch, Koloko uses his length and strength to pin the ball-handler under the rim before turning away a pitiful reverse layup.
Making the initial rotation is crucial, but NBA offenses are more creative and versatile by a wide margin. These initial rotations are still important, but the best rim protectors are those who can string multiple together in the same possession.
Here, Koloko has to rotate to cut off the baseline drive after his teammate offers little resistance. This is the proper rotation, but it also forces him to abandon his man in the middle of the lane. The ball-handler delivers a lovely bounce pass that should set up a layup, but Koloko has other ideas. He immediately pivots back towards his man, times his leap perfectly, and has a controlled block that ends up in his teammate’s hands to start the fast break.
This time, Koloko is in almost an identical situation as his teammate gets blown past. Koloko makes the rotation which immediately triggers the pass from the guard. Since Koloko’s first rotation was under control, he never left his feet in pursuit of a wild block attempt. This control allows Koloko to react swiftly and pivot back towards his man. As the opposing center loads up for the dunk, Koloko takes a small adjustment step that gets him out from under the rim. This move allows Koloko to jump with the ball-handler and use his verticality to deny the shot.
Koloko has proven he knows how to switch and contain out of the pick-and-roll. He has also shown he is capable of making multiple rotations in the same possession. These traits alone are important, but what makes Koloko’s rim protection so impressive is that he can, and does, combine them all in the same possession.
Here, we see Koloko combine traits from all of the previous clips into a rim protection master class. As his teammate yet again gets beat on the perimeter, Koloko detaches from his assignment to swat away the inside hand scoop layup. The loose ball ends up in the hands of an opposing shooter, who then gathers the missed three after Koloko’s teammate is ball-watching. Koloko is forced to rotate to cut off the drive, but he again does so under control and without leaving his feet. The opposing guard makes a nice shovel pass, but Koloko’s reactions and mobility are too quick as he repositions, stays vertical, and denies the dunk.
Since we’re spoiled and want our athletes to be perfect all the time at everything, dominant paint defense isn’t enough for a lot of people. The inevitable question with every center now is, well, what can he do on the perimeter? Can he switch? How quickly will he get exposed? There is some validity to these questions, but so frequently, they are overblown. There are very few centers who can actually switch on the perimeter. Switching shouldn’t be the expectation, but competency and not getting played off the floor is a reasonable bar. Koloko won’t be a switchable defender, but when he does switch, he knows how to utilize his length and mobility to survive.
Here, Arizona switches the pick-and-roll, and Koloko stays out on the guard. The ball-handler assumes he has superior foot speed, which he does, but he plays into Koloko’s hands by driving. As the ball-handler attacks, Koloko knows he doesn’t have to cut off the drive; he just has to stay within arm’s reach. Koloko invites the ball-handler into his comfort zone before effortlessly blocking the shot.
Koloko doesn’t have blazing foot speed, but he has highly impressive footwork. Koloko’s footwork keeps him balanced, allowing him to change directions and use his length.
Here, Koloko does a great job of containing the ball-handler and taking away everything. Koloko initially denies the drive to the left, flips his hips to deny the drive to the right, and then doesn’t bite on any of the shot fakes. By staying grounded, Koloko avoids an unnecessary foul and blocks the floater.
Now that we’ve quelled, or hopefully at least mitigated, the concerns about when Koloko gets dragged to the perimeter, let’s focus on the other elephant in the room: he looks skinny. I’m not sure there are many things the internet hates more than skinny big men. I promise not to go on an endless tirade against the lazy arguments that this generates, but I do want it to be clear that there is a gargantuan difference between being skinny and being soft.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, Koloko isn’t really that skinny, and he certainly isn’t soft. Koloko is a lean center, but he is incredibly strong, and he leverages his lower body strength with the best of them. The biggest of the big men will be able to move Koloko in the post, but that doesn’t mean they are going to get easy buckets.
Here, Koloko is matched up with one of the most physically imposing centers in the country in Kofi Cockburn. Cockburn isn’t the most skilled player, but he knows how to get to the rim. With a simple drop step and a few extra steps, Cockburn moves Koloko from outside the restricted arc to under the rim. Koloko is unfazed, though, and keeps his attention on the ball. He doesn’t bite at the initial fake and smothers Cockburn’s eventual shot.
Christian Koloko was one of the most impactful defenders in the entire country last year, making him a potential first-round pick in the 2022 NBA Draft. Koloko’s rim protection should translate to the NBA with ease. He is patient, aware, mobile, and under control at all times. Not only does he deny shots at the rim, but he also outright deters them. When opponents attack downhill and see him waiting for them, they want nothing to do with him. With his rim protection as the primary catalyst, Christian Koloko should have an enviable NBA career.