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Arizona block machine Christian Koloko wants to show he’s more than a project

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NCAA Basketball: Nebraska Omaha at Arizona Jacob Snow-USA TODAY Sports

Christian Koloko first picked up a basketball when he was 10 years old growing up in Cameroon, a Central African country on the Gulf of Guinea.

Those days, he played for fun.

But as he sprouted into the 7-foot giant that he is now, he started to take the game more seriously. When Koloko was 17, he was invited to the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders camp in South Africa, a privilege afforded only to the top players on the continent.

It was around then when he realized the sport could provide him a brighter future.

“I started growing, I realized basketball could be something that could help my parents, pay for my school too,” Koloko said. “That’s where I really started (to make it a priority).”

It’s a game Koloko was born to play. His father is only 6-feet tall and his mother is 5-foot-8, making their son the outlier of all outliers—and one heck of a prospect.

To maximize his measurables, learn English and get a better education, Koloko elected to finish his high school career in the United States. He enrolled at Los Angeles’ Birmingham High School for his junior year before transferring to Sierra Canyon, a well-known basketball factory in nearby Chatsworth, for his senior year where he wound up winning a state championship.

On a team that featured big names like Cassius Stanley, Kenyon Martin Jr. and Scotty Pippen Jr., Koloko was far from a star player. Recruiting services pegged him as a three-star recruit, and Arizona was one of just three major-conference schools to offer him a scholarship. (Cal and Northwestern were the others.)

Koloko was oozing with potential, but many, including Arizona coach Sean Miller, figured it would take him years to reach it. Koloko lacked polish, particularly on offense, and was still learning the nuances of the game. Plus, he was barely pushing 200 pounds.

“Project” was a word often used to describe Koloko, a term that he despised at first but now uses as motivation.

“I think at the beginning I didn’t like to be called a project sometimes, just because I know I work as hard as the other guys, so why are they calling me a project every time?” he said. “But...when I saw my role on this team, I kind of be like, ‘yeah I’m actually a project.’ But I’m just trying to show people I’m more than a project. That’s what I’m trying to show right now.’”

And he’s doing it. Koloko is proving he’s already capable of contributing at the Pac-12 level. The freshman had eight points, six rebounds, and a block in just 11 minutes in Arizona’s conference opener vs. ASU on Saturday.

Sure, the Sun Devils are far from a fierce opponent, but Miller said Koloko has earned the right to have a role when the Wildcats face No. 9 Oregon and its sprawling frontcourt on the road Thursday.

They need him. Koloko’s ability to rebound and challenge shots gives Arizona’s defense a different dimension. He’s racking up 4.9 blocks per 40 minutes, more than three times as many as the next UA player. As forward Ira Lee once put it, Koloko’s 7-foot-6 wingspan allows him to swat shots by accident.

And when he is not protecting the rim, he can use his length and quickness to blow up plays on the perimeter. The Wildcats are allowing just 81.1 points per 100 possessions when Koloko is on the court, the best mark on the team.

“Christian just keeps getting better,” Miller said after the win vs. ASU. “You just don’t realize how long, tall (he is). He switched a couple of their pick-and-rolls. Man, there’s not a lot of 7-footers that can switch on to a guard and not fall down, let alone be adept to challenging the shot and stopping and turning. He’s very well-coordinated. The best is yet to come regardless of what he does now.”

Koloko is behind two seniors and one of the top freshmen in the country, so playing time was always going to be hard to come by this season. Koloko is only receiving 7.4 minutes per contest, and did not play at all in four of Arizona’s 14 games.

All that time on the bench has frustrated him at times, but he keeps the big picture in mind.

“It was definitely challenging because as a basketball player you always want to play, and it was kind of tough for me just to be sitting on the bench every day looking at the other guys play,” he said. “But I talked with Coach plenty of times and he just tells me to be ready every time. You never know, I might have my chance and when I get my chance, just play and just do the best to help the team. That’s basically what I’m doing right now.”

Koloko’s big break came in December. Senior forward Stone Gettings missed the entire month with a concussion, opening the door for Koloko to assume a more prominent role.

After playing one minute across three games at the Wooden Legacy, Koloko played a season-high 12 minutes at Baylor. Arizona lost, but he was a bright spot, tallying three points, two rebounds, and a pair of blocks. Koloko followed it up with five points, 10 rebounds, and a block in a win over Nebraska-Omaha.

His near double-double vs. ASU continued that upward trend.

That Koloko is seizing his opportunity shouldn’t be a huge surprise. He is, by all accounts, a hard worker, smart player, and very adaptable. He noted that the UA is his third school in three years. (He chose it, in part, because the warm weather reminds him of home.)

“I’m kind of used to going to different places and adjusting pretty fast,” said Koloko, who speaks English, French, and a tribal language.

It helps that the Wildcats have extremely competitive practices that have pitted him against uber-talented big men like Zeke Nnaji on a daily basis.

“Our team practices for us are sometimes harder than the actual game,” Koloko said.

But there is still no substitute for game experience, and Koloko has been able to build his confidence as he has gotten more of it.

“When Stone got injured, that’s when I have more playing time and I just took the opportunity to show that I can play and just do my job, block shots, rebound the ball and just kind of help my team,” he said. “I think right now defensively I’m doing a pretty good job. I think I can help my team more offensively.”

That will come in time. Koloko wears No. 35 because he idolizes Kevin Durant and the way he shoots and handles like a guard while possessing a similarly lanky 7-foot frame.

Koloko also admires more traditional big men like Joel Embiid and Hakeem Olajuwon. Koloko, who’s averaging 2.5 points per game, says he tries to emulate parts of their games—and can—but hasn’t been able to show it at Arizona.

“Coach Miller won’t let me,” Koloko laughed.

Some day he will.

“He’s somebody that has maybe the biggest upside (on our team),” Miller said. “If you judged Christian at the beginning of October as a player, he was very much a work in progress. To his credit, he’s found a contributing role and he’s helped us in numerous situations. ... Our hope is that [he] just keeps getting better, but we’re really happy with his progress. He practices hard every day and there’s no secret to that. And if you work at it, good things happen.”