As the NBA Draft neared the end of the first round Thursday evening, and Dalen Terry’s Scottsdale draft party continued at a relentless beat, Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd walked outside toward the parking lot.
He knew Christian Koloko’s name might be called soon.
“With Dalen, those people were having fun and I was so happy for them,” Lloyd said Friday, after attending Terry’s event at Lo-Lo’s Chicken & Waffles in Scottsdale. “But I love Christian. I kind of wanted to go have a moment by myself where I could go and just watch his name get called. I had a good feeling that at 33, there was a good chance for him to get to get drafted.
“So I jumped in my car and drove up to the road to another restaurant in Scottsdale. I walked in and just sat at the table by myself and no one noticed me. It was perfect. I sat there and watched his name get called and I was super proud.”
Koloko went 33rd overall to the Toronto Raptors, capping a historic night for the Wildcats after Bennedict Mathurin went sixth to Indiana and Terry went 18th to Chicago, the first time UA has ever had three players taken in the first 35 picks of the draft.
While Lloyd sat in quiet celebration, the scene elevated dramatically in Southern California. Koloko exchanged hugs with friends and family, while Raptors executives welcomed him warmly in Toronto via FaceTime.
“It was amazing. It was crazy,” Koloko said Friday on a Zoom media conference. “My family was really happy. I was happy for myself. … For me to get to this level and make it into the NBA, it’s just surreal. And I’m just going to embrace it, the opportunity to get better.”
Saying he has good relationships with several Raptors officials, Lloyd expressed confidence that Koloko will grow and fit will with the Toronto organization.
“They’re a team that’s always put a premium on activity, length and defensive prowess and, and Christian really fits their mold,” Lloyd said. “I think Christian’s a really impactful player. I think if you get past the, ‘Well, is this guy going to be a superstar?’ and understand that maybe not, (you’ll see) this guy really impacts the game and really impacts winning.”
The Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year last season, the 7-foot Koloko not only was a proven rim-protector but also grew in reputation after stopping Oregon guards Jacob Young and Will Richardson from scoring on drives from the perimeter to save the Wildcats’ late-season win over the Ducks.
“When you have somebody who can switch a ball screen, to protect the rim like he does, to run the floor and catch a lob above the rim? Man, those are great traits,” Lloyd said. “I’m sure if Christian stays locked in and works hard, he’s gonna bring a lot of value with that 33rd pick to Toronto.”
During a Zoom call with Arizona media and a few reporters covering teams who drafted the UA players, Lloyd also noted that Mathurin was already pretty locked when they began meeting shortly after Lloyd was hired at Arizona in April 2021.
Lloyd said he initially asked Mathurin if he planned to declare for the draft then, when Mathurin was projected as a potential late first-round pick.
“I got the sense that he didn’t want to do that, that he was hungry to come back and improve his position in the draft,” Lloyd said. “I sat down and kind of mapped out a plan and on how he could do that and I’ll give him credit: He’s is super diligent guy.
“He kind of keeps to himself and doesn’t have a big group of people he runs with and he really has immersed himself in the process of becoming a great basketball player. We never had to set up extra workout times or anything like that. He’s a self-starter, extremely motivated, and I think his best days are ahead of him.”
By the time Mathurin entered his sophomore season, Lloyd was already seeing a much different player than the one he saw at the NBA Academy Latin America a few years earlier. Lloyd had been scouting UA center Oumar Ballo for Gonzaga but noticed the raw athleticism of Mathurin, a roommate and teammate of Ballo’s.
“At the time, I probably would have described him as an athletic but physically undeveloped, undersized, unskilled four-man,” Lloyd said. “Somehow, between then and when I got here, he had picked up a knack for shooting and you can see that he had a really good wrist and ability to make jump shots.
“This year, we really challenged him to grow in other areas of the game, in his ballhandling, decision making, IQ and I think he’s just starting that part of his development.”
Lloyd also pointed to a “clutch gene” that could help Mathurin — the Pac-12 Player of the Year — as a pro.
“It’s gonna be really interesting to see his development — does he become more comfortable handling the ball and being a multiple-dribble, multiple-direction guy? Or is he going to get to kind of slide into more of a catch-and-shoot, drive-closeout type of guy?” Lloyd said. “I think both of them are great. That’s what excites me about him.
“This isn’t a guy who necessarily is going to need to dominate the ball to be a great NBA player. But I saw enough growth in that area this year that if he continues to work on that stuff, he could become that type of player.
“This is a guy who has tons of room to grow and, I think he’ll be able to reach that ceiling based on his character.”
While Lloyd said a “fire really burns” inside Mathurin, Terry is known for a fun-loving, competitive spirit that is much more visible on the outside.
Sometimes, those two styles clashed on the court. Terry actually started over Mathurin at the beginning of their freshman seasons in 2020-21 and, in the first game when then-coach Sean Miller finally put him in the starting lineup, Mathurin dropped 31 points on Oregon State.
Lloyd said there were some early moments in practices this season where he had to pull Mathurin and Terry apart a little.
“I just told him that all that macho stuff is fake, to lock in on getting better: ‘You guys need to compete with each other, not compete against each other,’” Lloyd said. “Dalen definitely has juice and brings it every day and Benn’s not afraid of that. I don’t think Benn has quite as much pizzazz or however you want to say it, but we had some tough moments early in the season and Benn was great in those huddles.
“Sometimes, guys say things in those huddles but they’re not able to back it up. Benn was on the guys in the huddles … and then he went out and made huge clutch plays.”
At the same time, Lloyd indicated that Terry also has a substance to him that lies beneath all that showmanship, one reason he improved dramatically as a do-everything sophomore.
“Incredible spirit,” Lloyd said. “I love Dalen and I love coaching him. If you were to ask me a year ago at this time if we would be having a Zoom and Dalen would have been the 18th pick, I’d probably say, ‘Don’t bet on it.’
“But this kid came so far in a year and it’s a credit to his work. I know you guys see the enthusiasm and all that stuff, and it kind of grabs your attention. The way I experienced it, was very authentic. He practiced his butt off every day. He comes to work with a smile on his face. You can bring him in your office and have tough, honest conversations and he participates in those.
“I love his energy and I love his spirit. I think that’s an important part but what I love more is just at the core he’s a high character dude. My only sad thing is that I don’t get to coach him again.”
During his Zoom call, Lloyd also addressed a few topics relevant to his returning Wildcats. Among them:
He said while he could add another player to his 2022-23 roster, which has 11 scholarship players, the Wildcats now have a “workable rotation” after acquiring transfers Courtney Ramey (Texas) and Cedric Henderson (Campbell).
Graduate walk-on transfer Matt Lang chose the Wildcats after looking at NYU and Notre Dame to play his “super senior” season while also studying accounting. “He wanted a little change of scenery,” Lloyd said. “I told him there’s no promises, no guarantees of anything but that it’s a great place to be and if he wanted to be a part of it for a year, he’s a guy that I trust and I know he’ll add to the culture.”
Freshman center Dylan Anderson has begun working out at UA and Lloyd said he’s “been on him pretty good,” adding that Anderson faces a steep learning curve but can become a great player.
While Lloyd said he didn’t want to put too much pressure on incoming freshman Henri Veesaar, he said the Estonian big man is very versatile and mobile. “I think he adds value with rim protection and moving his feet on defense,” Lloyd said. “Offensively, I think he has a little bit of an understanding how to play in some of this movement, pick-and-roll stuff.”
Lloyd said it might be tough for departed senior guard Justin Kier to find an NBA minicamp or Summer League invitation, but that Kier has great potential to play at a high level in Europe. “He’s got great energy, he’s a fun person to be around and he’s open-minded,” Lloyd said. “To me, that’s a huge key to being successful in Europe.”