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Angelo Chol steps onto center stage in Arizona Wildcats’ opener

Angelo Chol

Angelo Chol

Arizona Wildcats starting center Kyryl Natyazhko picked up his fourth foul with 18:11 to play in the game. And thus began the Angelo Chol era.

OK, so that might be a bit of an overstatement, but based on one night of real basketball, Chol is going to be Arizona’s starting center sooner or later … and it’s not going to be later.

The 18-year-old freshman has only played the center position about a week and doesn’t know all the set plays, but, as coach Sean Miller said, he sure is “energetic.”

Chol had six points, six rebounds and four steals Monday night before fouling out with 1:10 to go, leaving to a nice ovation from the McKale Center crowd. He played 14 minutes in the second half, 23 for the game, as Arizona defeated Valparaiso 73-64 in its season-opener.

“It would be unfair for us to act like Angelo is going to be our five-man for 30 minutes a game,” Miller said.

“But can he continue to develop and would a lot of teams love to have him? No question.”

Yep. No question.

Such as North Carolina and Kansas — his two other finalists — before picking Arizona in February.

Chol arrived as a power forward with the kind of skill set that might eventually translate to a small forward position. But the Wildcats’ most needy position is center, and that’s where, for now, the 6-foot-9, 217-pound Chol is most comfortable.

He is springy enough to be effective on the defensive glass (and he was a tremendous shot-blocker in high school), and he has the athleticism to create mismatches on offense. Not too many centers will beat him down court.

“He’s as agile a big man as you can have,” Miller said.

That’s a contrast to the beefier Natyazhko, a junior who started the two exhibition games and the season opener. But he failed to build upon his 12-rebound effort against Division II Humboldt State, missing one shot and grabbing a mere three rebounds in 15 minutes against Valpo.

It’s interesting how Miller phrased this comment about the center position, talking about Chol.

“He’s going to need some help from Kyryl,” Miller said.

As opposed to Natyazhko needing help from Chol.

One thing for sure: freshman center Sidiki Johnson has fast fallen out of favor.

Johnson took an ill-advised 3-pointer with about five minutes left in a close game against Humboldt State, which drew a quick hook from Miller. On Monday night, Johnson played one minute in the first half because of Natyazhko’s and Chol’s foul trouble, having a shot blocked in the lane and putting up an air ball.

And Johnson’s night was done.

“He’s not ready,” Miller said. “Hopefully, he can work to get better, but I’m not counting on it.”

Senior center Alex Jacobson should return from a back injury at some point. He did go through warm-ups Monday night.

“Hopefully, Alex can come in and give us that size and experience for a few minutes,” Miller said.

In the meantime, Arizona’s success at the position is going to be all about how quickly Chol develops while learning the plays.

“Sometimes,” he said. “I forget where I’m supposed to be at.”

He’s raw, but the upside is enticing. Chol might not have nifty back-to-the-basket moves, but he hit a pair of jumpers Monday night — a 12-footer from the right baseline and an 18-footer that got a kind bounce of the back iron.

“Angelo has a really nice-looking shot,” Miller said.

“As he learns how he can get those shots when they present themselves, I think you’ll look at him as a very capable 15- to 17-foot shooter. He can really put the ball on the floor and drive it. He’ll get more comfortable learning when to go and when not to.”

There will be ups and downs along the way, but for Arizona to be at its best in March, Chol probably will have to be giving 25 or more really good minutes a night. Natyazhko and Jacobson can chip in, and power forward Jesse Perry can play center for stretches, if needed.

“The guy’s a freshman who is just now getting thrown into a new system,” said senior guard Kyle Fogg.

“He went out there and played great and gave us the boost we needed. He’s a big reason why we won.”

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