The Portland Trail Blazers received a collective NBA pat on the back after executing the two stages of the Damian Lillard trade prior to the 2023-24 season. General Manager Joe Cronin turned Lillard, Jusuf Nurkic, Nassir Little and Keon Johnson into Deandre Ayton, Malcolm Brogdon, Robert Williams III, three first-round picks, two pick swaps and Toumani Camara.
The praise was initially directed at the arrival of Ayton. Brogdon, Williams, the picks and swaps. Camara was considered a throw-in to make the money work. We were all wrong.
Taken with the 52nd pick in June, Camara was a little-known four-year college forward, born and raised in Belgium. After a decent showing for the Suns during Summer League he arrived in Portland in Deandre Ayton’s shadow.
But interests began to pique during training camp. Daily reports started to include footnotes suggesting “Toumani Camara was impressive.”
Now earning increased minutes, Camara appears to be a staple in the Blazers rotation, getting twice the minutes of fellow forward and sophomore Jabari Walker. Through six regular season games, Camara has averaged 6.0 points on 21.4 percent from three, 4.3 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 0.8 blocks.
While his regular season numbers don’t appear particularly impactful, his presence has been amplified in recent days. His efforts culminated during last night’s come-from-behind overtime win against the Memphis Grizzlies, where he usurped Matisse Thybulle as the starting small forward for the second half.
My kingdom for a small forward
Nicolas Batum looks set to retire from professional basketball after next year’s Paris 2024 Olympic Games. The 34-year-old has enjoyed a long and fruitful career with the Blazers, Charlotte Hornets, Los Angeles Clippers and now the Philadelphia 76ers.
The Frenchman earned a reputation through his first seven years with the Blazers as a Swiss Army Knife, able to do a little bit of everything from the highly sought-after small forward position.
But since Batum was moved to the Hornets in 2015, the Blazers options at small forward have been like reflections in funhouse mirrors, “not quite right”.
Maurice Harkless, Evan Turner, Norman Powell, Mario Hezonja, Kent Bazemore, and Josh Hart have come and gone with varying levels of success.
I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest Camara is the first player since Batum with the potential to play and contribute at small forward, night in, night out.
This doesn’t necessarily mean Camara will reach Batum’s level of play. The pair hail from neighboring European nations, but they aren’t particularly similar players.
Batum was, and still is, an above-average ball handler and facilitator, decent long range shooter and straight up defender. He hasn’t yet shown an ability put the ball on the floor and set up teammates. He’s yet to prove himself as a three-point shooter. Camara does, however, posses athleticism and defensive awareness that have helped him guard at the point of attack. His above-average timing has resulted in multiple jaw-dropping chase-down blocks. He’s currently ranked sixth in blocks among forward. His tenacity and willingness to put his body on the line has also resulted in winning 50-50 balls and repeat offensive possessions.
While Basketball Reference suggests Camara has played the majority of his minutes at the four, he hasn’t. The three most common lineups (149 possessions) he’s appeared in occurred when sharing the frontcourt with one of Ayton or Williams and one of Jabari Walker or Jerami Grant. Conversely he’s only played 41 possessions at power forward versus 237 at small forward.
Why it works
As far as style of play goes, I’ve seen a few comparisons over the past few weeks. The irrational optimist has offered up Scottie Pippen, while others have looked to incumbent Chicago Bulls wing Torrey Craig. I think the latter is probably a more realistic projection with Camara potentially a better prospect thanks to a more varied offensive game.
The lefty’s controlled freneticism is hypnotic. He might be the polar opposite of Grant who uses smooth, unassuming athletic movements to get the job done.
Camara is a live wire, using long arms and legs (7’0 wingspan) to corral opposing players on defense with fruitful results. Over the past three games, Camara has defended the likes of Desmond Bane, Cade Cunningham and Scottie Barnes — pretty impressive assignments for a guy drafted in the second round four months ago.
His effectiveness on defense includes the ability to be a pest, regularly beating opponents to the spot and invariably forcing them to change tact. Not all NBA players have the drive to compete on the defensive end. Fortunately for the Blazers, Camara has it in spades.
On offense, Camara is versatile. The most important aspect being his ability to make the right decision, knowing when to cut, when to pass, when to shoot, and when to get out of the way. That probably comes with fours years in college and a little more maturity than your average rookie.
He can rebound, particularly on the offensive where he currently ranks second among forwards, behind the Miami Heat’s Jimmy Butler.
Camara’s three point shot isn’t phenomenal, but the leftie has a decent enough stroke despite what his current percentage might suggest. I have no doubts said percentage will rise as he continues to get his NBA feet under him.
Will he continue to start?
I started writing this section before last night’s game. Suffice to say, changes needed to be made after he stepped onto the court with the starters for the third quarter.
Matisse Thybulle is a passable starting small forward thanks to his elite defense. But unless he’s hitting open three pointers, the Australian national representative isn’t much of a threat on the offensive end.
While Camara is already a decent defender, he’s not the savant that Thybulle is. A necessary attribute considering the defensive deficiencies carried by a Henderson-Simons backcourt.
But if Camara can offer 75 percent of Thybulle’s defense with his larger frame and longer reach, while providing flexibility on offense, he might be the more sustainable choice.
I’ve also been impressed with the Belgian’s performance in close, crunch time minutes. In wins against both the Detroit Pistons and the Grizzlies he played an active role all the way to the buzzer. In no way has he appeared overawed by the situation, executing composed blocks, screens, passes and shots when required.
If Camara starts against the Grizzlies on Sunday, he probably remains there for at least another month or two. Thybulle can be just as effective off the bench if he’s able to hit shots from beyond the arc.
Toumani Camara might be the very definition of what the Blazers want out of this season. Young players developing to the point to where they can consistently contribute to winning in the modern NBA. The 23-year-old’s arrival is particularly interesting for a Portland team in need of talent at the small forward position.
Last night, we saw Camara earn a second half start, which might have not only solidified his position in the Blazers rotation but highlighted loftier expectations from the coaching staff.
But even if he isn’t able to follow in the footsteps of Scottie Pippen, Camara has an NBA skillset that should hold him in good stead over the next few years. Fortunately, for the Blazers, it’s showing up sooner than what we initially thought.