The Suns made a huge mistake trading away Toumani Camar

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Key Highlights:

  • Toumani Camara is already an All-League caliber defender
  • Camara’s skillset is one that the current version of the Phoenix Suns is desperately lacking
  • Camara’s age (almost 24) makes it hard to imagine that he improves much more as a player from his current level

I remember it like it was yesterday, which isn’t that impressive because the event in question didn’t happen that long ago. If you couldn’t guess from the title, we’re talking about the monumental Damian Lillard trade that took place right before the start of the 2023-24 season.

Along with all the picks that changed hands, eight players were involved in the deal. Lillard and Jrue Holiday were the headliners. But there were also solid starters like Jusuf Nurkic and Grayson Allen in the mix. At the time, seeing Toumani Camara – a 2023 second round pick out of Dayton – included in the trade seemed largely insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

Oh, how the tables have turned. Camara has turned out to be a massive find for the Portland Trail Blazers (and a massive loss for the Phoenix Suns). He’s been one of the best (if not the best) second round picks of this class.

The Good

This next statement is not a hyperbole. Camara is already an All-League caliber defensive forward. Yes, he’s that freaking good. Of all rookies, he’s fourth in Defensive Estimate Plus-Minus (DEF EPM), behind only Victor Wembanyama, and Ausar and Amen Thompson (three of the best defensive prospects in recent memory). Overall, Camara is in the 95th percentile in DEF EPM (per Dunks & Threes).

And if that’s not enough, even well-respected NBA analysts like Nekias Duncan have Camara on their long list of players they are considering for an All-Defensive Team spot:

There are three keys to Camara’s defensive excellence. First, he’s huge. Camara stands at 6’8 with a 7’0.5 wingspan. This enables him to provide plus positional rim protection and defensive playmaking. He’s in the 61st percentile in block rate and the 79th percentile in steal rate among forwards (per Cleaning the Glass).

Second, his lateral agility is akin to that of a ballerina. Despite being 6’8, the Trail Blazers often enlist Camara to handle the other team’s best perimeter player – a duty he handles wonderfully thanks to his graceful side-to-side movements.

That brings us to the third key. Camara may be able to float around the perimeter like he’s walking on clouds, but he’s also super sturdy. In a recent game against the New Orleans PelicansZion Williamson clobbered the Trail Blazers’ defense when Camara was off the floor. But when he Camara was in the game, the human freight train (aka Williamson) ran into a brick wall.

Camara, like many players in his archetype, is a below-average shooter (more on this later). But he fulfills all the other offensive obligations this role entails. He can cut, crash the offensive glass (78th percentile in offensive rebounding rate), screen/roll, and attack closeouts with drives.

That last facet of his game is particularly intriguing. Camara is only shooting 58.2% at the rim this year (28th percentile). But he’s a rookie on a team with poor spacing. Those limiters won’t always be in his way, and there are a couple of reasons to believe Camara will improve in this category over time. First, he’s comfortable finishing with either hand (which is pretty uncommon for this player type). And second, he shot 72% on his close twos in his final season at Dayton (Per Bart Torvik). So, there is precedent for Camara being an efficient finisher in the past.

The Bad

Before we address the major elephant in the room, let’s get his shooting deficiencies squared away. None of Camara’s shooting indicators are promising. On the year, Camara is a 32.7 3-point shooter (25th percentile) on low volume (25th percentile in terms of 3-point attempts per 75 possessions). His collegiate marks are even less impressive (30.7% on 231 attempts in college).

Camara’s other touch indicators aren’t great, either. His free throw percentage (a great context-independent way to measure a player’s shooting prowess) is only in the 37th percentile (75%). He’s also only in the 3rd percentile on wide-open 3-pointers and the 3rd percentile on midrange jumpers (per Thinking Basketball database).

Of course, he could improve as a shooter with age, but that’s where the proverbial elephant we alluded to earlier comes into play. Camara is an old rookie. And while guys like Jalen Williams and Franz Wagner have had great success as non-one-and-done guys in the past, Camara is almost 24 years old. That means the odds of him becoming a significantly different player than he is right now are not in his favor.

So, that begs the question: is this current version of Camara good enough to stick in the big leagues?

The Bottom Line

Before we answer the question we just posed, let’s get back to the Suns. Unfortunately, I wasn’t in the room when the deal that netted them Nurkic and Allen. So, I don’t know if Camara had to be included for the deal to get done or if another asset could have gotten the job done.

But it is hard not to think about how perfect of a fit this version of Camara is for this version of the Suns. With Allen, Kevin DurantBradley Beal, and Devin Booker, Phoenix has a great four-man offensive machine. The perfect player to complement that quartet (other than a great rim-protecting center) would be an All-Defensive Team forward with great size and strength (which is exactly what Camara is).

Camara would be perfect for Phoenix’s current roster construction. But just because he fits great in one team context doesn’t necessarily mean that he’d be a good role player on most NBA rosters.

That brings us back to our original question. There are a handful of players just like Camara – elite wing/forward defenders who are below-average shooters/non-shooters. Some of those guys end up being neutralized in the postseason (like Camara’s teammate Matisse Thybulle). While others learn how to adapt to the challenges that come with the game’s second season (like Aaron Gordon).

The difference between Thybulle and Gordon is that Gordon has figured out other ways to be effective on offense. Gordon uses his physicality and athleticism to play in the dunker spot, operate as a roller/driver, and crash the offensive glass.

Camara isn’t as skilled as Gordon (particularly as a passer/ball handler). But he has shown flashes of being able to impact the offensive side of a ball in a similar way. And given the fact that he’s already an elite defender in Year One if Camara can find a way to leverage his skill and physical tools to stay afloat on offense, he’ll be a great role player in the NBA for a really long time.





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