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Toumani Camara realizes NBA dream...and recognizes what Suns need to keep it alive

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
June 29, 2023

It’s not exactly commonplace for a projected second-round — or potentially undrafted — prospect to attend the NBA Draft in person. For Toumani Camara, it was his opportunity to feel the entirety of a moment he’d been dreaming about since he was 7 years old.

“I’m a young kid from Brussels, Belgium, man,” Camara told the PHNX Suns Podcast. “It’s not a thing that a lot of people [there] can say, to hear your name called in the NBA Draft.”

Hearing his name called, walking up the steps, shaking the deputy commissioner’s hand, putting on his Suns hat — the whole experience was made sweeter by his mother and brother being there in Brooklyn to soak in that moment of vindication with him.

“Being able to see them so happy, something they’d been following me my whole life — it was a grind, not only for me, but for my mom, letting me leave at 16 from the house and everything, and for my brother being by himself,” Camara said. “So I think it’s something we all had to go through, and it was an amazing experience, an amazing feeling for everybody.”

His college coach at Dayton, Anthony Grant, was elated too. It wasn’t just that Camara’s dream was manifesting after he moved stateside to play four years of high school basketball as a four-star recruit, or that his hard work as a four-year college player at Georgia and Dayton had paid off. It was also because of the type of NBA team he’d be joining right off the bat.

“The fact that he was going to an organization like Phoenix, and then being in that situation where I think it’s a great fit and I think it’s a great opportunity for him, I think he couldn’t ask for any more,” Grant told the PHNX Suns Podcast.

Camara’s phone situation is “a little crazy right now,” so he hasn’t heard from his new teammates yet, but he’s already familiar with some of them. Everyone knows Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and Bradley Beal, and Camara said it still hasn’t hit him that he’ll be surrounded with that type of superstar talent from day one.

But the 6-foot-10 forward, 220-pound rookie also met Suns center Bismack Biyombo once…back when Camara was only a 6-foot, 100-pound teenager.

“It’s a funny story, because he did a camp back home when I was in Belgium,” Camara said. “I was like, probably 12, 13 years old, and it was my first NBA player that I ever met. So it means a lot to me that I’ll be able to be on the team with somebody I looked up to as a kid.”

Biyombo is a free agent this summer, but the Suns could easily re-sign him for some extra depth. The same goes for Torrey Craig, a wing defender that Camara’s game has frequently been compared to throughout the draft process. Camara admitted he watched Craig quite a bit over the last year.

“Being able to see how he’s able to impact the game all the time, whether his shot’s going in or not, I think that’s something that I’ll be able to apply to my game also,” Camara said. “I feel like I can have a similar impact to him, and yeah, I’m just glad he’s on my team, being able to learn from him and everything.”

The question now is what this second-round draft pick has to offer a team with immediate title aspirations.

Toumani Camara’s role with the Suns

Given where he was drafted, expectations for Camara should be tempered. The Suns still have multiple open roster spots ahead of free agency, with a multitude of veteran minimum targets to sift through.

However, recent players selected with No. 52 pick like Luke Garza, Kenyon Martin Jr. and Jalen McDaniels prove it’s possible to find bench contributors that late in the draft. As a significantly older rookie who spent four years in college, Camara understands he simply has to play his part on a team that already has elite scorers like Booker, KD and Beal.

“I already know the roles are really set in stone with those guys, so I know I can come in being a role player and be able to do my job and kind of, like, offensive end, not really have to rely on a lot,” he said. “I feel like I’ll just be able to play my game and just trust the system, trust the coach and everything.”

In his third collegiate season, Camara transferred to Dayton, where he was suddenly the most experienced player on one of the youngest rosters in the nation. So while he was learning a new system, new coach, new terminology and new set of teammates, he also embraced his new leadership role.

Heading into Camara’s senior season, Grant asked every individual on the team to tell him anonymously who they would select as team captain and why. To a man, they all picked Toumani Camara.

“It was a variety of different reasons, from the trust they had in him to their willingness to follow him based on the example he set every day with how he came prepared in practice and games, his approach to the game,” Grant said. “They looked up to him.”

As the rookie in an NBA locker room, Camara obviously has a ton to learn. He won’t be entrusted with a leadership role, and like any second-round pick, his goal is simply earning a spot in the rotation. But the reason he “can’t stop smiling” for the past week is he feels he’s coming into an ideal situation where he can contribute right away.

Camara gave the typical rookie cliches about doing whatever his coach wants from him and contributing to winning in any way he can. But he also mentioned embracing the label of “role player,” mostly because his role will be a familiar one.

“I think I’m really comfortable with it, because Phoenix is just asking me to be who I am, which is to play hard, play with a lot of energy, being a defensive guy and rebound at a high level, and then make open shots offensively,” Camara said. “Just stay true to my game and try to expand on that throughout my career. But I think that’s who they want me to be right now: just me.”

So who is Toumani Camara?

“I think he’s a very confident young man, because he knows the work that he is willing to put in,” Grant said. “Honestly, I think it’s gonna be a situation where he’s gonna add value walking in the door, and I think his best basketball is ahead of him.”

As a senior at Dayton, Camara averaged 13.9 points and 8.6 rebounds per game, leading the Atlantic 10 in rebounding while earning Atlantic 10 All-Conference First Team and Atlantic 10 All-Defensive Team honors.

Some nights he led by scoring 20-plus points. Others, he grabbed double-digit rebounds. And sometimes, he led while only taking four or five shots. But Grant said Camara was one of the Flyers’ steadiest performers for an important reason that he believes will carry over to the NBA.

“There are certain nights where, offensively, it may not be your night, and what you think you do well may not be going well, but can you still play well?” Grant explained. “Toumani always played well. No matter whether or not his shots were falling, he was able to impact winning. And I think that translates no matter what level you’re at when you can impact winning.”

The current draft landscape favors 18- and 19-year-olds who are either teeming with potential or are closer to finished products. Camara isn’t either of those things, but his willingness and ability to embrace whatever role Phoenix assigns to him is one of his greatest traits.

“Toumani at 23, I think, has the maturity to come in and understand how to accept a role on a team, how to implement himself into helping everybody else have success and play to their strengths while he’s playing to his strengths,” Grant said. “And, I think, continue to have the humility to understand, ‘I gotta continue to grow and get better and improve.’”

Toumani Camara’s defense

Camara’s greatest attribute on the court, however, is his versatile defense. Billed as one of the more switchable defenders in the draft class, Camara has a 7-foot-1 wingspan and 8-foot-11 standing reach. Coupled with his quick-twitch athleticism, defensive instincts and experience guarding a variety of positions, that aspect of his game should translate quickly.

“I’ve said this probably for at least a year, a year and a half, that I think he’s probably one of the more underrated and versatile defenders that I’ve seen in college basketball in years,” Grant said.

Before becoming the men’s basketball coach at Dayton back in 2017, Grant served as an assistant coach on the Oklahoma City Thunder. During that time, he got familiar with a similar defender named Andre Roberson, who Camara reminds him of.

“I see Toumani as being a bigger, stronger, more athletic version of that,” Grant said.

Aside from his 8.6 rebounds a night, Camara also made plays on the defensive end, averaging 1.2 steals and 0.8 blocks per game. He’s probably best suited as a 3 or a 4, but in college Grant put him in a variety of different situations. Those experiences helped Camara build out his comfort level whether he was guarding out on the perimeter, on the wing or even in the paint.

“In Dayton, we did a lot of pressing, especially my first year, and I was on top of the press,” Camara said. “So being able to guard the guards and trap, and also having tough matchups like shorter guards or sometimes the biggest guy. So just being able to guard the best matchup all the time, I feel like he had a lot of trust in me, and I was able to put myself in different situations where I could hold my own.”

Camara is excited about the prospect of playing for a defensive-minded coach like Vogel, believing that’s a core aspect of who he is as a basketball player. That wasn’t always the case, but his trial by fire at a younger age inspired his enthusiasm for that end of the floor.

“I think it means a lot to me, just because as a kid, I was really struggling with defense,” Camara explained. “I used to get exposed with that. So once I got comfortable in my body and being able to get stronger and everything, I feel like that’s when I really took a step towards my defense being at a higher level. I just started loving it.”

Learning more complicated defensive systems and rotations in the pros takes time, as does adjusting to the increased athleticism, strength and talent of NBA players. But between Camara and 24-year-old guard Jordan Goodwin, the Suns are already infusing their roster with young, defensive-minded players.

“I like what both of those guys bring from an effort and toughness and defensive standpoint,” Frank Vogel told PHNX Sports. “Both Jordan at the guard position and Toumani at the 3-4 position, those guys represent what our group needs, and I think they’re gonna be big parts of what we do.”

3-point shot is the swing skill for Toumani Camara

The offensive side of the floor is where Camara will need to prove he can at least be serviceable. It’s highly unlikely for a second-round rookie to carve out a spot in any playoff rotation, but in terms of regular-season depth, having a guy who can play lockdown defense, make timely cuts and knock down the occasional open 3 helps make the 82-game grind a lot more manageable.

“When you look at your roster and what you have, a guy like Toumani’s a guy that can come in and doesn’t necessarily have to have the ball in his hands to be effective offensively,” Grant said. “He’s a dynamic cutter, he’s got a high basketball IQ. He’s going to understand how to play in concepts and how to play with other great players.”

Last year at Dayton, Camara shot 54.6 percent from the field. He was extremely efficient around the basket, converting 64.6 percent of his shots at the rim in the half-court, per The Athletic‘s Sam Vecenie. He doesn’t need a ton of runway or time to elevate for dunks, but when he does get those opportunities, the results can be pretty breathtaking:

His swing skill in the NBA that will determine whether he can carve out a niche is not his cutting, finishing, offensive rebounding (2.0 per game in college) or trying to improve as a playmaker (1.7 assists to 2.1 turnovers last year). Rather, it’s whether he’ll be able to knock down the occasional 3-ball.

“Spacing the floor” isn’t something rookies typically do, because unless they were certified snipers in college, even then defenses are more willing to leave rookies open over more established scorers. Camara had to work hard at Dayton to become a credible 3-point threat.

“I think one of the biggest things that he was able to get here is to figure out who he was as a player and what his strengths were,” Grant said. “I think from the time he walked in the door, that first semester, trying to figure out what he did well and how to impact the game, and then you saw a transformation in the second half of the season in terms of what he was able to do from an offensive standpoint.”

Through four seasons in college, Camara improved from 17.2 percent shooting from 3 as a freshman to 26.3 percent as a sophomore. Transferring to Dayton for his junior year, he again jumped to 33.8 percent, before shooting a respectable 36.3 percent last year.

That promising mark came on 80 total attempts, which is a small sample size. But as Vecenie noted, he made 36.8 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s. Acknowledging the weaknesses in his game and working to improve them paid dividends.

“Just getting a lot of reps, I think,” Camara said. “It helps with confidence also. Then just knowing my strengths and weaknesses, know where my shots are coming from, and just just really focus on that and watch more film and really learn who I am.”

According to The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor, over the last two years at Dayton, Camara made 40.4 percent of his 89 open catch-and-shoot 3s. In that same span, he made only 25.5 percent of his 47 guarded catch-and-shoot looks.

Camara will be the first to tell everyone that he still has a lot of room to grow as a shooter. A look at the tape confirms that he does have a smooth, lefty release, but his shot pocket is a bit low, and it takes him a bit long to go through the entire process:

Reaching the NBA was a dream for Toumani Camara since he was 7 years old. Sixteen years later, developing a reliable 3-point shot may be his ticket to continuing that dream.

“I think you guys know better than anybody else, the game is changing a lot,” Camara said. “A lot of 3s is being taken, so I feel like every year there’s something I want to work on in my game and better myself on, and I felt like looking at today’s NBA and looking at the thing that I really needed to improve, my shot, it was definitely probably the main thing that I wanted to adjust and really be more consistent with.”

At this level, it’s as much about the work as it is about talent. Camara has already proven he understands the dedication it takes to gradually improve as a 3-point shooter; now he has to continue to bring that same work ethic to a Suns squad that embraces those types of certified “hoopers.”

“That’s why I say I don’t think he’s a finished product, because he’s willing to put the work in,” Grant said. “You’re not gonna have a guy that works harder than him. I spent a couple of years in the league, and I can tell you, there are a lot of guys in the league that you see get better just because they’re putting the time in. They’re dedicated to the craft.”

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