It took less than a month for Toumani Camara to clinch a starter spot and conquer Portland fans' hearts. It took him nearly a decade away from Bruxelles, his hometown, to get there.
When the 2023 NBA draft reached its 52nd pick and Commissioner Adam Silver summoned Toumani Camara to the stage, an entire nation celebrated the ascent into the Big League of one of its most promising athletes. With his first appearance on the 25th of October, he became the second Belgian to ever play in the NBA after Didier Mbenga from 2004 to 2011.
"I want to make my family proud and put Belgium on the map... I'm a versatile player who does what it takes to win." - Toumani Camara
Driven by his aspirations, Toumani left the grey horizons of Bruxelles to explore the wilderness of American high school basketball and seek the opportunity to play at the collegiate level. He ended up splitting his NCAA career between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Dayton Flyers. After withdrawing from consideration in 2022, Toumani Camara applied for the 2023 NBA draft as a 23-year-old wing offering some clear defensive versatility and maturity.
While his strong performances in the summer league heightened the excitement around his plug-and-play potential, Camara was swiftly confronted with the stark business reality. Toumani had been traded to the Portland Trailblazers, who were now trending towards a rebuilding process, as part of the deal that sent Damian Lillard to Milwaukee and Deandre Ayton to Portland. In Oregon, Toumani discovered a rather familiar kind of warmth — (definitely) not in the climate, but in the genuine sympathy of its people.
Joining a roster with limited wing options, the Belgian quickly carved out a spot within the rotation and made an immediate impact in the preseason, displaying spectacular awareness and a competitive spirit that culminated in stretches of defensive excellence. One recovery block and prompt defensive rotation at a time, he gained coach Chauncey Billups' trust and conquered Portland fans' hearts.
Toumani's footwork and techniques are often textbook perfect in how they set up his detonating two-foot leap.
Less than a month later, Toumani is playing around 26 minutes a game and has cracked Portland's starting lineup. He had a tough start with shooting and ajusting to speed, but his recent career-best 12 points on 4/8 shooting against the Jazz could signal a turning point.
On the hardwood, there isn't an assignment Toumani won't tackle head-on, a charge he will shy away from or a dunk opportunity that won't catch his eyes. That's simply who he is, and Portland has been substantially better because of it.
“He definitely doesn’t play like a rookie. He plays like he’s been in the league for a few years. He knows what to do and he plays for his strengths.” - Teammate Jerami Grant
Contrary to some of the other defensive stalwarts of the 2023 NBA draft, Toumani doesn't have Enderman-like frame or generational athleticism, but rather an insatiable desire to throw opponents off their rhythm and an acute sense of awareness.
Dread it, Run from it, Toumani still arrives all the same.
Despite his 6'8'', 226 lbs frame, Toumani spends 49.9% of his time on defense assigned to guards. He will struggle closing out or exploding from a standstill position, but his footwork and striking hips flexibility allow him to comfortably switch onto the craftiest ball-handlers - from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to Devin Booker. The 23-year-old approaches every matchup with the same grit, shadowing them all around the court, probably whispering in their ears "You can run but you can't hide", and denying them away from the ball with his obstructive 7'0'' wingspan.
From Woluwe, a red-bricked neighborhood of eastern Bruxelles where he learned the importance of self-discipline, to the NBA, Toumani has remained true to himself. Sturdy and hardworking, he developed spectacular lower-body flexibility and footwork that already gifted us delightful defensive sequences. At times, it even feels like Camara is in a tango with his opponent, mirroring his partner's strides with quick, twirling hops that propel him with the accuracy and effectiveness of a ballet dancer.
Opponents have scored at an abysmal 0.64 points-per-possession rate when they challenged Camara in isolation - 19th best out of 124 players with 10+ isolations defended.
Toumani's versatility and physicality were best represented during his performance against the Lakers last Friday. The rookie systematically hounded whoever dared to bring the ball up and seamlessly switched onto the bigger bodies of Lebron James or Anthony Davis as they desperately tried to screen him off their guards.
Indeed -- Toumani doesn't back down from anyone.
It is no coincidence that opposing teams attempt significantly fewer shots at the rim - the holy grail of shot location - when he's on the floor compared to when he's not. Besides the schematical diversity his multifaceted profile offers to Portland's coaching staff, Toumani Camara is a stellar help-defender. He possesses the innate ability to read potential weaknesses all over the floor before perfectly leveraging his length and frame to disrupt opponents.
Ever since his brother introduced him to the sport at seven, Toumani closely followed the Belgian basketball scene, where embracing the role the team needs you to fill is a necessity. He spent nearly half a decade in college and averaged up to 13.9 points and 8.6 rebounds per contest in his final season while winning several accolades as one of Dayton's primary weapons. Those four years have definitely facilitated his transition into the NBA world, but the pace at which he bought into a less glorifying role stands as a testament to his maturity and fierce competitiveness.
Portland's number 33 also grew into a next-level athlete since setting foot in America. Camara's game thrives on this unique fusion where he binds the best of both worlds — the team-centric approach from Europe and college laying the ground for the eye-popping athleticism. This marriage shines through Toumani's timely rotations from the weakside that, due to his terrific two-feet leap and hang time, have often resulted in sweet swats.
Through the last four years, the Oregonians never had a defensive efficiency ranked above fourth-worse. In 377 minutes with Toumani Camara this young season, they boast a defensive rating that would be good for eighth-best in the league.
If Americans like to see Basketball as 94 feet of freedom, Europeans have surged by considering it a game of fundamentals and craft. Toumani is no different, as he's making a name for himself by exploiting the ambient lack of meticulousness within NBA peers. Amongst the 61 players listed as "forward" on cleaningtheglass.com, only three of them have had more impact on the offensive glass than the Dayton product.
Putbacks or tip shots represent 17.2% of Toumani's scoring input.
Same story on the other end, where Camara's rigor wouldn't allow him not to box out properly. Through the numbers, the Blazers allow opponents to rebound 33.2% of their misses (equals to 30th in the league) without Camara on the floor, while they only allow 27.0% (equals to 13th in the league) with him on the floor. This is a seismic 6.2% differential —such swing rank in the 94th percentile at his position.
Those winning habits could very well be redefining the culture in Portland. Moreover, they're writing the first pages of what could be the biggest success story within Belgian basketball history, as he's the first Belgian-born player to make his way to the NBA. Toumani holds his homeland to the dearest part of his heart and soul, often mentioning his desire to "try to change the game of basketball back home". With the FIBA qualifications taking place during the NBA season, he won't necessarily have the opportunity to don his national colors, but he understands his stature and impact as an NBA player extend far beyond that.
Toumani is paving the way for countless others, starting with Big West's 2023 Player of the Year Ajay Mitchell from UCSB. As the NBA's appeal continues to grow and scouts are keener than ever on recruiting foreign prospects, Toumani and Ajay are building bridges connecting the vivid courts of Belgium to the brightest basketball spots in the world, for plenty of Belgian kids to dream even bigger. Along with the recent success of their women's national team, Belgium holds a place in the future of global basketball. Now more than ever before.
Ajay Mitchell, 21, grew up in Belgium and played at the professional level there as a seventeen-year-old. He averaged 16.1 points (51% FG) along with 5.1 assists per game and led the Gauchos to a March Madness berth in his sophomore season.
As for the Blazers, they enter a new phase post-Lillard with electric offensive talents Shaedon Sharpe and Scoot Henderson at the center of their project. Surrounding them with hard-working, high-character and complementary pieces will be a priority for the front office. Toumani Camara is all this, and some more.
From a young boy relying on his brother to tie his shoelaces during practice to now leading a revolution in Belgium's basketball world and shaping the very identity of Portland's future, this is Toumani Camara's story.
Thank you for reading this article on Toumani Camara's debuts, his journey to the NBA and what it means for Belgian basketball. I hope you all enjoyed it. Join me on twitter @99thBasketball.