In an earlier piece, it was explored how, for all of the Denver Nuggets’ defensive problems, there existed one in particular – their two-man centre rotation of Nikola Jokic and DeAndre Jordan.
Notwithstanding his unparalleled offensive greatness, Jokic gives something back defensively. He boards, he reads and he slaps at the ball, but he just does not move quickly. Nor does Jordan, his new backup added over the offseason, who retains some verticality but little in the way of lateral speed. With both halves of their centre rotation hampered by this same limitation – and with no real third smaller-ball option on the incumbent roster outside of spot minutes for Aaron Gordon and Jeff Green, which would have other drawbacks – the Nuggets are currently constructed in such a way that they figure to have this problem for the remainder of the season.
Next season, however, help may be on the way, in the form of this year’s second-round pick.
Drafted 46nd overall by the Detroit Pistons, Ismael Kamagate – or more specifically, at this point, his draft rights - arrived in Denver by way of the Detroit Pistons, who traded them to the Portland Trail Blazers as an ancillary part of the Jerami Grant trade, who immediately redirected them to the Nuggets in exchange for a 2024 second-round pick. The Nuggets therefore took a gamble that whoever would be available to them with that pick in two year’s time would not be as good as Kamagate. And the early indications are, they may be right.
Kamagate is spending his first post-draft season with Paris Basket, an upstart team in France’s capital city owned by former Minnesota Timberwolves executive David Kahn that only came into being four years ago. In that time, they have quickly propelled from the French lower tier into the EuroCup, a second-tier intracontinental European competition, where they currently sit in third place in Group B with a 6-3 record. And at the centre not just of the court, but of that success, is Kamagate, a 21-year-old French big into his fourth year with the team.
In nine games of EuroCup play so far this season, Kamagate has recorded averages of 9.7 points, 9.3 rebounds and 2.0 blocks in only 25.4 minutes per game, and is in the running for being the competition's Defensive Player of the Year. His blocks totals are tied for the most in the competition, while his rebounding ranks second only to former Hawks draft pick Alpha Kaba. And although those basic counting stats go some way to illustrate the impact Kamagate has on that end of the court, they do not go far enough.
The draft intrigue in Kamagate centred around his defensive versatility. Long, tall and wiry strong, he is a real space-eater, and he is mobile to boot. Kamagate is a permanent defensive presence, somehow who looms over opponents, and who has size, burst and lateral movement rarely seen in one so large. He gets up and down the court, as well as in the air, very quickly.
Beyond the physical profile, Kamagate's awareness is very advanced for his age. He moves well on the perimeter, with mobility, size and athleticism, and he is particularly good in space, reading the screens and the passing lines, coming in from the weak side, protecting the basket, clearing the glass, and covering the ground outside, Although he looks rather wiry, he is not easily moved off the spot once he gets there first. And he does not even foul all that much in the process either.
Albeit in a much lower usage role, Kamagate is an unavoidable presence on the offensive end, too. Always available over the top in the halfcourt and very willing to run in the full court, the Frenchman is hugely efficient as a finisher, in large part through the ease with which he dunks. Kamagate combines a blistering 79.7% shooting from the field with a reasonable mid-60s% free throw stroke that pairs with the occasional baseline jumper to suggest some more shooting may be in his future. Kamagate is a cautious roller who nevertheless does so with poise, who has shown some passing affinity on the move, and who is getting more physical and aggressive at the basket over time.
To use the buzzwords of the day, while you cannot give the ball to Kamagate when he is standing still and achieve much other than a pass back out, he will nonetheless offer roll gravity and vertical spacing.
There are, of course, offensive limitations beyond the scarcity of the jump shot. Kamagate demonstrates neither the best hands on the catch nor the strongest finishes inside the lane, and if his frame does take on more muscle over time, it might come at the cost of some of the speed. The handle is high and he struggles under duress, and, in accordance with the modern way, he does not post up.
There are also defensive limitations; or at least, there is one in particular. At this point in his development, although head coach Will Weaver's defensive game plan empowers (and relies upon) Kamagate to cover much ground outside, he overhelps. He may be fluid and fast on switches and in help situations, but he can overdo it and give up shooters in pop action. With their plethora of frontcourt shooters these days, NBA teams will exploit this.
Minor cavils aside, however, there is a lot to like about Kamagate as an NBA prospect. And the most likeable thing is that this is not merely potential or buzzword bingo. This is something he is actually doing, already, against quality competition.
While the EuroCup is replete with players who either are, were or could be on the fringes of NBA rotations – Kamagate’s own team features fellow second-round pick Juhann Begarin, as well as NBA veterans Axel Toupane, Jeremy Evans and Tyrone Wallace - it is nevertheless some way below being in the rotation of a team contending for the NBA title. Opponents sick of dealing with the constant onslaught that is Jokic will light up at the sight of a relatively untested rookie like Kamagate. The Nuggets need a more urgent solution than this in their short-term title challenge.
What may be true, though, is that Kamagate could be a part of it. Aside from not having the rangy jumper of the modern stretch five - which is more of an ideal than a reality anyway – Kamagate plays in space, has length, speed, the ability to go over the top, smarts, and a strong understanding of himself. He contributes on both ends, to a level and in a manner not easily found outside of the NBA.
There is therefore a good chance that, this time next year, he will be producing some quality play in NBA minutes and people will be wondering where “this guy” came from. So now we know. Detroit, via Portland.