Did the Utah Jazz Overestimate Enes Kanter's Potential?

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistFebruary 4, 2014

Jan 15, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; Utah Jazz center Enes Kanter (0) reacts to a call during the first half against the San Antonio Spurs at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

In the summer of 2011, the Utah Jazz selected Enes Kanter with the third overall pick of the NBA Draft. Nikola Vucevic, Klay Thompson and Jonas Valanciunas were still on the board.

Vucevic has comfortably averaged a double-double in each of the last two seasons. Thompson scores 18.7 points a game and is second in the NBA in threes made.

And Jonas Valanciunas just went for 18 and nine in a head-to-head matchup with Kanter, who scored 10 points and grabbed three rebounds for the Jazz in a 94-79 loss on Monday.

This after Toronto head coach Dwane Casey praised Kanter before the tip off:

For Jazz fans, Kanter's struggles this season are particularly troubling because this was supposed to be the year he'd break out. Before the season started, I discussed why he might have a shot at winning Most Improved Player of the Year. With Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap heading to the Charlotte Bobcats and Atlanta Hawks respectively, the minutes inside were presumably going to Derrick Favors and Kanter.

Such was the case for the first 14 games, in which Kanter averaged 14.1 points and 7.3 rebounds in 32.4 minutes. Solid numbers, but the Jazz went just 1-13, prompting coach Tyrone Corbin to shake things up and move Kanter to the bench.

He's returned to the starting lineup a few times since due to injuries, and Utah's overall record with Kanter starting is now 1-21. When he comes off the bench, the Jazz are 15-11.

That difference has naturally and logically led Kanter to the role of scapegoat in the eyes of some.

The Taxi Squad Show's Clint Peterson summed up the feelings of this contingent, saying: "There shouldn’t even be an argument about whether or not Enes Kanter should be starting at this point; he shouldn’t."

In another piece, he added:

For Jazz players like Derrick Favors, Alec Burks and Gordon Hayward, it’s easy to point out the parts of their game that have improved, in some cases dramatically. Meanwhile, in the case of Enes Kanter, aside from higher scoring numbers that align with minutes played, it’s difficult to find any other reason he should even be on the floor at all.

Peterson's scathing assessment is adequately supported by numbers like plus/minus, on/off and player efficiency ratings. He also points to a dip in Kanter's true shooting percentage.

Yes, the numbers tell a bleak story, and it's a fair one to tell. But unfortunately, they fail to reveal the entire story.

Start with that admittedly awful 1-21 record when Kanter starts. For the first 14 games of the season, Trey Burke was out with a broken finger, and Utah featured the worst point-guard situation in the NBA with John Lucas III and Jamaal Tinsley running the team (evidence of that can be found here).

His starts since have come against the Indiana Pacers, Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings, Minnesota Timberwolves, Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers and Toronto Raptors.

Among those teams, only the Timberwolves and Kings have losing records. The former is somewhat deceiving, as Minnesota has the sixth-best point differential in the Western Conference.

So is there a chance that the Jazz lost 21 games as a team to opposing teams that outplayed them as a team?

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - NOVEMBER 18:  Gordon Hayward #20, Derrick Favors #15 and Enes Kanter #0 of the Utah Jazz listen during a timeout against the Golden State Warriors at EnergySolutions Arena on November 18, 2013 in Salt Lake City, Utah. NOTE TO USER: Us
Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images

Last I checked, NBA basketball is still five-on-five. So while it's definitely fair to criticize Kanter's shortcomings, it doesn't make sense to blame any loss, let alone 21, on a single player.

The other part of the story that the negative numbers don't always tell is just how dominant the 21-year-old Kanter has been at times.

Despite playing just 25.4 minutes a game, Kanter has posted five 20-10 games, including a 25-point, 11-rebound masterpiece against Tim Duncan on Jan. 15.

That performance prompted former Dallas Mavericks coach and current ESPN analyst Avery Johnson to tab Kanter as a "walking double-double:"

His full repertoire was on display, as he scored around the rim, off putbacks and from midrange. His footwork that night was deft and his touch was soft.

He looked confident, something that's been mercurial for Kanter ever since his demotion. That should come as no surprise, he's been jerked around at the tender age of 21 from role to role.

On the nights when he's allowed to play through mistakes and find a rhythm, the young center has been fantastic for a player still in his formative NBA years:

Finding Time
Over 30 Minutes1617.48.256.7%
Under 30 Minutes309.15.249.7%

Obviously, a lot of that increased production simply has to do with volume, but when Kanter is playing within the role we all anticipated before the season, he looks much more confident and comfortable. And again, confidence is a big thing for a 21-year-old who played just 14.4 minutes a game during his first two seasons.

2013-14 is the first time we've really had an extended look at Kanter, and there are plenty of positive signs to suggest he'll live up to the ceiling his high draft selection implies.

There's still ample time for him to reach his potential. Shoot, plenty of players are still in college at his age.

Whether or not he becomes the franchise center (or power forward, depending on what position you think Favors plays) Utah thought they landed in 2011 will be largely based on two things: Kanter's own work ethic and coaching.

The second item may be pretty well covered, as legendary power forward Karl Malone works with Utah's big men as a part-time coach and former All-Star Mehmet Okur recently said he'd like to work with Kanter as well.

Item No. 1 on the list is the big one. Intrinsic motivation is tricky, but if Kanter can figure it out, harness it and gear it toward reaching his full potential as a basketball player, the Utah Jazz will have a monster on their hands. Someone well worth a top-three selection. 


Unless otherwise noted, all stats are courtesy of Sports-Reference and NBA.com and are current as of Feb. 3, 2014.

Andy Bailey covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.


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