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Knicks 2018-19 Preview: Enes Kanter

A dying breed of big man fighting against the tide

NBA: Preseason-New Orleans Pelicans at New York Knicks Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Enes Kanter’s game is a relic from a bygone era. If he had been drafted in 1991 he would have long established himself as a superstar big man. He would have racked up perennial All-Star berths. He would have opted out of the final year of his contract to lock in another max deal through his prime years and, at just 26 years old, been one of the prized jewels of free agency.

Unfortunately, for Kanter, he was drafted in 2011. He has plied his craft during a period of time in which the NBA has veered away from relying on traditional, in-the-paint, post-up big men. Teams want their big men to be able to shoot from beyond the arc to spread the floor and create space for guards and wings to exploit inside, not hover around the paint and commandeer that space for themselves. Defensively, bigs who can hold their own in the post are of less importance than those with the mobility to switch across positions and comfortably defend in space.

Floor spacer and fleet-of-foot are not ways to describe the Turkish ex-pat. He’s frequently guilty of tunnel vision with the ball and hasn’t proven to be effective as a floor spacer. While he does excel at scoring inside and offensive rebounding, ranking among the league’s true elites in both categories year after year, both also happen to be of reduced importance in the league today. And for as good as he in those aspects of the game, he’s equally poor defensively.

He’s a non-existent rim protector who has never even managed to average one block per game in his career. That is truly awful for a center who should be anchoring a defense and not depending on getting bailed out by a unicorn. He misses rotations and is an absolute turnstile when forced to defend pick-and-roll.

I could write many words and clip many clips of Kanter’s strengths and weaknesses, but the book on him was written years ago. Simply put, if there is an archetype for the modern day big man, Enes is its antithesis.

Entering his eighth year in the league, it’s difficult to imagine Kanter can evolve and adapt well enough to hold down a starting spot for a competitive team. He hasn’t shown the necessary growth or even ability throughout his career. To be fair to Enes, though, in his preseason appearances this year there have been signs of a renewed commitment to the less glamorous side of the game. If that’s genuine growth and not just a hot streak during non-competitive games, it would change his trajectory and give him a chance to be a part of the Knicks’ future beyond this season.

But maybe there’s a place for him here even if he doesn’t show growth. Maybe it’s off the bench rather than as a starter. He does have a couple of standout skills that provide value and could be more beneficial against second stringers, but it’s not just what he does on the court which should be part of the calculus. There’s more to basketball than just your statistical impact on the floor.

Basketball Reference is awesome, but there are intangible, immeasurable qualities inherent in a team game where guys are spending nine months of their lives together which can’t be captured on a spreadsheet. By all accounts, Kanter’s professionalism, commitment to the team and toughness are of the highest standard. He stands up for his teammates, perhaps in unnecessarily outlandish fashion, and his arrival to the stadium in crutches last season before suiting up for a game has become a legendary anecdote within the organization.

These things matter. Basketball is played by human beings. Highly paid ones to be sure, but still human. Can we know how seeing somebody gut through the pain threshold for the team rubs off on and influences players like Frank Ntilikina, Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson, three players whom so much of the future hinges upon? How much does it help to have a man with such an indomitable individual spirit and a very real joie de vivre in his approach to basketball and life in the trenches with a team that’s staring down the barrel of another 50+ loss season?

It’s hard to say. They matter, but how much? Do the intangibles he brings to the table matter enough to outweigh the very real deficiencies in his game? At what price point and in what capacity is bringing back Enes beyond 2018-19 a win for the Knicks?

Kanter has value, even if he’s fighting against the tide of ever-changing standards and expectations for today’s generation of big men. Just how much is the unenviable question the braintrust of Scott Perry, Steve Mills and David Fizdale must answer come the end of the season.