Few No. 3 overall picks have had more obscure starts to their careers than Enes Kanter. Due to a violation of the NCAA's amateurism rules, the Turkish big man was ineligible in his one season at Kentucky. As a result, he came into the league sight unseen by the vast majority of NBA fans, with only his record in international competitions to go on. In his first two seasons with the Utah Jazz, he was the second big man off the bench for a fringe playoff team in a small market.
That's all going to change this season. The Jazz allowed Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap to leave in free agency, in effect turning over the franchise to Kanter and Derrick Favors, the other No. 3 overall pick on Utah's roster. After two years treading water as a middle-of-the-pack team in the Western Conference, the Jazz are all-in on rebuilding. Kanter, who's played well in limited minutes as a reserve, is finally getting his chance to show the basketball world what he can do.
The talent is there. At 6'11 and 260 pounds with a 7'1 wingspan, Kanter is a bit of a throwback. Not only does he have the size to be a legitimate NBA center, he's a bruiser who can score with his back to the basket. While he's far from a finished product, he has the strength to seal defenders in the paint and the skill to finish over the top of them. Unlike most big men, he's no stiff, either. With a max vertical of 32 inches, he can get off the ground and move his feet in space.
Last season, in 15 minutes a night, he averaged seven points and four rebounds on 54 percent shooting. If you project his playing time over 36 minutes, that comes out to 17 points, 10 rebounds and one block, with a PER of 17.6. While scoring against second-unit players is much easier than playing a featured role as a starter, Kanter's per-minute production at such a young age is an excellent sign. He turned 21 in May, making him a full year younger than Boston Celtics rookie Kelly Olynyk.
In essence, he spent his college years as an apprentice in Salt Lake City, learning at the feet of Jefferson and Millsap. Neither is a star, but they're both accomplished veterans who get the most out of their physical abilities. In going up against Jefferson at practice every day, Kanter got a first-hand view at what an elite post game looks like. If there's a parallel to his time in Utah, it might be Jermaine O'Neal in Portland, who had to wait four years for his chance to start.
And while the Jazz play in relative obscurity, they are the perfect franchise for a young big man. From Karl Malone to Carlos Boozer and Jefferson, they've always been built around back-to-the-basket players. The Jazz played at the league's 21st-fastest pace last year, so they have the perfect tempo for post players. Favors and Kanter have the athleticism to get out and run on the fast break, but Utah's deliberate offense will ensure they get quality shots in half-court sets.
The big question next year is how Kanter and Favors will co-exist, since both are most comfortable operating near the rim. It seems likely there will be a lot of high-low sets and cross-screens, with the idea of freeing one of them up for post touches. Kanter, the better shooter of the two, will have to open up the paint. In 2013, he shot 46 percent from 10-15 feet and 44 percent from 16-23 feet, according to HoopData. Those are numbers he'll have to match to create some space for the Jazz offense.
Part of what makes projecting Utah so difficult is the sheer number of players stepping into bigger roles. They will have four new starters, with Kanter and Favors up front and Alec Burks and Trey Burke in the backcourt. Burks hasn't started a game in two seasons with the Jazz, while Burke struggled in the Orlando Summer League. For the Jazz big men to play at their best, their guards will need to be able to control the tempo of the game and spread the floor.
If there's a reason for optimism, it's the sheer physical talent of Favors and Kanter. In a league getting smaller by the year, Utah is following in the mold of Indiana and Memphis and building a team around two big men. The Jazz should be able to wear out teams, especially on the glass, where it will be extremely hard to box out two 6'11, 250-pound Goliaths who can jump and run. If the Miami Heat are about "pace and space," Utah is a return to ground-and-pound basketball.
If you want to summarize the Jazz philosophy this season, you could do worse than George Patton:
"We are advancing constantly and we are not interested in holding on to anything, except the enemy. We're going to hold on to him by the nose and we're going to kick him in the ass. We're going to kick the hell out of him all the time and we're going to go through him like crap through a goose."
If you go into the paint against Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, it's going to hurt.