Extension Candidate: Enes Kanter

Enes Kanter has started all of 39 games in his three seasons in the league, hardly the figure associated with most players upon whom teams bestow rookie scale extensions. There are precedents, with the Grizzlies having extended Quincy Pondexter last fall in spite of a resume that included just 15 starts, and the Nuggets signed Kosta Koufos to an extension in 2012 on the same day that he made his 15th career start. Still, it’s surprising to see that the Jazz have opened talks with the Max Ergul client and that GM Dennis Lindsey is already envisioning a long-term future with the 6’11” center.

It’s especially remarkable considering that the Jazz aren’t hurting for big men with potential. They inked Derrick Favors to a four-year, $48MM extension a year ago, a few months after signing 7’1″ Rudy Gobert, the No. 27 overall pick in the 2013 draft who made significant strides with his game this summer, as Grantland’s Zach Lowe detailed. Utah figures to finish near the bottom of the NBA standings again, and three of the top five draft prospects for 2015 play either power forward or center, according Jonathan Givony’s DraftExpress rankings. There’s logic in doing a deal if the price is right, but even a relatively inexpensive commitment carries an opportunity cost of some kind. Flexibility is a commodity around the league, and it wouldn’t seem to make much sense for Utah to be tethered to Kanter if by the end of the season he’s proven a poor match with Favors and Gobert has outplayed him.

Kanter and Favors shared the floor for 772 minutes last season, which works out to roughly 10.5 minutes per contest in games in which they both appeared. That’s hardly the amount of time that seemed reasonable to expect for the pair of former No. 3 overall picks in the first season following the departures of Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. Former Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin instead favored a starting lineup that featured Favors playing alongside small-ball power forward Marvin Williams. Corbin and Williams are no longer with Utah, but it remains to be seen whether new coach Quin Snyder will give Kanter and Favors more time to mesh on the floor.

By himself, Kanter’s numbers rose as he saw more playing time. His minutes shot up to 26.7 per game after he saw just 15.4 the previous season, and he took advantage of the extra burn to put up 12.3 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. His per-36-minutes stats indicate that he would have averaged a double-double, if only barely so, in starter’s minutes, but Kanter wasn’t especially efficient. His 15.6 PER was down from 17.6 the previous season, and his field goal percentage dipped under 50%, too, thanks in part to more mid-range looks. Still, he shot worse from just about every distance in 2013/14 than he did in 2012/13, according to Basketball-Reference.

Kanter didn’t offer much rim protection, blocking just 0.7 shots per game last season, and he came in next to last among the 66 centers ESPN ranked according to its defensive real plus-minus statistic. The Jazz gave up 112.0 points per 100 possessions with Kanter on the floor last season, exceeding the league-worst 109.1 points per 100 possessions the team gave up as a whole, according to NBA.com. Utah was worse offensively with Kanter in the lineup, too, and while statistics that measure how a team does with a player on the floor also encompass what his teammates do, they nonetheless paint a grim picture of Kanter’s production in a season that was the first true test of his ability as an NBA player.

The native of Switzerland was one of John Calipari‘s many heralded recruits for the University of Kentucky after he showed the ability to dominate opponents on the prep school circuit, but eligibility concerns kept him from ever suiting up for the Wildcats. That also cost NBA scouts and executives the chance to scout him against worthy competition, outside of his brief stint with Turkey’s Fenerbahce Ulker. Aside from the limited stretches of time he saw on the floor for the Jazz during his first two years in the NBA, last season was the first chance he had to play a significant role at an elite level.

The Jazz seem willing to chalk up his missteps last year to his inexperience, and Lindsey appears optimistic that better days are ahead. Pondexter’s four-year, $14MM deal and the $9MM spread over three seasons that the Nuggets gave Koufos serve as models for the sort of low-dollar extension that Lindsey probably has in mind. Teams pay a premium for size, and many wouldn’t mind having a center with upside for the rough equivalent of the taxpayer’s mid-level exception. Lindsey is no doubt wary that Kanter might show vast improvement this season and drive up his value, but that seems tough to bank on. Still, Utah’s apparent enthusiasm to strike a deal makes it quite conceivable, if not likely, that Kanter receives an extension before the October 31st deadline.

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