The shocking evolution of Enes Kanter

Photo credit: Tdorante10 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

I’ll admit this upfront; I have a complicated opinion of Enes Kanter. He’s starred on my favorite NBA video series, stood up for human rights and democracy in the face of tremendous sacrifice, and rocked what might be the world’s most inexplicable beard. Yet, he also ended his tenure in New York in the most messy way possible.

I had the unbelievable luck of seeing a Knicks game with floor seats, thanks to my wonderful fianceé. We watched the Knicks get demolished by a pre-Porzingis trade Mavericks. Kanter had been whining to the press about his playing time all week long. With the game decided, a group of fans chanted for him to get playing time. The Knicks coach relented and tagged Kanter in to great applause. Kanter acknowledged the crowd by sloppily kissing the Knicks logo at halfcourt.

The image haunts me to this day.

He then got cut and signed with Portland as a backup big. After Jusuf Nurkic suffered a brutal injury, Kanter joined the starting lineup. Portland still made the playoffs, but pundits quickly dismissed their chances without Nurkic to anchor their defense.

You all saw what happened next.

Damian Lillard has rightly been the main story, but we shouldn’t discount the growth of Enes Kanter. Kanter’s emerged as a key piece in their playoff rotation. He’s getting real minutes in the most competitive part of the NBA season, and the Blazers are winning.

Let’s take a look at how he’s impacting the Blazers, and what role he might play in the rest of this competitive Denver series. 

How has Kanter improved?

These per game stats slightly obscure Kanter’s improvement. He’s scoring more, rebounding a bit less, and producing more assists and blocks. To me, the truest sign that Kanter’s improving is the last stat, where he’s dramatically improving his box-score plus/minus. This stat, while imperfect, helps frame an individual’s impact on the team’s success. Portland is 5.4 points better when Kanter plays, reversing a career-long trend. Kanter has nearly tripled his regular season output and drastically increased his career averages. Improved efficiency powers these jumps.

Here, Kanter’s evolution is easier to spot. Kanter’s scoring more per game with a reduced usage, or percent of a team’s possessions that he ends up using. He’s doing so at a much more efficient rate, posting a 66% true shooting rate and nearly a 60% field goal percentage; I like looking at true shooting rate, which helps incorporate free throws and three pointers into the calculation.

How does this factor into the Denver series?

Huge shoutout to Reddit user u/llewellynjean, who posts some of the coolest data visualizations you’ll find on Reddit and Instagram. His thread around Joel Embiid’s scoring vs specific defenders inspired this post and introduced me to the invaluable matchups stat page on NBA.com, with metrics defined here.

Full caveat that we’re dealing with only two games so far, but the results are fascinating for the Nikola Jokic v Enes Kanter post battle. Kanter has defended Jokic on an average of 51 possessions per game so far this series, and he’s held Jokic to 5.8 less points per 100 possessions than his regular season average. For context, in the previous series Jokic matched up mostly against Jakob Poetl (4.6 more points per 100) and LaMarcus Aldridge (1.4 less). Kanter has also held Jokic to the lowest field goal percentage out of the three, at 45%.

The brilliance of Jokic, however, is that despite slipping in individual production in the first two games when matched up against Kanter, he’s still influencing the team, dropping 4 assists per game vs Kanter and helping power the Nuggets to nearly 5 points more than Denver’s average per 100 possessions. Against Kanter so far, Jokic’s shooting at a worse rate and scoring less, but because he’s a passing genius, he’s able to still impact the game beyond his own output.

When Kanter’s on offense, the situation reverses. Kanter scores 9.6 more points per 100 when Jokic guards him, shooting 66.7% from the field, but Portland’s team scoring actually declines over 11 points during this matchup. Too early to fully tell, but the team dropping while Kanter succeeding could be a sign that this offensive production is fools gold. 

I can’t wait to see how this battle manifests itself in Game Three. Will Kanter continue to limit Jokic’s scoring, and can the Joker mitigate that damage with his playmaking? Is this hyper-efficient, net-positive, maybe decent defender version of Kanter here to stay, and can he get battle through his shoulder injury?

Let’s just hope no floors get kissed along the way.

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