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Enes Kanter is a Gamble the Thunder Had to Take

Mark D. Smith/USA TODAY Sports

In an offseason that saw LaMarcus Aldridge jump ship to San Antonio and a DeAndre Jordan saga end with him reneging on a max contract with the Mavericks and re-signing with the Clippers, somehow what’s generated the most outrage is Enes Kanter staying with the Thunder for four years, $70 million.

The deal has been highly scrutinized, with experts and fans viewing it as a huge overpay for an unproven player, with a track record of bad defense and selfish play. That’s not totally wrong.

Kanter has the tendency to put up some empty stats and was probably a bit overpaid, but in terms of what other big men have been generating in this market, it wasn’t anything to scoff at. And for a Thunder team looking to contend with a healthy Kevin Durant, hoping to convince the former MVP to stay in Oklahoma City after the season, it was a no-brainer.

Let’s first take a look at the money. Here’s a group of big men who signed deals this summer within $20 million of Kanter’s price tag:

DeAndre Jordan – four years, $88 million

Brook Lopez – three years, $60 million

Robin Lopez – four years, $54 million

Tyson Chandler – four years, $52 million

Greg Monroe – three years, $51 million

Kanter might not be as good as some of the guys on this list, but remember, he’s 23.  He’s at least two years younger than any one of those players and he’s a full nine years younger than Chandler. Youth and upside pays in this league, even if there’s a chance that player never meets his potential.

In terms of value, accounting for youth, upside, production and durability, Jordan is the only player above whose value greatly exceeds Kanter, and the rest are debatable. If you’re a Lopez fan, remember he also plays no defense, is four years older than Kanter and has missed 160 games in his seven-year career. I’d rather put my money on Kanter any day.

Let’s now clear the air on Kanter and what he does and doesn’t do on the floor.

He put up borderline All-Star numbers in 26 games after being traded to the Thunder last season, averaging 18.7 points and 11 rebounds per game while shooting 56.6 percent from the field. His averages of 15.5 points and 8.9 rebounds per game last season was a rare feat at his age, with only DeMarcus Cousins, Greg Monroe, Brook Lopez, Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh, Emeka Okafor and Amar’e Stoudemire averaging that line at the age of 22 or younger in the past decade, per Basketball-Reference.

Kanter is a terror on the offensive glass and a viable pick-and-roll threat with the ability to step outside.

He was fourth in the NBA, grabbing 3.7 offensive rebounds per game, snatching five per game with the Thunder. According to Synergy, Kanter scored 287 points off putbacks (146 with Jazz and 141 with Thunder), which trailed only Andre Drummond last season.

He was also the Thunder’s best pick-and-roll big man threat, scoring 1.10 points per possession in pick-and-roll opportunities. He could score by rolling to the basket, shooting 64.1 percent at the rim, or stepping back for a jumper, as he shot 19-of-34 and scored 1.19 points per play in catch-and-shoot opportunities, trailing only Anthony Morrow on the team.

It was a small sample size and his shot’s still a work in progress, but according to SportVU, he shot 10-of-25 from the left corner for threes, but only 35.9 percent from mid-range. The next logical step in his game is converting some of those inefficient twos into threes.

Now to the negatives.

Kanter is a truly abysmal defender, finishing dead last among 71 qualifying centers in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus. He had a total of 29 blocks and 36 steals on the year, and he doesn’t have great length, athletic ability or effort to make up for his lack of smarts on that end of the court. Opponents shot 56.4 percent at the rim against him in Oklahoma City and 56.9 percent all year, one of the worst marks for big men in the league, per SportVU. He flat out won’t be a positive on that end and would need a major improvement to even be average. Luckily, he’ll be a huge benefactor of a healthy Serge Ibaka picking up the brunt of the work on that end.

On top of his bad D, he’s an unwilling passer, handing out only 0.6 assists per game for his career. He’s also not a great post threat, and he shot just 38.5 percent on shots in the paint outside of the restricted area, partly due to his under the rim style.

Kanter is still a mixed bag, but at 23, there’s still plenty of room for improvement, and simply put, the Thunder would be a worse team without him. The Thunder don’t have a great history of letting go of young players in order to save money. The James Harden trade still haunts them to this day, and the risk of taking on Kanter’s contract far outweighs the risk of letting another asset bite the dust.  Kanter gives the Thunder the best offensive threat they can afford at the center position, and allows Steven Adams and Mitch McGary to continue to develop instead of being pushed into big minutes too early.

If all of that’s worth $70 million remains to be seen. It’s a gamble, but one the Thunder were willing and had to take.

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