While it’s been no secret to those in Salt Lake City, folks around the league are starting to take note of what we’ve known for some time: the Jazz are stacked with young talent. Their usual dose of smart drafting coupled with a willingness to be bold on the trade market (nearly three years later, their return for Deron Williams is still the best package a team has received in recent years for a likely-departing superstar) has landed them a treasure trove of assets, and has done so without the bottoming-out process that frequently accompanies such a collection in today’s NBA. Derrick Favors is locked up long-term, Alec Burks is already looking very impressive, and even project-pick Rudy Gobert is showing flashes of being ahead of the curve developmentally.
And while cautious optimism is surely the name of the game at this point, allow this hoops geek a moment or two of overdone hyperbole: Enes Kanter is going to be awesome. Like, really awesome. I have him as not only the top prospect in Utah, but as one of the top prospects for his age in the entire NBA.
Those who read my dissection of the Favors extension on Monday may recall a brief look into the complexities of developing and evaluating young talent. Expanding just a little on this, an obvious part of what makes this process so difficult is the amount of incomplete information teams are forced to work with. Teams are expected to evaluate, with varying degrees of certainty, hundreds of different elements that could affect a player’s development – physical talent, basketball IQ, maturity, the list goes on.
Beyond just these basic assessments, though, lies a deeper concept that scouts are quick to point out: not all skills have equal value for developing players. Over decades of experience, talent evaluators within the league have tracked a variety of trends that examine which types of skills are most likely to develop over time and with good coaching, as opposed to those that are often harder to learn and require a special sort of player to develop them.
While a true examination of this subject could be 1,500 words by itself, it’s this general theme that has nerds like myself so worked up over the young Kanter. Not only does he project elite skills, he does so in areas where it’s extremely rare to see guys his age developing so quickly. Let’s take a look.
Kanter is a huge plus in the effort category. He’s engaged on every possession, both ends of the court, and you can see his true willingness to improve his game. As Denim Millward points out in his excellent JazzRank piece on Kanter earlier this week, the guy has only been playing basketball for roughly seven years; the development he has made in such a relatively short period of time would seem to indicate a ridiculously high basketball IQ.
Simply put, Kanter possesses certain offensive skills that are so rare as to be nearly non-existent in today’s up-and-coming NBA talent pool. It starts with his footwork (and remember I’m allowed some hyperbole here): Kanter’s footwork as a 21-year-old ranks right up there with the likes of greats at his position like Tim Duncan, Kevin McHale, and Hakeem Olajuwon when they were the same age. He has well-oiled spins in both directions, pivoting off either foot. His timing and feel for a defender’s presence, even with his back to the basket, are years ahead of his age. His finishing abilities haven’t caught up just yet (more on this in a moment), but this is what I mean when I talk about rarity of skills; finishing at the basket is something young players frequently struggle with and often improve with age and practice, but this sort of transcendent footwork is something a large percentage of big men will never grasp for their entire careers. With apologies for the low quality, look at this sublime drop-step to up-and-under action he pulls on multiple Laker defenders:
Before I get too excited here, it’s worth noting that his finishing issues warrant some improvement. Of 47 qualified centers last season, Kanter was 34th in field-goal percentage at the rim, per Hoopdata. This was despite an excellent ability to create looks at the basket (rarity of skills, again); his 7.2 attempts at the rim per 40 minutes are over double league average for centers and signify a problem in the execution, not the setup. Die-hard Jazz fans will know what I’m talking about – Kanter is still too timid when he goes up for dunks and layups, especially after offensive rebounds. Coaching and practice are likely to improve him in this area, and the rest of his game is polished enough that if he can even reach league-average as a finisher, he’s going to be scary with the ball in his hands.
A big part of this is his jump shot: in yet another area where young players (especially young bigs) typically struggle, Kanter is already well above average for centers league-wide. Per Hoopdata, he was excellent among 47 qualified centers for three distance ranges from the hoop last season: 3-9 feet (50.0%, 5th among centers), 10-15 feet (46.4%, 11th), and 16-23 feet (44.0%, 8th). These numbers place him in the company of elite jump-shooting bigs like Chris Bosh, Kevin Garnett and Al Horford. This type of accuracy from distance combined with his raw strength and speed for his size forecasts a post game that could become insanely difficult to stop. Check out Cole Aldrich trying to keep Kanter honest by preventing the jumper, only for Kanter to blow by him for a dunk:
Like any young prospect, there are several areas Kanter could improve on. Finishing at the hoop is one, and an across-the-board improvement on defense is likely another. Like Favors, Kanter is still inexperienced against high level NBA offense, but he doesn’t quite possess Favors’ raw athleticism, so adjusting will be tougher for him. He’s still very jumpy against pick-and-rolls and other actions meant to confuse; it almost seems like sometimes he’s trying too hard on defense and his body can’t keep up with his brain. He’s prone to the “ice skates” look that’s common among young big men, often unable to control his momentum to the point where he finds himself out of position. He also needs to make better decisions going over and under screens, as he frequently takes too long a path and gives up open looks. But again, these are all areas where high-IQ players typically improve with age and practice, and Jazz fans should be confident that Kanter can at least reach league-average levels on defense, if not slightly above average.
And if he can indeed reach these levels, while also improving his finishing at the hoop as we discussed, opposing bigs better watch out. He’s already well above average as a rebounder, especially on the offensive glass. He has excellent instincts and hustle, and his timing and box-out angles are quite advanced for his age (what a surprise, right?).
In short, imagine if Al Jefferson could play defense at even an acceptable level – that’s how Enes Kanter projects, only with better rebounding skills and even more physicality and strength. In a league with fewer and fewer real post-first bigs, Kanter could develop into the sort of weapon that can flummox opposing defenses with his variety of skills. Couple this with Favors’ pick-and-roll potential (and both guys’ willingness and ability on defense), and the Jazz have found themselves a twin towers pairing that should strike fear in the hearts of teams around the league.