by Rodger Bohn / @rodgerbohn
Two NBA GMs walk into the Joe Craft Center in Lexington early one March morning to see arguably the SEC’s top NBA Draft prospect work out. University of Kentucky freshman phenoms Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones [see sidebar] just put on a show in a thriller over Vanderbilt the night before, and while both are likely Lottery picks, the NBA brass isn’t here to see them. They’re here to evaluate a foreign-born freshman who didn’t play a minute against Vanderbilt, a player who didn’t even suit up once this past season after the NCAA declared him ineligible last September. They’re here in Big Blue Nation to see 6-11, 265-pound Turkish import Enes Kanter.
On this morning, with UK assistant and former first-round pick Kenny Payne leading the 18-year-old Kanter (he’ll be 19 when you read this) through an assortment of one-on-none drills, it’s easy to see where, despite not having played organized ball in almost a year, the hype comes from. Boasting a body like Blake Griffin’s and incredibly long arms, Kanter’s more in the mold of a center than a power forward at this point. Completely comfortable swooshing effortless jump hooks with either hand, in glimpses—when he effortlessly cashes 18-footers after annihilating a UK manager repeatedly on a simulated screen—it’s evident how good Kanter can eventually become as a pick-and-roll player. Though Kentucky head coach John Calipari wasn’t in the gym for the workout, he boasts later, “If you’re using him in the pick and roll, I don’t know how you can get by the screen. When he screens you, you’re getting hit and then he can step out and shoot it. He’s as good as they get.”
Kanter continues his workout by shooting NBA threes Channing Frye-style off of simulated pick and rolls, albeit with mixed results. The man adored by UK fans and nicknamed “The UnderKanter” acknowledges the so-so long-ball showing, saying he “has the potential to be a good three-point shooter with work.” Due to the nature of the workout, Kanter’s best skill, his rebounding, can’t be shown, but one GM states, “If there’s one thing that we know this kid can do, it’s rebound the hell out of the ball.”
After the grueling workout wraps, Enes raps with those present about how he feels about never being able to play for Kentucky, yet how much the fans still adore and support him. The entire time he speaks he wears an almost eerie grin on his face. Asked why he’s still so upbeat about everything, Kanter responds, “My life hasn’t even started yet. If I give up now, I will not make it. If I want to be a franchise player, I have to keep working hard, smiling and stay positive. They made me ineligible, but it’s not the end of the world. I have to show people that I’m not a bad guy, I’m a good guy. I have to show Fenerbahce, American people and Kentucky’s fans.”
Enes Kanter’s journey to Kentucky, to ineligibility and eventually, to being on the cusp of the NBA, began in his early teens, began in earnest when he dominated the ’08 Jordan Brand Classic International Game (22 points, 17 rebounds) and the U-18 European Championships (14.6 rpg). After those showings, despite being two years younger than the youngest of the comp, his team Fenerbahce Ulker, the top team in Turkey, bumped the adolescent up to the club’s senior team.
“I really felt special,” Kanter says about playing at such a high level at such a young age. “It was so weird at first because I was guarding players who I was the same age as their sons. But after a few minutes on the court, I knew I had to prove myself.”
After losing to heated rival Efes Pilsen in the Turkish Basketball League finals, a then 17-year-old Kanter killed it at the European U-18 Championships yet again and was named MVP. Making the decision that Enes was ready to come over and do his thing in the States, his family informed Fenerbahce that their son would not be returning to their club and began searching for a place for Enes to spend his senior year of high school. After brief stops at both Findlay Prep (NV) and Mountain State (WV), Kanter settled in at Stoneridge Prep in Simi Valley, CA—not exactly a hoops powerhouse.
Still a relatively unknown commodity, Kanter became a bit of a legend on recruiting message boards, as tales of the big Turk averaging 50 and 25 in one tourney in
Vegas gained steam (we spoke to two opposing coaches from the tourney; it happened). Over the course of a few winter months, the talented Turk would commit and then un-commit to the University of Washington. At that point, sometime in February, Kanter wasn’t sure where he wanted to go to college. Then, after watching five minutes of a Kentucky-Tennessee game, he knew exactly what school he wanted to attend.
“After I saw that game, I knew that this was the place for me. Coach Cal gives you the freedom to play your game, and that’s why I came here,” Kanter says.
Coach Cal has a different story, though. “I got a call from his coach saying that [Kanter] was interested in us, and I didn’t know who he was,” Cal recalls. “I went out to watch them practice at an L.A. Fitness (Stoneridge didn’t have its own gym) and was like, Wow!”
Despite having played pro ball in Turkey a year prior to his commitment to UK, Kanter’s father, Mehmet, had taken steps he thought were necessary—he insisted on no contract ever being signed—to maintain his son’s amateur status. The NCAA disagreed.
On September 7, 2010, months after Kanter spurned the Turkish national team to attend summer school in Lexington, Fenerbahce GM Nedim Karakas told the New York Times that the young center had received benefits in excess of what the NCAA allows while playing for Fenerbahce. A brief scuffle between the Kanters and the NCAA ensued, but ultimately Enes was stripped of his amateur status and deemed ineligible to play for the Wildcats.
Coach Cal is still sore about how all the events transpired. “Enes comes from a family where the father did everything he was supposed to do to make sure that this young man could play, and the NCAA made its decision early on that this kid was never going to play,” Calipari says. “We jumped through all kinds of hoops, but the NCAA had its mind set that Enes was never going to play.”
Since the conclusion of UK’s season—despite being ineligible, Kanter stayed at UK, supporting teammates he never got the chance to suit up with through their Final Four run in the NCAA Tournament—Enes has been spending his time in Chicago, working out at Attack Athletics with famed trainer Tim Grover.
With Grover saying that Kanter “is definitely ready to go pro” and “will be able to play right away, both from a physical and skill standpoint,” Kanter aspires to land in the top five of the 2011 Draft, with dream destinations of Washington and New Jersey.
While college didn’t work out for Kanter the way he would have liked, Coach Calipari ultimately thinks everything will fall into place for the pro-bound center.
“This is going to work out for this kid,” Cal says. “The only people that were cheated were our fans in the United States and the fans in Turkey who would’ve loved to see him play. He’s still going to be part of our family, he’s still going to practice where pro scouts can see him, and he’s still going to go where he should have in the Draft. At the end of the day, this all played out perfectly.”