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Jazz’s Enes Kanter quietly evolves from project to player

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(Kim Raff |The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz player Enes Kanter defends New Jersey Nets player Kris Humphries under the basket during the second half at Energy Solutions Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah on January 14, 2012. The Jazz went on to win 107-94.

By Brian T. Smith

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Apr 17 2012 06:29PM
Updated Apr 18, 2012 02:12PM

Buried beneath the Jazz’s resilient fight for the playoffs, the rise of young power forward Derrick Favors, and continued excellence from veteran big men Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson is the No. 3 overall selection of the 2011 NBA Draft.

Not that Enes Kanter isn’t working, and not that he isn’t ahead of schedule.

Less than 10 months ago, Utah’s focus was dead-center on its draft picks. First Kanter, then Alec Burks, who was chosen No. 12 overall.

With just four games left in the Jazz’s 2011-12 regular season, both rookies have exceeded expectations and played key reserve roles for Utah as it has blended young promise with veteran poise to remain in the Western Conference picture.

But while Burks has maintained his presence in the Jazz’s second unit — at times serving as Utah’s go-to guard with backup Jamaal Tinsley running point — Kanter has quietly disappeared in April. He’s averaging just 2.2 points and 2.1 rebounds in 9.7 minutes, and has played 11 minutes or less in eight of Utah’s past nine games — a stretch that’s seen the Jazz go 5-4 while battling Denver, Dallas, Phoenix and Houston for three playoff positions.

On paper, Kanter’s rookie year has fallen somewhere between average and expected. The 19-year-old has had big nights: a 17-point, eight-rebound outing March 18 in a victory against the Los Angeles Lakers. But there have also been extended stretches of zero-, two- and five-point games, and Kanter hasn’t scored more than seven points in a game in nearly a month.

The falling numbers are a casualty of Utah’s all-in late-season approach, and everything from Kanter’s role to his production have diminished as a result.

But while coach Tyrone Corbin tightens his rotation and the Jazz focus on the present, Kanter continues to fine-tune a game that was raw and undeveloped when training camp started in December.

His offensive and defensive attacks have improved in almost every area, and the nervous, tongue-tied kid who Utah took a huge chance on in June is already paying off.

"He’s made some great strides and we expect it to continue," Corbin said. "I think he’s a little ahead of where most guys in his situation would be at this juncture."

Kanter’s situation hasn’t aided his development. He plays behind Jefferson, an eight-year veteran who leads the Jazz in average scoring and rebounding, and is having an overall career year. Kanter was unable to play at Kentucky last season after being ruled ineligible by the NCAA, then he had to deal with the 2011 NBA lockout, a canceled Summer League, an abbreviated training camp and a compressed season.

Even with the grueling back-to-backs and hectic travel, Kanter has progressed and matured. Everything from his footwork and passing to his inside post moves and understanding of defensive systems has evolved, while constant work with Jazz manager of player development Michael Sanders has added finesse to Kanter’s approach.

"We all didn’t think he was going to play. [He was] very raw," Saunders said. "But he wanted to work hard, he put in the extra work and he got better real quick."

Kanter’s also held his own in Utah’s locker room. A declaration he no longer felt like a rookie drew joking rage from veterans such as Jefferson. But Big Al’s respect for Big Turkey has only grown, and Kanter’s begun to develop the confidence and edge crucial for his next step.

A year ago, the young mystery man from Turkey was viewed as little more than a long-term project. On the verge of making the playoffs during his rookie season, Kanter’s never felt more at home in the NBA. And he’s already wise enough to know the most important work of his career has yet to even begin.

"It takes years," Kanter said. "Andrew Bynum became like that after four or five years. … It takes time. I’m just waiting for my time."

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