Take: Enes Kanter has arguably been the most important player for the Knicks this season. Sure, Kristaps Porzingis is the budding superstar on track for his first All-Star nod and the recipient of nightly “MVP” chants, but Kanter’s presence—in some ways—has proven to be just as crucial.
This notion has been on full display over the past week, as the Knicks’s ugly three-game losing skid coincided with a back injury that forced Kanter out of the lineup and the team’s lack of energy in those outings further emphasized his importance. Upon his return to action on Wednesday night, Kanter led the squad (22 points, 14 rebounds) to their most lopsided victory of the season, and completely re-ignited the Garden after KP exited the game in the first quarter with a sprained ankle. On Sunday afternoon, Enes made a valiant effort (18 points, 16 rebounds) in the five-point loss against the Magic.
When Kanter is off Twitter and playing basketball, he has been extremely productive. Both his offensive and rebounding prowess have always been lauded, and he’s currently averaging 14.3 points and 10.7 boards, while ranking third in the NBA in field-goal percentage (63.1), and fourth in offensive rebounds per game (3.8), helping guide the Knicks to second in the league in second-chance points.
The most glaring improvement in Kanter’s game, though, has come on defense. He’ll never be an elite stopper, but his consistent effort and slimmed down physique has rendered him a serviceable player on that end, and that’s already more than the Knicks could have asked for. And if we acknowledge that rebounding is the final step on defense—as every coach seems to preach—his prolific glass production shouldn’t be discounted when evaluating his D.
The improvement is backed by the numbers; Kanter finished the 2016-17 season with a Defensive Real-Plus Minus of -1.24, placing 66th amongst 69 qualified centers. This season, though, his DRPM has markedly improved to 1.07. Overall, the Knicks rank in the middle of the road in defensive rating (105.2), and their starting unit has been slightly worse (107.6), so there are still kinks to work out. However, their third most commonly used lineup (with Ramon Sessions instead of Jarrett Jack), fares far better (78.2). Either way, this was expected to be one of the league’s worst defenses, so, again, even mediocre stats are welcome.
As anyone who has ever played basketball has experienced, a significant portion of defensive functionality comes from simply trying hard. Many NBA players don’t fully bring it (especially on defense) on a nightly basis amidst a long season, but Kanter is the rare player that does—an inherently beneficial trait that helps compensate for his lack of leaping ability and length.
Here, Kanter is locked in for the entire play and makes multiple contributions, punctuated by an emphatic rejection:
Great sequence from the Knicks 41-10 run. @MrLance42, as always, doing the little things that matter. And @Enes_Kanter working it on both ends. Watch the full 4:00+ minute video on the incredible third quarter @TheKnicksWall: https://t.co/qdtxkutfhN pic.twitter.com/qlrp1LCiVu
— Knicks Film School (@KnickFilmSchool) November 23, 2017
Later in that game, Kanter excelled during their historic 41-10 third quarter. He was disciplined against the pick-and-roll (it helps that one can afford to go under screens against Toronto), and his sheer effort allowed him to recover on switches and get back into proper positioning:
Knicks defense during 41-10 run. Full video on YouTube coming.
With neither Valanciunas nor Poeltl deep threats, Knicks were able to contain drives on PnR, bump the roll, and force tough midrange shots. And yes, Kanter + Jack anchors of defense during run. For @TheKnicksWall: pic.twitter.com/Ox91h8S4U7
— Knicks Film School (@KnickFilmSchool) November 23, 2017
Kanter also uses his physicality well, despite the off-season weight loss. Here, he effectively bangs with Dwight Howard one possession, and, moments later, hustles back to prevent Dwight from establishing in the deep post, leading to Enes deflecting away the entry pass:
Net Rating meet Film School:
Hornets go on 8-0 run before @Enes_Kanter goes to bench. But if you watch him on offense + defense, you'll see he is far from the player to blame. My breakdown for @TheKnicksWall: pic.twitter.com/7PbNeDwu1E
— Knicks Film School (@KnickFilmSchool) November 10, 2017
And against Phoenix—as Enes clearly enjoyed sharing—he displays perfect verticality, and his head-on-a-swivel activity level enables him to once again impact a play more than once:
Defense boooyyy ???
( via/ @KnickFilmSchool )
— Enes Kanter (@Enes_Kanter) November 4, 2017
In fact, opponents are shooting just 51.1 percent versus Kanter on shots under six feet, right about the same rate as Kevin Durant, Derrick Favors and Anthony Davis have surrendered, and a worse figure than Steven Adams, Draymond Green, Robin Lopez, and Boogie Cousins can claim to be offering up.
Still, Kanter has a history of struggling against the pick-and-roll—which is less about effort and more about schematic understanding, instinct, and scouting—and and some of those issues still plague him:
Here’s the Spain PnR, fascinating to watch Kanter on defense pic.twitter.com/DRqgNz7p7a
— BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballbreakdown) October 20, 2017
Having said that, Kanter has undeniably improved in that department, too, evidenced by the fact that the Knicks rank 8th in FG% vs. the pick-and-roll, compared to the 2016-17 Thunder (with Enes in the middle), which ranked dead last.
One surprising reason for Kanter’s improvement in New York (besides the prospect of a new contract this summer) is the tutelage of—yes—Joakim Noah. Kanter has lauded Noah for his influence, and the players share a similar spirited tenacity. Noah was never much of a shot-blocker either (though better than Kanter, who averages just 0.4 BPG over his career), but expertly relied on his relentless motor to anchor a perennially stingy Chicago Bulls defense, peaking with Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2013-14. $72 million might be a hefty price tag for a washed-up mentor for a guy who might leave after this season, but hey, at least Joakim is making himself useful (thanks again, Phil!).
Obviously, late November is too early to declare a winner in the Carmelo Anthony trade, as the Thunder could still gel into a dangerous playoff team and the Knicks could fall off (the same leeway applies to the Paul George trade). At the moment, though, the Knicks have to like their return package, considering the strong performances by Kanter and Doug McDermott so far.
One thing can be safely declared, though: for all of Kanter’s defensive shortcomings, his consistent effort is already more than ‘Melo has ever offered at that end, and that alone should be enough to satisfy Knicks management and fans.