It would have been an easily forgettable thing, if not for who did it and what happened immediately after. In the final minutes of Utah’s win over the Clippers on Saturday, Enes Kanter got the ball on the baseline and, in response to defensive pressure, took a step back and nailed a 15-foot jump shot.
It was a play Kanter likely would not have made last season, but it was a carbon copy of a classic maneuver by the player after whom he models his game. As he ran back down the floor, the second-year center unholstered an extended index finger and pointed it at the Jazz bench. Al Jefferson jumped up, arms stretched to the sky as if signaling a touchdown. Jefferson, the Jazz’s mercurial big man, is often considered a prime candidate to depart the Jazz, either by a trade or when his contract expires at the end of the season. But in one often-overlooked way, he has become indispensable to the franchise as a teacher to Kanter, the player whose growth may ultimately make Jefferson expendable.
“When I got in the league I believed the older guys helped me understand the game and regardless of if I’m here next year or whatever the situation is, I want to know when I leave that I did my best to teach him.
Jefferson’s relationship with Kanter, the Jazz top pick in the 2011 draft, is generally known to be that of a teasing big brother, chiding him for child-like bursts and keeping him in line as a rookie last season. But Jefferson has also emerged as a patient counselor, working with Kanter on post moves with one commonly repeated direction: “Do what I do.”
The pair worked on that baseline jump shot in the pregame warm-ups of Saturday’s game, and when the player Jefferson calls “my young fella” followed through, Jefferson said he felt like a “proud father.”
The results have been undeniable. In the preseason, Kanter is averaging 11 points and 9.5 rebounds through six games, up from 4.6 and 4.2 a year ago. Kanter gives the credit to Jefferson.
“He’s always trying to help me about anything,” Kanter said, “about basketball or life. He says, ‘If you have any problems with anything, not just basketball, you can always come talk to me.’”
Jefferson and Kanter may seem an unlikely pair. From distinctly different backgrounds — one from Mississippi, the other from Turkey — playing the same position, a splinter would be understandable. But they are often spotted together, leaving practice side by side, discussing the nuances of the game.
They worked in earnest in the offseason. While Kanter was shaping his body into something resembling a Renaissance sculpture, he also was working with Jefferson in Santa Barbara, Calif. They would wake up and lift weights, then go to the gym and work one-on-one. They practiced footwork and jump shots.
Sometimes gruff, Jefferson speaks in a low rattle, like marbles in a plastic bucket. His intensity has earned him a certain reputation, as, perhaps, brutish and unsophisticated about basketball.
“I always tease him,” Jazz executive Kevin O’Connor said. “When he walks off the court, when he gets substituted, it looks like he’s grumpy all the time, and he’s not. He’s just thinking about the game.”
Jefferson came into the league, like Kanter, as a teenager. He said he remembers being taught by Antoine Walker in Boston and Kevin McHale, when he was the coach in Minnesota. He’s passing it along to Kanter.
“He had to learn a lot of things when he was younger,” Jazz executive Kevin O’Connor said, “and I think he’s trying to impart that on guys.”
The instruction extends beyond Kanter. Jefferson works with Derrick Favors, Jeremy Evans and other post players. But those relationships aren’t the same. They don’t seem to have the same playful admiration.
“It seems like they were made for each other,” forward Paul Millsap said. “They bond real well, they get along real well, despite the rookie hazing he was doing with him last year.”
Asked after Saturday’s win how he would reward Kanter for being a receptive student, Jefferson said, “I’m gonna knock him on the side of the head. That’s what I’m going to do for him. Tough love.”
So this relationship will continue for as long as they remain teammates with the Jazz, which, Jefferson hopes, is for a while.
“I ain’t taught him all my moves yet,” he said.
• Thanks in part to help from Al Jefferson, Jazz center Enes Kanter is averaging nearly a double-double in six preseason games.
• Jefferson is in the final year of his contract and is part of a four-player logjam in the frontcourt, which also includes Paul Millsap and Derrick Favors.
• Jefferson said he is teaching Kanter the way Antoine Walker and Kevin McHale taught him.
Utah Jazz at Portland Trail Blazers, preseason
P Rose Garden Arena
Tipoff • Monday, 8:00 p.m.
TV • ROOT Sports
Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM
Preseason records • Utah 4-2; Portland 2-3
About the Jazz • Marvin Williams has scored in double figures five of the Jazz’s six games, including scoring 18 against the Clippers on Saturday. ... Guard Jamaal Tinsley traveled to Portland and will be a game-time decision following a wisdom tooth removal last week. ... Two games against Portland are all that remain for the Jazz before opening the regular season against Dallas on Oct. 31.
About the Blazers • Former Weber State guard Damian Lillard starts for Portland and leads the team with 16 points per game in the preseason. ... The Blazers are 2-3 in the preseason, including a 101-97 loss to Golden State on Saturday. ... Former Jazz guard Wesley Matthews scored 14 points Saturday.