The play that made Tyrone Corbin believe in Enes Kanter was an offensive foul.
At least if you ask the Jazz coach for his take.
Two years ago at a pre-draft workout in Chicago, with no one to play against the eventual third pick in the lottery, the 6-foot-6 Corbin stepped in to play defense on Kanter.
On the second possession, after he had determined Corbin was physically fit enough to absorb all of his power, Kanter made a move to the basket and knocked over Corbin.
“After the practice they told me, ‘You know he’s the head coach right?’ ” Kanter said, “and I was like, ‘Oh, [no].’ I didn’t know.”
Corbin, whose ego took even a bigger blow than his body — “I still owe him for that,” he said last week, “... I’m going to pick my chance to get him” — was enamored.
“That’s the thing I respect about who he is,” Corbin said, “is that he plays his game all the time. ... He has an identity of who he is, he’s a big, banging physical guy, and that’s always who he’s trying to play like.”
But the high expectations for the Turkish big man in his second year with the Jazz have gone largely unfulfilled.
Then 10 days ago, things began to change.
“Who was that guy?” Cavaliers forward Luke Walton asked after Cleveland beat the Jazz 104-101 on Wednesday. With Al Jefferson out with a sprained ankle, Kanter scored 17 points and added 7 rebounds. It came on the heels of back-to-back double-doubles, including a career-best 23-and-22 night against the Charlotte Bobcats on March 1.
“I’d never heard of him until we played there [in Utah on Jan. 19],” said Walton, who learned the game from one of the best centers in NBA history, his Hall of Fame father, Bill. “That kid can play. He’s a big boy.”
Now that the rest of the league has had an opportunity to catch a glimpse, it may finally be time for an honest discussion about Kanter’s potential and future with the Jazz. In the five games since his start against the Bobcats, Kanter is averaging 15.8 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, up from season averages of 7.2 points and 4.5 rebounds.
“I got experience,” Kanter said. “I just help my teammates however I can. We lost the last couple of games; it was pretty sad.”
While the Charlotte game was the one for which Kanter received the most attention, Corbin said his subsequent performances in games against Milwaukee and the Cavs may have been more impressive.
From setting hard screens to rolling the right way, Kanter has grown, Corbin says. He was in the game at the end against Milwaukee, and had a chance to win the game after rebounding Gordon Hayward’s blocked layup, but his shot missed at the buzzer.
“He was at the right spot, he caught it and just finished, he didn’t bring it down,” Corbin said. “That kind of thing is invaluable to get guys on the floor to get the experience and grow through it, especially while they’re young.”
Corbin and Jefferson agreed that the key for Kanter in the recent stretch was the confidence that he would play big minutes. That he could be patient, and didn’t have to force anything to try to make an impression.
“I think coming off the bench, sometimes young guys figure if they don’t do things right, they can get snatched out the game,” Jefferson said. “I just think that he knew he wasn’t coming out of the game and he had a swag about himself and it worked out for him.”
With the Jazz’s once-firm grip on the playoffs turning more and more into an open-handed wave goodbye, the best tonic is to look toward the future. Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson are both free agents and both returning to the Jazz almost certainly will not happen.
Kanter’s role will only increase beyond this year. During Kanter’s struggles earlier this season, it was common to hear chatter that power forward Derrick Favors had developed more rapidly, that he was more ready than Kanter to step into an enhanced role.
All the while, Kanter continued to work. He famously shed 51 pounds in the offseason and arrived at training camp with abdominal muscles that could be played in a zydeco band.
His in-game performances, Corbin said, weren’t indicative of his overall improvement.
“I see a lot more, than you see in the games, in practice,” Corbin said. “One of the great things we’re seeing from him now in the games is transferring from practice.”
So while Corbin was impressed by Kanter’s recent explosion, maybe even surprised, he was far from knocked over.
Coming up big
• In the last five games, Enes Kanter is averaging 15.8 points and 9.8 rebounds per game.
• Kanter played an enhanced role in three games in which Al Jefferson was out, notching career highs of 23 points and 22 rebounds on March 1.
• Coach Tyrone Corbin says Kanter benefited from increased role.