Utah Jazz: Vowing maturity, Enes Kanter steps into spotlight
A wispy dark beard aside, not much appeared to have changed about Enes Kanter six months since he last appeared in a game for the Utah Jazz. Surrounded by children, Kanter fit right in, bouncing enthusiastically, smiling as he played shooting games and behaving like the big, fun-loving kid Jazz fans have come to know him as in the two years since the franchise made him the No. 3 overall pick in the NBA Draft.
But Kanter, who turned 21 in the offseason, said a summer of rehabbing from shoulder surgery and an anticipated spike in on-floor responsibility matured him even though he said the beard won't make it to Jazz training camp, which starts with Monday's media day.
No more, he vowed, will the player who once emerged from the Jazz locker room wearing a SpongeBob SquarePants T-shirt use his popular Twitter feed to conduct a casting call for the women of Salt Lake City to join him at the Cheesecake Factory, or to disseminate photos showing off his physique. Like it or not, the Jazz's most entertaining player seems to be growing up.
"When I was in my first two years," Kanter said, "I was thinking I'm not going to get old, I'm just going to be like this my whole life. I was wrong. You grow up. And the stuff I put out there, rookie mistakes."
Despite his proclamations, Kanter was practically jubilant Thursday as he and rookie center Rudy Gobert participated in a Jazz-run clinic for refugee children at the team's practice facility. Kanter addressed the media for the first time since undergoing season-ending surgery on April 10 to repair a nasty dislocated left shoulder suffered two weeks earlier in a home game against Phoenix.
Kanter said he participated in a game of five-on-five Thursday for the first time since he was injured.
"I feel a little rusty, but it's going to get there," he said.
When the regular season opens Oct. 30 against Oklahoma City, Kanter will likely step into a starting role, signaling a brand new era of Jazz basketball. The team watched seven players exit in free agency, allowing Kanter, Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward, Alec Burks and Trey Burke to all step into marquee roles.
The dislocated shoulder kept Kanter out of the Jazz's final nine games, and by the season finale in Memphis, with his team still in the hunt for a playoff spot, Kanter was a basket case. The Jazz lost, finished the season 43-39 and missed the playoffs for the second time in three seasons.
"It was pretty tough," Kanter said. "We were racing for playoff spots; I felt like I let my teammates down because I didn't go out there and play."
Kanter will have plenty of opportunity to make up for it, after Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, the two players he backed up last season, signed multi-year contracts with the Charlotte Bobcats and Atlanta Hawks, respectively. That leaves the immediate future of the frontcourt in the hands of Kanter and Favors.
Watching Jefferson leave, especially, signaled a new direction for the Jazz and a new role for Kanter, who spent the last two years as Jefferson's apprentice.
"It's so much pressure," Kanter said. "I like pressure, though. Coach is expecting a lot, fans are expecting a lot. Everybody with the Utah Jazz are expecting a lot of things . The only thing you can do is just go out there and play your 100 percent best and just work hard."
Kanter spent most of the summer in Chicago, where he makes his offseason home, only returning to Turkey for 13 days.
The Jazz offseason was strategically quiet, with the Jazz adding players who would not get in the way of plans to turn the team over to a young core that includes Kanter.
"That's what the fans have been waiting for," Kanter said, "so that's why I was like, 'I cannot do crazy stuff and crazy tweets.' "
However, Jazz officials know they can't ask for too much too quickly from their young stars, and with that, Kanter can't leave the behavior that made him a fan favorite entirely behind.
After the kids had filed out of the gym Thursday, he interrupted his declaration of maturity to make a quiet confession.
"I still watch SpongeBob," he said.
Enes Kanter returns
• The Jazz center participated in five-on-five drills Thursday for the first time since April 10 shoulder surgery.
• Kanter averaged 7.2 points and 4.3 rebounds last season, his second in the NBA
• With the departures of Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, Kanter will become a focal point of the Jazz lineup.