Only in the NBA, in which franchises are built on the shoulders of 19-year-old kids loaded with potential and promise, could Enes Kanter be considered a grizzled veteran. But at 26 years old, he is an elder statesman in the Knicks’ locker room.
That means playing mentor to 20-year-old Mitchell Robinson, who skipped to the NBA directly from high school; serving as on-court protector for 20-year-old Frank Ntilikina when the slender French point guard finds himself going nose-to-nose with LeBron James, and providing guidance to 19-year-old Knicks lottery pick Kevin Knox.
And between the stewardship of the locker room, Kanter also has been providing a semblance of ready-made performances on a team building for some distant future. While the Knicks have managed to win all three of their preseason games so far, Kanter has been the most stable force on the floor. After a brief opening night appearance Monday, he put up 22 points and 20 rebounds in Brooklyn on Wednesday and added 20 points and 15 rebounds against the Pelicans on Friday.
“I understand it’s the preseason, but it’s still good,” Kanter said. “Seeing guys out there having fun, playing hard, playing smart, sharing the ball, making each other better, of course it’s good because this is going to translate to the regular season. Everybody says it’s the preseason, it don’t count, but we’re getting better. That’s the most important thing.
“I mean, for us right now, I understand it’s the preseason. We take every game serious. We want to go out there and just win every game and get better. That’s what the coach said. He said I want you guys to get better 1 percent every day. And that’s what we’re trying to do. All the guys in the locker room are sharing the ball, trying to make each other better and we’re having fun. That’s the most important thing.”
While 3-0 may mean nothing in the long run, Knicks coach David Fizdale hopes the lessons learned from the preseason games, along with the push provided by veterans such as Kanter and Lance Thomas, will get the younger players on the right track sooner rather than later.
“Absolutely. Heck, yeah. I want to win everything,” Fizdale said. “I want to win every game. These guys, we’re building habits right now. Winning is a habit. I don’t care, any time we step on that court, if they decide to play checkers together, pool, Ping-Pong, I want them competing. And I want them competing to win. We have to get that really deep rooted into who we are. As long as there’s time on the clock, we’re trying to win the game. I feel like our kids are really committed and not taking this for granted and not being cool about this or any of that. They’re just coming out and really competing, trying to be a good team.”
Kanter’s future in New York is uncertain. He returned to the team on a one-year deal after putting up 14.1 points and 11.0 rebounds per game last season, keeping the cap space flexible. But he has become the most visible face of the team in the city, regularly hopping on subways and hanging out with fans in Times Square. With the free- agent chase for next season on the team’s plans, it could be difficult to bring him back, but for now, he’s content with going on eight seasons of experience to serve as a tutor.
“Of course,” he said. “I’m 26, but [with] all the guys out there, I feel old because we have guys like 19, 20, 21. For me, I’m just going out there and trying to lead because we have a lot of young guys. So I just need to go out there and try to help them out.”