Enes Kanter Should Be Early Favorite for 6th Man Award


When Enes Kanter re-signed with the Oklahoma City Thunder this past summer, much of the criticism on the deal was directed at what the young center can’t do. His defensive struggles, while possibly overstated given his youth and relative lack of experience, are well documented. But for all the blowback at signing a deal worth $70 million, there’s no denying what Kanter can do: score in nearly every way imaginable.

Given that Kanter is decidedly a one-way player – at least for now – perhaps it’s best that he embrace the role as a gifted scorer and, in so doing, become a top candidate for the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year.

The Thunder are still in the midst of their preseason schedule with two games remaining. And, while Kanter did miss the team’s most recent loss to the Grizzlies, he’s already averaging 14.6 points and 8 rebounds in just 22 minutes per game. Per 36 minutes, those averages become even more impressive: 23.9 points and 13 rebounds.

In a preseason win over Dallas, the center was at his most impressive, so much so that teammate Kevin Durant took notice of Kanter’s gaudy stat line (as per The Oklahoman):

"“It was one of those quiet 17 and 11s. You don’t see it until you look at the stat sheet. He’s a force down there. You can say what you want about him, but you can book him for that.”"

If Kanter can be counted on for that type of regular production (as Durant seems to expect), then it’s a fair assumption that he’ll certainly be considered among the top reserves in the league.

At issue is how the award has been given out during its 33-year history. Over that span, the award has been given out only five times to players that exclusively played just the power forward or center position: Kevin McHale (1984, 1985), Bill Walton (1986), Roy Tarpley (1988) and Cliff Robinson (1993). Taken a step further, just Walton and Tarpley played the bulk of their award-winning campaigns at center.

Otherwise, the NBA’s top Sixth Man has usually been a guard or small forward. It’s not hard to see why, when considering the history of the game itself. Quite simply, if you played center and were skilled enough to produce, chances are you’d start; you were simply too rare and valued a commodity to keep stashed on the bench. Walton’s case was a rare one where he was a gifted passer and skilled player whose career had been derailed by constant injury. Tarpley won the award in just his second year as a pro, and had hardly the time to secure a starting position before addiction issues ruined a once-promising career.

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The award has become virtually synonymous with a offensive boost off the bench – generally easier to achieve as a slick-passing guard or long-range shooting threat – and defensive woes have been largely overlooked. A number of modern-day players hardly known for their defensive prowess have won it, including Leandro Barbosa, J.R. Smith, Lou Williams and, perhaps most notably (and painfully, for OKC fans) James Harden, who scored his way to the prize in 2012.

Kanter’s production seems tailor-made for this type of award. Should head coach Billy Donovan continue to start Steven Adams at center, Kanter would come off the bench when Adams’ typically rough play leads to a quick foul or two.

He’ll play alongside plus defenders like Durant and Serge Ibaka, all of which will somewhat mitigate Kanter’s defensive lapses. And, of course, there’s still hope that Kanter will improve as a defender.

Moreover, he’ll be counted on to score in bunches as he’s more than capable of doing. While his loudest critics may still think he’ll never live up to his contractual worth, give the Thunder credit for maximizing what Kanter can do at an elite – and possibly award-winning – level.

Next: Westbrook's Low-Post Game Could Lead OKC to a Title

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