The Oklahoma City Thunder have never had a center with as much offensive utility as Enes Kanter. Years of Kendrick Perkins haven't exactly weighed heavy on the Thunder offense – they've been elite for a long time – but we're already seeing the possibilities unlocked by plugging in a guy like Kanter.
The early returns are exciting, even if the competition has been nothing special. Kanter scored 10 points in his Thunder debut against the Charlotte Hornets, then followed that up with 20-point and 15-point performances in routs of the Denver Nuggets and the Indiana Pacers respectively. He's shooting 18-of-31 (.581) overall, and there's a lot to like from that sample.
Pick-and-rolls and layups. If that sounds familiar, it's because Steven Adams, incumbent starting center before his early February injury, largely relies on the same offensive mélange. The meshing process may be easier for the team if the Thunder just stick Kanter into Adams' primary role as a roll man to start. Here, in full glory, is Kanter's two-game shot chart with the Thunder:
Perhaps worryingly, Kanter's track record as a roll man is shaky – in tandem with Gordon Hayward and Trey Burke this season, Kanter has ranked in the 20th percentile in points per possession.
Playing off Russell Westbrook has, unsurprisingly, proven easier thus far.
Of course, it helps that Westbrook has come out of the All-Star break on absolute fire. Credit's due where credit's due though, and Kanter's shooting touch is definitely better than Adams' – a good starting point for any roll man.
Adams ranks in the 70th percentile in roll man efficiency. That's fine, but not great from a guy rolling off Westbrook and Kevin Durant. Kanter looks better so far. On 13 possessions as the roll man, he's gone 7-for-12 from the field with a shooting foul drawn. That ranks him in the 94th percentile.
Sure, it's only been three games that Kanter's been able to strut his stuff with the Thunder. Durant has been out for both of those games, and things will change going forward. The idea of regression to the mean is a bit unsettling, given Kanter's play with the Jazz.
Still, believing in him going forward isn't all that hard to do. Kanter's a scorer through and through. The book on him when he was made the third overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft was that he should round out into a dominant low-post force. While that hasn't worked out as planned, there are skills that remain and before joining the Thunder, Kanter was being molded by first-year Jazz coach Quin Snyder into more of a pick-and-roll player.
Kanter doesn't have the explosiveness of Serge Ibaka, but he knows how to finish plays through contact. That 262-pound frame makes for a thick screen, and he's crafty with his roll, constantly changing his trajectory to the rim. The defense on this play is caught totally unprepared:
A fun twist in Kanter's development: more jumpers, including 3s (he's 13-of-41 on the season, all with the Jazz). The Thunder haven't had him stray far from the rim yet, but even for fleeting moments, you can see the possibilities emerge out of Kanter's versatility. Westbrook, well-versed in pick-and-pop reads after years with Serge Ibaka, knows by instinct what to do when the defense forces him baseline (ICE defense) with his roll man floating to midrange:
Together, Kanter and Ibaka are an intriguing combination. That the Thunder can throw two bigs with range on their shot on the floor at the same time allows for rare floor spacing environments. Scott Brooks hasn't gotten too daring with his sets yet (shocker there) as Kanter sticks to shots at the rim, though he has experimented with a "horns pick-and-roll." Still, the simple fact that Kanter can hit a 16-footer out of a pick with Ibaka spotting up elsewhere unlocks a new degree of spacing with conventional, two-big lineups.
Westbrook being Westbrook, he takes it all the way here, but against a better rim protector than Al Jefferson, Kanter becomes an effective release valve:
It's not always that defenses leave Kanter open like in the play above, and part of that is by design as Jefferson doesn't have the mobility to guard the perimeter.
To be fair though, Kanter hasn't shot well from midrange this season. He's made a lowly 29.7% of long twos from between 16 feet and the 3-point line this season, down from percentages of seasons past. There's plenty of reason to hope that his midrange efficiency trends back up over time with the Thunder, but until he proves his mettle, teams may continue to roll the dice with giving him the open shot instead of allowing an easy Westbrook drive.
Don't forget however that Kanter still has the pedigree of both a former top-3 pick and of a former offensive hub – he was a close second to Gordon Hayward in usage percentage among Jazz players this season, and that burden was much of the reason why his percentages were so low in the first place. Adams doesn't come close to having Kanter's reputation on offense, and the way defenses treat the two is hugely different.
The play above was originally a Westbrook-Kanter pick-and-roll with Ibaka spotting up from the wing. However, the unusual nature of the Kanter/Ibaka threat from the weak-side attracts enough defensive attention that Westbrook can blow by his man for an easy layup at the rim before Kanter even sets the pick.
Really, that's the best part about introducing another player with as much offensive skill as Kanter. For a team with two top-5 scorers and an elite shooting big man already, the possibilities with adding a guy that can either convert the and-one and drill a 16-footer are countless. Even NBA defenses will be stretched thin when going up against so much offensive talent. A bit too much attention diverted to Westbrook can mean an easy shot for Kanter, and vice versa.
It's only been three games that the Thunder have Kanter, and with how much he struggled in Utah, the burden of proof is on him to show that he can continue to make his looks with the Thunder. But right now, he's racking up some sweet per-minute scoring numbers, with offensive rebounds and baseline cuts joining a healthy diet of roll opportunities. It seems only a small leap of faith from here to Kanter making pick-and-rolls a totally different threat for opponents to handle.