By Randy Renner
Thunder center Enes Kanter has heard what folks have been saying about him and he's more than ready to change the narrative.
"People like to say that I'm just a one-way player, just offense but I really want to work on my defense and try to be a two-way player," Kanter said after Wednesday's practice. "It doesn't just help me it helps us get more wins."
Kanter's scoring and rebounding were outstanding last season after he joined the Thunder, averaging 18.7 points on 56.6 percent shooting (the best of his career) while pulling down 11.0 rebounds a game. But he tended to give up as many points as he scored and some analytics showed him to be among the worst defensive centers in the NBA over the last 30 years.
To be fair Kanter worked in a completely different system in Utah and he didn't have near the skilled players around him in Salt Lake City that he does with the Thunder. He also had to deal with constant lineup shuffles after his trade to OKC because of all the Thunder injuries.
"When we lost Serge (Ibaka) for that month and a half or whatever we lost one of our best defensive guys so that really hurt us."
Hurt Kanter in particular because Ibaka was able to make up for a bad move by his new teammate with a block or by forcing an opponent into altering a shot. Without Ibaka to swat away the mistakes Kanter made he became more exposed.
Now, Ibaka is healthy again and in perhaps the best shape of his life (which is saying something). Kanter returned to Oklahoma City in better shape too. He's dropped about 20 pounds and believes his footwork and leg strength has improved.
"I was really focused on my weight and my defense. I was mainly working on my legs because with defense the most important thing is the legs. Leg strength, leg movement, lateral stance and stuff. So we focused on that."
Kanter has always been gifted with great offensive ability, so much so that defense was too often overlooked. He also has a deft touch around the basket and he really took advantage of that after being traded.
While in Utah last season 45.2 percent of his shots were within three feet of the basket. After being traded to the Thunder that percentage skyrocketed to 59.0 percent and he made 65.7 percent of those shots. His accuracy on mid-range jumpers (10-16 feet) also ballooned, going from just 36.0 percent with the Jazz to 48.5 percent with the Thunder.
Thunder head coach Billy Donovan believes the new system he and his coaches are installing will help Kanter and just spending more time around front court teammates who are are focused on defense, like Ibaka, Nick Collison and Steven Adams will help too.
"My teammates are really trying to help me out and my coaches too. We're really focused on the defense right now and just trying to get it done."
With Kanter's offensive skills and the team around him he doesn't even have to become an average defender, just provide some resistance and keep grabbing those rebounds.
Fortunately, Kanter's goals are set much higher than that.
Donovan Pleased With Practice Progress
After three practice sessions the first question reporters asked Billy Donovan on Wednesday was how things are going with the installation of the new offense and defense and he seemed pleased.
"It's been going well," he said. "They've got a really high capacity to pick up things and they've really done an outstanding job in that area. It's been encouraging to see them pick it up the way they have."
This isn't just a re-tooling of what the Thunder had done before it's more like a total rebuild but most of the concepts and movements are things, especially veteran players have come across before.
"From that standpoint I don't think they're looking at it and saying, 'hey this is totally foreign to me' at all."
Donovan and his coaches have been trying to get as much in as possible and with the players showing the ability to pick things up and understand them quickly, that process is moving right along.
"My feeling was to really get a lot in and be able to play a game by tomorrow, I'm not saying that we would do anything well but to at least have the shell and the concepts where there's underneath outta bounds, there's side outta bounds, there's half court offenses, our defensive system is in, pick-and-roll coverages those kinda things."
Thunder fans remember that at times over the last few seasons the Thunder have struggled with side out-of-bounds plays, especially in the closing seconds of a half and they'd become predictable and at times sluggish in the half court.
It will be fascinating to begin to see some of those changes. The Thunder's first pre-season game is next week at Minnesota.