NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Nearly 1,000 miles apart, in vastly different situations, brothers Enes and Kerem Kanter were more or less saying the same thing.
It was just Friday that Enes, the center for the woe-begotten Knicks, said he wasn’t interesting in tanking. He wasn’t interested in development. At the NBA level, he was interested in winning. It was the only thing that made sense to him, and the Knicks paid their players a whole lot of money to do just that.
Kerem, here in Nashville, and paid nothing at all, said he joined Xavier to be exactly in this position. The graduate transfer student, in his final year of eligibility, was recruited by 41 schools when he left Wisconsin-Green Bay at the end of last season, but immediately landed on the Musketeers after his visit. He had made the NCAA Tournament once, for one game in 2016, and decided he’d very much like to stay a little longer, thank you very much.
The only thing he was interested in was . . . well, you know.
“This is why I came to Xavier,” he said. “I wanted to play in the postseason and play at a high level. And I love the fact that we’re a 1 seed.”
Of course, this probably isn’t only a case of strong genetics. All high-caliber athletes want to win. But Enes and Kerem, while they certainly have their differences, share more similarities than a haircut and a side profile. There’s the innate desire to put themselves up against the best possible competition. There’s the childhood they shared in Turkey, and the fact that they both emigrated to the United States to play basketball in high school. Enes, now 25, landed at California’s Stoneridge Prep, and Kerem, 22, went to Florida’s IMG Academy.
And then there’s their very Kanter-esque ability to make a significant impact.
On Friday, Kerem went 11-for-15 from the field with 24 points and five rebounds against Texas Southern, finessing the Tigers 7-2 big man, Trayvon Reed (at a mere 6-10, the younger Kanter is an inch shorter than his brother). And on Sunday, it doesn’t get easier at all, when Kerem will have to help clamp down on Florida State’s Jean-Marc Koumadje, a cool 7-4, and power forward Phil Cofer (6-8, and a threat from pretty much anywhere on the court).
“Hopefully, I can have a good game like I did yesterday,” Kerem said. “I’m not going to go out there and try to force shots. I’m going to try to stick to the game plan and do whatever my coach asks me to do.”
It’s still not certain if Kerem’s future takes him to the NBA. The forward withdrew from the NBA Draft last year, and there are parts of his game that still need development. But his season with Wisconsin-Green Bay proved his versatility in the post. He was their leading rebounder (6.3 per game) and second-leading scorer, and he didn’t slow down when he joined Xavier.
He averaged 10.8 points this year, with 4.5 rebounds, and his shooting percentage is up to 58.3, compared to last year’s 50.7. He became a starter in December, when coach Chris Mack changed the lineup to start him and Naji Marshall (who’s nursing a back injury). Beginning in January, up until Friday’s game, he’s averaged 13 points over 18 games.
“I haven’t had an experience like this before,” Kerem said Saturday, with Xavier sitting now as a favorite in this tournament that has seen so many favorites fall. “With this team, I think we’re going to be really successful. [We’re] a really experienced, older team, so hopefully, we can go as far as we can.”
After all, isn’t that all that matters?