Enes Kanter used to be the go-to guy in the Knicks locker room.
The Knicks center almost always had something to say, usually something funny and colorful. Kanter issued more one-liners last season than police in Times Square issued parking tickets. And, he seemed to be everywhere. He was featured in The New Yorker. He spoke at the Oslo Freedom Forum. He did an interview with Ben Stiller. He videoed himself taking his first subway ride and posted it on social media.
No one on the team seemed happier to be wearing a Knicks uniform, no one seemed happier to be playing in New York.
All that changed on Oct. 26 after rookie Mitchell Robinson replaced him in the Knicks lineup before a game against Golden State. Kanter no longer hangs out and chats with reporters before games. He sometimes doesn’t talk afterward. Even after an incredible performance on Monday night Kanter, formerly the most loquacious guy in the room, was strangely bland when it came to talking about his role on the team. It was almost as if he was straining not to say something he knows he shouldn’t.
“I’m just a player. Whatever they tell me to do, I’m going to go right out there and do it,” Kanter said after the Knicks' ‘116-115 double-overtime loss to the Bulls. “Whatever they give me, I’m going to go out and accept it and just play my hardest.”
His hardest was more than impressive as he scored 23 points, grabbed 24 rebounds and had seven assists in 41 minutes of play. Kanter played so hard that coach David Fizdale had him attempt a three-pointer with .7 seconds left at the end of the first overtime.
Kanter was just the second player in NBA history to score 20 points, grab 20 rebounds and record five-plus assists off the bench. The other? Charles Barkley. Robinson, by contrast, was 0-for-2 in 11 minutes of play.
“He played great,” Fizdale said of Kanter. “Mitchell didn’t have it tonight, so I said let’s roll with Enes. He’s really playing a great game. It was a coach’s decision. His effort and his will tonight was fantastic.”
Kanter’s performance followed an 18-point, 14-rebound performance in Washington Sunday night.
Even as well as Kanter has been playing, it’s hard to take issue with Fizdale’s move. Kanter, whose contract is up at the end of this season, is not the future of this team as the Knicks likely will have to renounce him to sign a max player. Fizdale was hired to figure out what young talent the Knicks need to keep, and a 26-year-old who is going to be a free agent at the end of this season isn’t a part of that plan.
The Knicks, who lost to a really bad Bulls team, are headed toward the lottery. It’s in the best interest of the team that Fizdale uses the floor time to develop his young players like Robinson and Frank Ntilikina.
Fizdale knows it can’t be easy for Kanter to take on this new role.
“It’s definitely been an adjustment for him,” Fizdale said before the game..“I think in his heart of hearts he had his heart set on starting. That’s a good thing that he wanted that. But I think for our team and our future and what we’re trying to do the way we got it right now I think is the right way to go.
“I thought he played great last game. I thought he gave us a heck of a game. And his attitude with the team through all of this has been fantastic. So, I just want him to keep settling into that role right now. Quite honestly if we keep going this route, he’s a guy that with the numbers he’s going to get…..he’s going to have his hat in the Sixth Man of the Year Award. I think that’s a prestigious thing to be a part of. He’s been great with us, he’s been great with the guys. He’s been playing hard as heck.”
Kanter said he doesn’t think about awards like the sixth man.
“I don’t worry about trophies. We promised this city the playoffs, so if I can go out there and make my teammates better whenever I’m out there — first unit, second unit, third unit, I’m just trying to make them better.”