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SportsColumnistsSteve Popper

Enes Kanter the center of much turmoil

Enes Kanter #00 of the New York Knicks

Enes Kanter #00 of the New York Knicks reacts during the second half against the Brooklyn Nets at Madison Square Garden on Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018 in New York City. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

LONDON — While the Knicks were an ocean away and Enes Kanter was left home alone in New York, he still was the most visible player on the roster -- appearing in sit-down interviews on CNN, PBS and BBC, penning an op-ed in The Washington Post and visiting with a handful of senators and congressmen.

Shortly after the rest of the team arrived in London while Kanter opted to remain home in fear of retribution from Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a story surfaced that Istanbul’s state prosecutor is trying to have an Interpol red notice placed on Kanter, seeking to have him arrested and extradited as a terrorist.

When the Knicks take to the practice court, Kanter will be reunited with his teammates, at least for now. The Knicks and the NBA are uncertain of just how serious the political threats are for Kanter, unable to ascertain whether an alert had actually been sought. As one Turkish blogger at the London game noted, Kanter’s fears of someone reaching out to attack him in England may be real, but that threat isn’t alleviated in the United States.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver expressed his support for Kanter during his news conference Thursday, noting, “I absolutely understand his reasoning why he elected not to come. Certainly there was never a suggestion from the league that he was not welcome to come on this trip. But we live in a world where these are really significant issues that he is dealing with, and I recognize that for the NBA, that by virtue of the fact that we’re a global business, we have to pay a lot of attention to these issues as well.

“I will say there’s nothing more important to me as the commissioner of the league than the security and the safety of our players. So we take very seriously the threats that he’s received, even if it’s just people on social media. And again, I support Enes as a player in this league, and I support the platform that our players have to speak out on issues that are important to them.”

It provides an awkward backdrop for what may feel like a much less serious issue -- what the Knicks are going to do with Kanter. Before his decision to stay in the United States was announced, efforts already were being put in place to remove him from the Knicks' roster. Kanter is unsatisfied with his reduced role on the struggling team and the Knicks are willing to find a way out for him.

ESPN reported last week that a deal was being discussed that could send Kanter to the Sacramento Kings in exchange for Zach Randolph, who has not played a minute this season, in an exchange of expiring contracts. But one NBA source said the Kings' front office is not interested in Kanter, instead seeking to inquire about some of the other players on the roster.

Another NBA source indicated that Kanter’s value is a tricky one because his skill set is more suited to a style of play that is rarely utilized in the NBA these days. He is an old-school center -- a gifted offensive rebounder and scorer around the rim who lacks the perimeter skills to keep up with quicker players on both ends of the floor. His expiring contract is the value he holds for the Knicks. It helps his trade prospects, too, as he could be a rental for a contending team in seek of interior help.

The image-conscious Knicks, trying to shed the dysfunctional reputation built up over the last two decades, have said all the right things about Kanter, expressing support for him in his political fight, and the team and the NBA have indicated that there is no effort being made to have him tone down his rhetoric. It remains to be seen whether the controversies surrounding Kanter have harmed the team's efforts to find a taker for him, but the Feb. 7 trade deadline looms as a point when an answer will become clear.

Player of interest

One player who has drawn interest in trade inquiries is rookie center Mitchell Robinson, who made his return to the lineup Thursday after missing more than a month with a sprained ankle and a strained groin. 

“We look different with him,” Knicks coach David Fizdale said. “If you’re an avid fan watching the game, you see a huge difference in our athleticism. Is he screwing up stuff? Of course. Especially because he’s missed so much time. His timing is off and conditioning was a factor. But all that said, I thought he had a really good impact on this game.”

Next steps

While the Knicks' 10-34 record has little positives, they are positioning themselves near the top of the NBA Draft lottery. The teams with the three worst records will have an equal chance at the top pick, and the Knicks are battling -- maybe not the right word -- with the Bulls, Cavaliers and Suns for worst record.

Remaining near the bottom may be a must. According to one NBA executive, the coming draft has been heavily hyped because of the presence of Zion Williamson and his fellow Duke freshman stars, as well as rising stars such as Murray State’s Ja Morant. But the executive said this draft is very weak after the top five picks. 

The real game

While the All-Star Game has lost some luster as an actual game, with defense being abandoned and teams scoring at a video game pace, there is one interesting twist attached to the game this season. Silver confirmed that the All-Star Draft, in which the two sides are chosen up, will be televised.

“It was something we worked out with our Players Association,” Silver said. “We thought the first year out, let’s make sure that we pull it off in a way that works and that the players are comfortable with the process. They were, and this year the All-Star Draft will be televised.”


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