On court at last, Kanter shining bright
Here, at EuroBasket in Lithuania, these fans expect a great deal from a team that rolled all the way to the world championship final last summer on home soil before falling to Team USA. Such expectations might be a burden for your average 19-year-old. But for the youngest player on the court, this is an occasion to savor rather than to be scared of.
"This was my first game in a EuroBasket," Kanter said, smiling after the Turks rolled past outsider Portugal 79-56 in their opening game of the tournament. "I was really excited. I wanted to just go out and show myself, show everybody what I could do."
It was, remarkably, the first meaningful game in well more than a year for Kanter, who was tabbed by the Utah Jazz with the third pick in this year's NBA draft. He was ruled ineligible to play for the University of Kentucky last fall amid claims his amateur status had been invalidated due to payments received from Turkish club Fenerbahce.
He stayed on in Lexington. "It was difficult," he said. "I just had to not give up. Coach [John] Calipari was really good. So were my teammates. They said: 'You have to think ahead.' You have to go hard in every practice because those are your games. And if you work hard, then you will benefit."
Two summers ago, Kanter was the MVP of the European under-18 championships, averaging 18.6 points and 16.4 rebounds per game and dominating his peers. Bringing him into the senior fold this summer, Turkish coach Orhun Ene wasn't entirely sure what to expect. With Cleveland Cavaliers center Semih Erden out with an injury, Ene had a vacancy, and Kanter, whom he passed on last summer, was willing to make his case for inclusion on the country's final 12-man roster for EuroBasket.
"Throughout our warm-up games, he improved a lot," Ene said. Enough to earn himself a significant role. "It's difficult for players at the NBA level sometimes to adapt to European tournaments because European basketball is different. But he's understood what game he should play."
Repaying his coach's faith, Kanter gave the Jazz a taste of what might be coming soon against the Portuguese, scoring a team-high 14 points on 7-of-9 shooting while displaying real composure amid a veteran squad. "Right now, I feel like I'm still trying to get in game shape," he said.
But there were no obvious signs of rust. It was a positive first impression.
"He's had a difficult year in the USA," said Ene, whose side likely will duel with Spain and Lithuania for first place in their group. "He's still a kid. But he has a great ambition. He has great talent. And he has been pushing himself since the beginning of our preparation."
It has helped, Kanter said, to gain insights from seasoned veterans such as Magic swingman Hedo Turkoglu and Bucks forward Ersan Ilyasova. Coming off a year without game competition, some adjustments were required to regain that lost momentum. This summer, in reality, is an alternative rookie season.
"If you try to play like Hedo or the other elder players, it helps," he said. "I'm young. I'm just 19. That's giving me a big boost. I was nervous coming in here. It was my first game. I was very excited but they calmed me down and told me to just go out and play my own game."
It looks to be in good shape. Turkey is here chasing one of the two direct entries into next year's Olympic Games in London. It is one of Kanter's other dreams to be there. His nightmare? To spend another year kicking up his heels, waiting for the opportunity to test himself in the heat of battle.
Ideally, the necessary deals will be done and he can attempt a seamless transition from Lithuania to Utah.
"I couldn't play NCAA. That frustrated me," he said. "Right now, there's a NBA lockout, so I don't even know when I'll be able to play there. So it helps that I have the national team to focus on. It's a good way to get back my rhythm and to see where I am."
Kanter could, if he so chooses, stay on in Europe and sign a deal until the lockout is resolved.
"After the European championship, I'll talk to my agent and see what happens," he said.
His place on the court restored, he has no desire to rejoin the spectators looking on.
Mark Woods is a freelance writer based in Edinburgh whose work appears regularly in British publications.