PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Looking back on it now, the Trail Blazers were clearly smart to pick up Enes Kanter after he was waived by the New York Knicks.
Kanter was brought aboard by Portland as insurance for the final stretch of the season, meant to back up starter Jusuf Nurkic.
Then Nurkic broke his leg and Kanter was thrust into a starting role with his new team. After Portland’s playoff-opening victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder, Damian Lillard dubbed the 6’11” center the Blazers’ MVP.
“He had a huge presence down the stretch and played a huge part in us winning this game,” Lillard said after Portland’s 104-99 victory Sunday.
Kanter finished with 20 points and a career playoff-high 18 rebounds, and was effective on defense against the likes of Russell Westbrook and Paul George.
It’s been quite a journey from New York castoff to Portland playoff hero for the seven-year NBA veteran.
Kanter, 26, was waived by the Knicks following the trade deadline. Once a starter, he fell out of the rotation altogether when New York — which finished with the worst record in the league — turned its focus to younger players.
Kanter, who came to the Knicks in 2017 from Oklahoma City in the Carmelo Anthony trade, averaged 14 points and 10.8 rebounds in 115 games over two seasons.
The Blazers picked him up just before the All-Star break, envisioning him as the second team center. But on March 25, Nurkic crashed awkwardly to the court during a game at home against the Brooklyn Nets. Nurkic, who was averaging 14.6 points and 10.4 rebounds, broke his leg in two places and was out for the season.
Nurkic is a Portland favorite — fans donated to put up a billboard honoring the “Bosnian Beast” after his injury — but Kanter has since endeared himself, too. Kanter appeared in 23 games with the Blazers in the regular season and started in eight, averaging 13.1 points and 8.6 rebounds.
“I was on the worst team in the league and I wasn’t even playing because they thought I was too old to play, and with the situation and all the drama and everything, it was frustrating because I just wanted to go out there and win,” Kanter said. “Just a couple of days ago I looked in the mirror and said I am blessed to be here, with an amazing organization and amazing teammates.”
He’s faced challenges beyond the court as well. A native of Turkey, Kanter missed a game in Toronto shortly after joining the Blazers because he felt like his life might be in danger if he left the United States. As a result of his criticism of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Kanter had been labeled a terrorist by his native country. His passport was revoked and Turkey reportedly issued a warrant for his arrest with Interpol.
His travel concerns caught the attention of U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, who has urged Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to tell Turkish leaders that any retribution against Kanter for his criticism of their government would be “unacceptable.”
Wyden, the senior senator from Oregon, personally met with Kanter before a game last month.
“Here in Rip City, we push back against bullies. We expose them, we try to make sure the world knows what kind of sleazy tactics they’re using. I told Mr. Kanter as Oregon’s senior senator and Oregon’s guy on the senate Intelligence Committee, that I’m in this fight all the way, because we’re a community that values the rights of free speech and free expression, and we don’t walk away when a bully comes in and tries to shove around one of our own,” Wyden said.
Kanter hasn’t tempered his criticism. Even after Sunday’s victory he posted to Twitter : “Great team win today! But feeling sorry for all NBA fans in Turkey as they can’t watch any #NBAPlayoffs games that I’m playing in. #DictatorErdogan government censors even the most loved games on the planet!”
The last time Kanter was in the playoffs was with Oklahoma City in 2017. He averaged just over nine minutes a game and at one point cameras appeared to catch Thunder coach Billy Donovan saying to assistant Maurice Cheeks, “Can’t play Kanter,” after the center got dunked on by the Houston Rockets.
Kanter said Sunday he’s since talked to Donovan, who told him that he never really said that. He believed him.
At this point, however, he’s certainly not dwelling on the past — either with the Thunder or the Knicks. Kanter is simply grateful the Blazers gave him another chance.
“After we got the win I was walking to the locker room and I saw the GM Neil (Olshey) and he told me ‘What a great decision, right?’” Kanter said. “And I said, ‘I appreciate it. Thank you so much.’”