It’s a tradition in Lexington, Ky., that the town shuts down on the day the Kentucky Wildcats play their first NCAA tournament game. The streets should be all but bare when the Wildcats face Princeton on Thursday, and among the locals watching will be a 6-foot-10 freshman who has as much of a rooting interest in the game as the most fervent of bluebloods.
Of course, if it were up to Enes Kanter, he’d be helping the Wildcats on the court, not sitting in front of a TV.
“I cry when I watch the games,” Kanter told Yahoo! Sports. “When I watch them play I’m sad because I cannot help my teammates. When I see them losing, it’s frustrating.”
Kanter was part of the Wildcats’ heralded 2010 recruiting class and Rivals.com’s No. 3-rated prospect overall, trailing only Kansas’ Josh Selby and North Carolina’s Harrison Barnes. The NCAA, however, ruled him ineligible after saying he had accepted more than $33,000 in impermissible benefits from a professional club team in his native Turkey.
So instead of preparing for the NCAA tournament with his Kentucky teammates, Kanter has been prepping for the NBA draft, where he’s projected to be taken among the top seven picks. Several NBA scouts think the 18-year-old center will become an impact player in the league.
“Where he ultimately lands depends on what underclassmen come out,” one NBA scout told Yahoo! Sports. “But he’s definitely top seven at worst. He’s just so skilled offensively. He has a decent midrange game and can definitely finish in the paint. He has good footwork, runs the floor well and is very agile for his size.
“From what the international scouts say, he’s the top big man coming out. He’s like a taller Al Horford. He can pick and pop, and score inside. He can pretty much fit into any system for any team that needs a center doesn’t matter if they’re a half-court or running team.”
Scouts began tracking Kanter when as a 16-year-old he started playing for the Turkish club team, Fenerbahce. Greek powerhouse Olympiakos reportedly soon offered him a two-year, $4 million deal while Fenerbahce offered a five-year, $6 million contract. Kanter turned down both offers to move to California and attend Simi Valley Stoneridge Prep. He initially committed to play for Washington before signing with Kentucky.
Kanter never played an official game for the Wildcats. The New York Times reported in September that Fenerbache had given Kanter more than $100,000 over three years for housing, food and pocket money. Two months later, the NCAA ruled him ineligible. While the NCAA allows athletes to compete on pro teams prior to enrolling in college, they are not allowed to garner anything more than compensation for “actual and necessary expenses” like lodging and transportation to and from practice. Kentucky unsuccessfully appealed the decision.
“They’re just trying to do their job, but I think they’re wrong,” said Kanter, who claims he didn’t know how much money Fenerbache had given his father. “I didn’t want to be a professional. That’s why I came here.
“[International players] should come over here because basketball, education and everything is two times better. But after they heard about me they’re going to be scared and say, ‘Enes could not play so maybe we can’t play.’ ”
Kanter’s lawyer, Timothy Epstein, disputed the NCAA ruling for several reasons, claiming the money Kanter was allowed to receive for rent was incorrectly based off the average for the entire country of Turkey instead of solely the city of Istanbul; Kanter’s family wasn’t allowed to claim educational expenses like money used to pay for a computer and tutors; and the NCAA looked only at the final year of the arrangement in which Epstein says some of the expenses paid by the club were for deficiencies from two years prior.
The investigation figures to have little bearing on where Kanter is taken in the NBA draft. He impressed scouts in last year’s Hoop Summit, which matches a team of the top American high school seniors against the top young international prospects. Often playing against Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger, Kanter brok Dirk Nowitzki’s international scoring record with 34 points while grabbing 12 rebounds in just 24 minutes. And he was playing with a sore back.
After the NCAA ruled Kanter ineligible, Kentucky made him an undergraduate assistant coach. He has remained on scholarship and attends classes. To develop his game, he works out with Kentucky assistant coach and former NBA player Kenny Payne before and after practices when the team is home.
Kanter plans on entering the draft and would prefer not to play overseas even if the NBA stages a lockout. He is scheduled to go to Chicago after the school year to work with renowned trainer Tim Grover and he also expects to play again in the Hoop Summit on April 9 in Portland, Ore.
One NBA general manager didn’t think Kanter’s layoff would hurt his draft stock.
“You end up studying him in camps and group workouts,” the GM said. “It’s hard to do an evaluation on any player that is 18 or 19 whether they play or don’t play. You’re looking at potential.”
And when Kanter’s name is called on the night of the draft?
“After everything,” he said, “my eyes will probably be watering.”