The Portland Trail Blazers added Enes Kanter in February to repair the bench unit’s offense, but his defensive struggles came as additional baggage. Kanter’s inability to defend in space, which opponents can easily expose with pick and rolls, make him potentially unplayable in the playoffs.
Already during the regular season, his numbers support the concerns. In 14 games with the team, his defensive rating is 111.2, the worst out of Portland’s rotation players. Besides rebounding at a rate on par with Jusuf Nurkic, Kanter fails to strengthen that end of the floor.
However, Zach Collins might be the antidote to Kanter’s shortcomings.
Five five-man units that include Enes Kanter have logged more than 16 minutes together. Four of these lineups run small with Jake Layman at the four, and those four have an average net rating of -23.8 despite three featuring Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum.
The fifth lineup deploys Collins at the power forward, with Rodney Hood and Layman as the wings and Seth Curry as the ball handler. That lineup, in 17 minutes, has a net rating of 46.3 and a remarkably low defensive rating of 94.3.
Following Portland’s win over the Indiana Pacers, Terry Stotts acknowledged the positive pairing of Kanter and Collins. “If you look at lineups, Zach and Enes have played well together,” Stotts said. “It gets Zach a little bit more on the perimeter than I’d like...but [it gives us] rebounding inside, some length inside.”
No matter who joins the duo, Kanter’s numbers markedly improve with Collins on the floor; together, they post a defensive rating of 103.4, a 7.8-point betterment. The offense upgrades as well: Kanter alone has an offensive rating of 102.8, but he and Collins have a rating of 118.8.
Like Stotts said, Kanter’s presence in the paint forces Collins to play on the perimeter more. The second-year big man attempts 17.1 above-the-break threes per 100 possessions with Kanter on the court compared to 7.9 without. Collins doesn’t shoot the three well, though. He’s a career 30.6% shooter from deep on 1.6 attempts per game.
To not clog the paint but also avoid too many outside attempts, Collins floats along the baseline about 12 to 15 feet from the basket. He therefore shoots more mid-range jumpers alongside Kanter, a shot he also doesn’t hit consistently.
But the duo’s offensive rating doesn’t improve by relying on Collins to score. Kanter’s presence in the post attracts defenders and creates shots for Collins when his defender goes to help. Kanter isn’t the best passer, but even an occasional kick out gets the ball moving around the perimeter until it finds Collins in a scoring position.
In addition to post-ups, Kanter runs the pick and roll for the bench unit. He sets stronger screens than the thin-framed Collins, finishes at a similar rate as the younger big man, and draws more shooting fouls.
Pick and rolls open up the possibility of high-low play. Portland utilizes high-low action on its baseline inbounds plays but can do so when the ball handler finds Kanter rolling to the hoop as well. After a screen is set, Collins’ defender helps on Kanter at the top of the key and Collins cuts to the hoop for an easy catch and score.
On this play, Collins found himself too far from the basket for Kanter to find on a cut for an uncontested finish. His defender immediately helped on a rolling Kanter and freed him up below the hoop, though.
Enes Kanter struggles to defend in space. He often matches up against an opposing big man who sets the screens for a pick and roll. There are two outcomes of Kanter guarding the roll man: he comes out to the perimeter and the ball handler blows by him or finds the roll man, or he stays too far back and concedes an uncontested three-pointer or mid-range jumper (depending on if the Blazers guard went over or under the screen).
A young and nimble Zach Collins, on the other hand, defends well in space. If the ball handler does get to the rim, Collins can recover better than Kanter for a potential chase down block. He can also force the guard to pause and allow his teammate to fight through the screen and re-front his man.
Kanter understands his defensive shortcomings and switches with Collins when the Pacers prepare to run a pick and roll.
With Collins on the court, Portland can hide Kanter defensively; he doesn’t have to guard the roll man where he can be exposed.
Collins also protects the rim on penetrations that don’t result from a pick and roll. Kanter lacks the defensive awareness of when to leave his man and contest the shot. His younger teammate maybe does so too much, but it results in blocks or fouls more often than an easy layups.
Ultimately, Zach Collins and Enes Kanter’s partnership will be short-lived with the Turkish big man heading to free agency this summer. The experience Collins can gather from his varying duties alongside Kanter could pay significant dividends next season. Depending how free agency unfolds, the former Gonzaga standout could be thrust into the starting lineup alongside Jusuf Nurkic. Until that time comes, any improvements Collins makes over the coming weeks could influence the Blazers’ thought process once the season concludes.