This week, Enes Kanter, in response to being omitted from a list of Turkish NBA players, declared that he is the best Turkish basketball player ever. Mehmet Okur quickly took the time to tweet disapproval, saying that “this is just funny,” with an laughing emoji, meant to indicate that Memo was clearly better than Kanter. So, we have a bona fide issue: who is the best Turkish basketball player ever? Let’s break it down:
First, let’s remember the guys with no credible claim but, by virtue of a few NBA minutes, should be considered briefly before we dismiss them…
-Random Guys Mostly Named Furkan: Furkan Korkmaz is a young shooter for the Sixers. He had some moments in the Summer League but who knows if he’ll ever stick. Furkan Aldemir played a half season as a backup big forward/center for the Sixers in 2014-15 during one of “The Process” years. His abbreviated stats weren’t terrible but he has since returned to Europe. Ced Osman has played decently for Cleveland so far. Finally, Semi Erden is a plodding center who knocked around with the Celtics and Cavs in 2010-11 and 2011-12. He is 32 and is playing in Europe now.
-Mirsad Turkcan: The first Turkish NBA player. He was actually born in then-Yugoslavia and made a mark as a hustling small forward for Efes Pilsen in the mid-1990s. The Knicks signed him for the 1999-00 season. Turkcan barely got off the bench but made news because he somehow befriended the usually reticent Patrick Ewing. The Knicks waived him in February 2000 and he played a bit role for the Bucks for the rest of the season before returning to Europe and playing well until he retired in 2012.
-Ibo Kutluay: Kutluay had a moment of fame playing well in international competition in the early 2000s, including a game where he shot well against Team USA. A few years later, the Sonics signed Kutluay as a shooting guard. Kutluay was already 30 years old at the time and Seattle wasn’t the best team for him, given that they were stocked with Ray Allen and Flip Murray. At the time, a young Kevin Pelton reported that “Kutluay will come to camp as the team’s fourth or fifth guard, though, his eventual role will be determined by how well he performs on the court.” Well, Ibo didn’t get much court time at all. He played 12 minutes in five games and missed the one shot he took before being cut.
-Omer Asik: Asik’s eight-year NBA career is apparently over (he is unsigned at the moment). For a few years, he was a decent big plodding center. He slowed down very quickly, just around the time the NBA needed centers to be more mobile. Asik had a bona fide NBA career but would’ve been a much more valuable player in the 1990s than in the 2010s. Bad timing.
-Enes Kanter: Of all Turkish NBA players, Kanter is the only lottery pick so far. His career is still young but he is a highly efficient low post guy and rebounder with, at times, dubious defense (though he has improved greatly on that end). It’s not clear yet how his good he can be but he does have an Al Jefferson/Armen Gilliam vibe to him (I don’t mean that as an insult). Kanter was technically born in Switzerland but comes from a Turkish family.
-Mehmet Okur: Okur was a second-round pick of Detroit back in 2001 and was a useful shooter off the bench for the tough early 2000s Pistons. After two seasons in Detroit, Okur signed a big deal with the Jazz and had a nice six-year run, where he maxed out at 18 ppg and 9.1 rpg in 2005-06 and even made the All-Star game in 2006-07. Injuries ended his career by age-32.
-Hedo Turkoglu: Turkoglu was drafted 16th in 2000 by the Kings and he was a decent bench player for the Chris Webber squad before moving over to the Spurs in 2003-04. In the summer of 2004, the Magic gave Hedo a long term deal to play small forward for the Magic. Turkoglu spent about five years as a useful swing forward and even put up 19.5 ppg 5.7 rpg, and 5.0 apg in 2007-08. Turkoglu never made an All-Star game but leads Turkish players in NBA games played and points scored by quite a margin.
-Ersan Ilyasova: Hard to believe it but Ilyasova has been in the NBA since 2006-07 when he was 19 (he did spend two years in Spain early on in his career). Ilyasova has never been a full-time starter (he has never broken 30 mpg in a season) but he has been useful for years. He was never as quite as good as Kanter, Okur, or Turkoglu, but Ilyasova at least has longevity on his side. This earns him some consideration in the “contender” bracket.
The Erdogan Factor
It has nothing to do with who is best player but Turkish domestic politics have spilled over hotly into the NBA. Turkey has been ruled by President Recep Erdogan, who is considered either hero or autocrat by segments of the country (and world). Kanter is vocally anti-Erdogan. In fact, in 2015, he sub-tweeted chastisements under a photo of Erdogan posing with Turkcan and Turkoglu.
A year later, Turkoglu called Kanter a traitor. More recently, Erdogan put out a warrant for Kanter’s arrest for insulting the president in tweets. Erdogan wants to jail Kanter for four years for this behavior. Kanter now is a dissident and cannot return to Turkey. In fact, in 2017, Turkey cancelled Kanter’s passport while Kanter was travelling, creating a possibility that he would’ve been deported from Romania (where he was held up) back to Turkey. The NBPA and DHS helped broker a deal to get Kanter back to the US.
Last season, Ilyasova fouled Kanter hard during a game, raising speculation that Ilyasova was sending a non-basketball message. Kanter dismissed this train of thought, telling reporters that Ilyasova is his “homeboy” and that “He didn’t do it on purpose. I played with him on the national team. I’m sure a lot of Turks will be happy. Go on social media, a lot of Turks will be happy he did that.”
Even this latest debate about how good Kanter is somewhat related to this dispute. The NBA had issued promotional materials of Turkish NBA players that listed Osman, Ilyasova, and Korkmaz but left out Kanter. Kanter complained, saying he is the best Turkish player ever, and blaming Erdogan for the NBA’s reticence to feature Kanter.
Okur has not been particularly vocal recently but in 2013, he publicly protested Erdogan’s crackdown on free speech. It does not appear that Okur’s objections with Kanter’s pronouncement about who is best have anything to do with politics.
Breaking Down the Stats
The subtext of the debate about the best Turkish NBA player is interesting but, ultimately, irrelevant to the actual question. So, let’s look at the actual stats of the real contenders:
Kanter: 541 games, 22.2 mpg, 11.8 pg, 7.5 rpg, 0.8 apg, 36.3 WS, .145 WS/48, -1.5 BPM, 1.5 VORP
Okur: 634 games, 29.1 mpg, 13.5 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 1.7 apg, 54.7 WS, .142 WS/48, 1.4 BPM, 15.7 VORP
Turkoglu: 997 games, 26.8 mpg, 11.1 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 2.8 apg, 63.3 WS, .114 WS/48, 1.2 BPM, 21.4 VORP
Ilyasova: 697 games, 24.4 mpg, 10.9 ppg, .9 rpg, 1.2 apg, 43 WS, .121 WS/48, -0.1 BPM, 8.3 VORP
Yeesh, there is no clear star in this group. Kanter’s defense and lack of passing take a big bite out of his value. Okur looked like he had the best peak but Turkoglu played almost 400 more games, which gets him some more accumulated value. It is certainly possible Kanter could catch the others but, for now, Okur is the best of the bunch. Turkoglu picked up some win shares and VORP with his longevity but that does not offset Okur’s better peak and the fact that he even made an All-Star team. At the end of the day, I have to agree that Okur is the best of the group, albeit without an emoji.