Three months ago, controversy brought Enes Kanter and Dion Waiters together.
It was back in November when Waiters, a third-year shooting guard with the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, became a magnet for nationwide criticism when it was reported that he’d skipped a pre-game playing of the U.S. national anthem due to his Islamic beliefs. While the religion angle was quickly debunked after the reporter who broke the story admitted he’d misunderstood a statement by Waiters, reactions still poured in from media, fans and athletes alike.
One athlete whose public response stood out was Kanter, a fourth-year center with the Utah Jazz who is also Muslim. Kanter wrote in a Twitter post that Muslims “love and respect” the U.S., and offered support for Waiters, whom he called his brother even though the two had never met.
On Thursday, the business of pro basketball brought Kanter and Waiters together again — not just as brothers in Islam but as teammates chasing an NBA championship.
Before the league’s trade deadline passed, Kanter was dealt by the Jazz to the Oklahoma City Thunder as part of a three-team transaction that included the Detroit Pistons. In OKC, Kanter will join Waiters, who was traded from the Cavs to the Thunder in January.
Waiters had been playing his best basketball of the season when Cleveland traded him, but the move still didn’t come as a surprise to the many observers who believed Waiters was no longer a good fit on a team that had undergone a major makeover by adding LeBron James, Kevin Love and a new coaching staff in the 2014 offseason. Waiters’ numbers (10.8 points per game) haven’t changed much in OKC, but all reports have said he’s more comfortable with his new team and has been embraced by Thunder superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. And with OKC trading guard Reggie Jackson to Detroit as part of the deal to acquire Kanter, Waiters should inherit a bigger role in the Thunder offense, since Jackson was the team’s No. 3 go-to scorer.
Kanter’s departure from Utah was also no surprise. A few days before the deadline, he had told the team he wanted to be traded, apparently due to his uncertain status in the Jazz rebuilding project. Kanter was averaging 13.8 points and 7.8 rebounds in a career-high 27 minutes per game this season, but lately he’d been losing playing time to rapidly improving second-year center Rudy Gobert.
Kanter should step right into a spot in OKC’s starting five, but soon he’ll have to compete for time with regular starting center Steven Adams, who is currently sidelined with a hand injury.
The Thunder (29-25) have arguably the most talented team in the NBA’s Western Conference, yet they will be fighting just to stay in the playoff picture over the season’s second half. This is a team that could barely slip into the postseason and still be considered a legit title contender. Waiters and Kanter will be working together in that effort to bring OKC its first NBA championship.
More importantly, in a country and in a sport where many Muslim athletes don’t have another Muslim in the locker room and on the road with them, Waiters and Kanter have an opportunity to work together in their efforts to become better men and better Muslims.