Kevin Pelton, SUPERSONICS.COM
| Sep. 22, 2004
In his native Turkey, Ibrahim Kutluay had it all - fame, fortunate, a starring role on his Ulker club team and a key role on the Turkish National Team and a model girlfriend. Yet, at the age of 30, Kutluay - nicknamed "Ibo", the way he introduced himself to a reporter - decided to interrupt his comfortable life in order to try his hand at the game of basketball's highest level, the NBA.
After a successful European career, Kutluay is ready to try his hand at the NBA.
Wednesday, Kutluay's dream of playing in the NBA came true when he signed a two-year contract with the Seattle SuperSonics. (An NBA free agent, Kutluay will have to pay part of his buyout with his current Turkish team, Ulker Spor Kulubu Istanbul.)
A 6-6 swingman who mostly played forward in Europe but will likely play guard in the NBA, Kutluay has enjoyed a lengthy and successful career in Turkey and Greece, spending the last five seasons playing for prestigious Euroleague clubs - Efes Pilsen Istanbul, AEK Athens (becoming the first Turkish player to play on a Greek first-division team in any sport), Panathinaikos AO Athens and Ulker.
With those teams, Kutluay achieved much of what a Euroleague player can, including winning the Euroleague Championship in 2001-02 with Panathinaikos, scoring 22 points and hitting a key three-pointer in the closing minutes of the deciding game against Kinder Bologna. That came a year after Kutluay won MVP honors as his AEK team won the 2001 Greek Cup. He also played in two European All-Star Games. Still, the challenge of the NBA remained.
"I thought that after I won many things in Europe, I decided to come to the NBA for my career," Kutluay, who comfortably speaks English, said Monday afternoon. "I think it's going to be new motivation for me, a new atmosphere. I like to work and I think I will be successful here. I want to be in the NBA. I had a good contract in Turkey, but I decided to come here because I need to be here."
No Turkish player played in the NBA before the 1999-00 season, when forward Mirsad Turkcan - also the first Turkish player selected in the NBA Draft - played for both the New York Knicks and the Milwaukee Bucks. In recent years, however, Turkish players Mehmet Okur and Hidayet Turkoglu have made major NBA impacts, and both players were coveted free agents this summer. The youngsters, along with old guard Turkcan and Kutluay, led Turkey to its first appearance in the World Basketball Championships in 2002, finishing ninth.
Kutluay drew upon the experience of those teammates when making his decision to come to the NBA, and again in deciding where to play.
"I watch from the TV and stats from the Internet and I know many players," Kutluay explained about choosing the Sonics. "I asked my friends and I tried to learn how they play. Our team plays fast, shoot so much outside and it's good, I like this kind of play. I believe that it's going to be good for me also."
From the Sonics end, the move was motivated by Coach Nate McMillan's desire to replace the shooting the team lost when Richie Frahm (37.0% from three-point range) was selected in the Expansion Draft and Brent Barry (45.2%, second in the NBA) signed with San Antonio as a free agent. Despite ranking second in the NBA in team three-point percentage and just missing an NBA record for threes, the Sonics were faced with the prospect of a bench that featured only one player, forward Vladimir Radmanovic, as a consistent three-point threat.
"Nate came to me and said, 'Our strength has been outside shooting, and I want to continue that. What about signing Ibo?'" related Sonics General Manager Rick Sund.
There is no doubt that Kutluay's strength lies in his ability to shoot the basketball from long range, particularly in catch-and-shoot situations. It is quickly evident from watching him that Kutluay's form is quick and smooth.
Sund has presented no illusions about the move. Signing Kutluay to a contract does not mean the Sonics are going to move any of their existing guards, including impending free agent Ray Allen. 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.
"Nate sees him playing a role like, for example, Steve Kerr did near the end of his career in San Antonio, when he could come off the bench when the Spurs needed shooting," Sund said. "Now, maybe he'll surprise us all and be so good that we have to play him more. Initially, that's the role we've talked to him about."
Still, Sonics fans have to be optimistic after Kutluay's performance during a pair of exhibitions pitting the Turkish National Team against the U.S. Olympic Team in Istanbul prior to this summer's Olympics (for which Turkey did not qualify).
In two Turkish losses by 12 points, Kutluay kept his team in the game with his shooting. He averaged 22.5 points per game in just 28.0 minutes of action, shooting 12-for-23 from three-point range. In the first game, Kutluay hit three consecutive three-pointers in the fourth quarter to bring Turkey within three points with under four minutes to play. In the second game, Kutluay scored 26 points despite missing time in the fourth quarter after being hit in the eye by U.S. forward LeBron James.
That performance aside, Kutluay knows he will need to work hard to make the transition to the NBA, particularly on the defensive end of the court. Defense is considered Kutluay's primary weakness.
"I have to learn some rules and some tricks," Kutluay said. "In NBA, I don't know how I react when I saw some situation in the game. I try to learn about this. Also, I will learn many things day-by-day. I will ask my friends, teammates. Every day I will learn something. But I already have experience, because I am not a young player. In Turkey, I have very good experience and I am 30 years old. I think I will adjust quickly."
The adjustment process started Monday afternoon, as Kutluay spoke with Sonics assistant Dwane Casey about defense. Casey and Kutluay discussed the fundamentals of the Sonics defense and the NBA's Defensive 3-Second Violation, amongst other topics.
Dinner with the front office concluded a long day for Kutluay, who had an 18-hour flight into Seattle from Europe Sunday evening before arriving at The Furtado Center early to undergo a physical and other tests. Kutluay is staying in Seattle just barely long enough to sign his contract before returning to Turkey to get his visa. The Turkish National Team is still playing in the 2005 European Championship qualifying round in Serbia & Montenegro, but is 4-0 thus far in Group E play and has already qualified for next summer's championships, allowing Kutluay to leave the team and focus on getting ready for training camp.
Kutluay hopes the Sonics and their fans are patient. His Turkish teammates told him, "the first year is going to be difficult, because adaptation and to be here takes time, they said. But I believe that because we are very good players and good guys on the team, I can adjust easily. Just one thing - I have to work."
Kutluay has worn number 10 throughout his career, but Casey informed him this afternoon that he'd have to take a new one, as that number is already retired in honor of his new coach.
With media day and the start of training camp now less than two weeks away, players continue to trickle into Seattle to begin working out at The Furtado Center. Monday saw the start of the pickup basketball the players organize themselves to prepare for the season, with five-on-five full-court action featuring five veteran Sonics - guards Luke Ridnour and Ray Allen and forwards Nick Collison, Rashard Lewis and Vladimir Radmanovic. They were joined by five players who are expected to be invited to training camp by the team. Antonio Daniels, Jerome James and Ronald "Flip" Murray have also been at The Furtado Center.
Rookies Robert Swift and David Young and forward Reggie Evans are in New York attending the NBA's mandatory rookie meetings. Evans is in his third year, but was unable to attend each of the last two seasons.