Furkan Korkmaz stretched out his legs and eased into a chair just off to the side of the Sixers’ practice court. For the next 20 minutes, he talked about growing up in Turkey, moving to the United States to play in the NBA and even painted a visual of performing as Michael Jackson in high school (more on that later). The 21-year-old was comfortable and easygoing, like he had been settled in the league for years, when actually his career is just getting started.
Korkmaz’s first sport was soccer. At the age of nine, he was approached by a coach to join his school’s basketball team. He considered sticking with soccer, but his older sister encouraged the change. Six years later, Korkmaz went pro. At 18, he was drafted by the 76ers to play in the NBA.
The Sixers chose Korkmaz with the 26th pick in 2016. The 6-7 swingman played the next season in Europe, winning the Turkish Cup with Banvit and being named the Basketball Champions League Best Young Player, before completing a buyout with Anadolu Efes to come to Philadelphia in July of 2017.
Korkmaz hadn’t spent much time in the United States before then, only a handful of days during the pre-draft process. Being alone in a new country had been difficult for him. After those workouts, he returned to his hotel room and talked to himself in Turkish, giving himself a break from speaking in English all day.
This time, Korkmaz wasn’t alone when he moved to Philadelphia. Since his parents are retired, they were able to make the trip with him from Turkey while he got acclimated to his new home. Korkmaz still encountered adjustments, but he had a support system around him.
“The first two months were really hard to get used to the language, culture because you’re not moving from Turkey to Spain or Turkey to Italy or from Italy to Spain,” Korkmaz told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a totally different culture.”
Korkmaz was always curious and interested in gaining knowledge. He learned to speak English by being around his non-Turkish teammates and coaches while playing professionally in Europe. He started off with basic questions, like asking for salt at dinner, and watched English-language movies to expand his vocabulary.
Once Korkmaz moved to Philadelphia, he honed in on specific details. He took mental notes at a restaurant when the server suggested he pronounce “water” with a “d” sound instead of the phonetic interpretation of a hard “t.” He asked questions the first time he heard the word “turkey” used in reference to a Thanksgiving food.
“They explained it,” Korkmaz said, “And then I learned.”
During his rookie season, Korkmaz had to learn about a challenging aspect of the game: injuries. He suffered a Lisfranc injury in his left foot in mid-December while in the G-League. He did not play again for the Sixers until March 22.
“For me the worst situation was I couldn’t walk for two months,” Korkmaz said. “I was not able to go out of the home without help from someone. My parents were here all that time. They were helping me. Even when I tried to go in the shower, they were taking me. It was really bad.”
Korkmaz finished his rookie year averaging 1.6 points over 5.7 minutes in 14 NBA games. He bounced back in the offseason with a standout performance in international competition and by scoring 40 points in summer league. A healthy Korkmaz showed signs of the potential that had been sidetracked by the foot injury.
In the grand scheme of things, though, Korkmaz hadn’t been on the court very much for the Sixers when the late October deadline came up for his contract option. The team declined it. Korkmaz, who was averaging five minutes at the time, spoke out in the media about his role and opportunity. His goal was to be on the court.
“At the time I was telling to people, even like my agent, my parents, my sister, it doesn’t matter who, I was telling them I want to play this year,” Korkmaz said. “It was my goal. It was my second year … I knew that I wasn’t ready last year. I wasn’t ready. I knew that. I just worked hard, even when I got injured.
“But I feel like I improved a lot then, not as basketball, physically, as my body. I was saying to people, ‘I want to play,’ … I never got down mentally. I knew that my time will come, but I didn’t know when.”
How quickly situations can change. Korkmaz saw an increase in minutes when the Sixers traded for Jimmy Butler in November, changed their rotations and shortened the bench in the absence of Markelle Fultz (out with a shoulder inury). If he was going to make the most of this chance, Korkmaz knew he would have to be prepared at a moment’s notice to contribute offensively and continue to improve his defense.
“He works, man, and he stars in his role,” Butler said. “I think that’s really, really important for a young guy to know whenever your time’s called you’re going to have to be ready. I already know what’s going on in his head. I already know how confident [he is] and how he wants to help this team win. He’s doing that to the best of his ability.”
Korkmaz’s preparation is paying off. He has played 15 minutes-plus in 11 of his last 16 games, including more than 20 minutes in six of those contests. Korkmaz got his first career start Wednesday against the Nets in place of an injured Butler (groin). He netted 18 points, six assists, three rebounds and three steals over a career-high 35 minutes in the Sixers loss. The previous game, he scored 18 points (4-7 3PG), including 15 in the second half, and seven rebounds off the bench in a win over the Pistons.
“He’s not intimidated by NBA basketball. He’s not intimidated by the moment,” Sixers head coach Brett Brown said. “He’s got a bounce. He has an inner belief. There is a swagger that he has when he is going to make a play. He may miss a lot of shots, he may make a lot of shots, but there really isn’t any sort of trepidation. There is not a back down in Furkan.”
No, Korkmaz does not shy away from the spotlight. His willingness to put on a show translates away from the game, too. Korkmaz garnered attention for competing in a dunk contest dressed up as Darth Vader from Star Wars. He had practice getting into character prior to that.
“When I was in high school before graduation I did a Michael Jackson dance, for real,” Korkmaz said. “It’s like a four-minute dance to ‘Smooth Criminal’ with all the jacket, even white tape here (points to his hand like Jackson’s signature glove), my hat … It was really cool.”
Throughout the season, Sixers players are tasked with putting together presentations on a topic of their choice to share at a team breakfast. Recently, Korkmaz spoke on his native Turkey. Brown described the PowerPoint as “amazingly professional and thoughtful and informative.” The depth and delivery of the content made an impression on coaches and players.
“He’s done an unbelievable job of just putting himself in social situations,” JJ Redick told Basketball Insiders. “The fact he was able to do that in English is just remarkable. A 30-minute presentation, not even his first language, about a month ago. You see him coming out of his shell both on and off the court. He’s a pleasure to have in our program.”
It has been just over a year since Korkmaz made his NBA debut. Since then, he has gone through injuries and uncertainties all while building relationships, having the support of his family (his sister traveled to Philadelphia this season, too) and earning minutes in the Sixers system.
Korkmaz is taking the ups with the downs to stay in the NBA.
“This is the league which is the best league in the world,” Korkmaz said. “I want to show the people, yes I can play in the best basketball league in the world. I feel like still people don’t know what I can do here. That’s why I want to show the people, I can play here.”