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A conversion to Sengunism

Give your most talented players opportunities. Always.

NBA: Houston Rockets at Toronto Raptors
Can Sengun’s offensive brilliance outweigh his defensive limitations?
Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Darren doesn’t know I’m writing this. He’s expecting a whole different piece — we’ll see if he publishes it. He may just remove this weird introduction. Let’s see how meta I’m allowed to get here.

I almost framed this as an open apology to Alperen Sengun. I have doubted him, and I’ve done it loudly. As it happens, I don’t think I owe anyone an apology.

A journalist’s first obligation is to the truth. I don’t want to be one of those basketball writers that just feeds you what you want. I’m aspiring to be an analyst. It has long been my objective opinion that a strong defensive big is an essential component of a serious title contender. It’s not clear whether Sengun can ever be that player.

I’ve also been apprehensive about running a modern NBA offense through the low block. Yes, I realize that Sengun can also operate as a passing hub from the elbow, high post and in dribble hand-offs. He still does most of his damage on the low block.

None of that matters. Sengun, simply put, is too good to deny.

A post player in a post-post world

I’m addressing the second concern first because it’s really easy to address. Who cares if playing through the low block has fallen out of fashion? Sengun plays through the low block, so until further notice, the Rockets do too.

He happens to do it very well. Sengun’s post-up frequency of 25.2 percent ranks third in the NBA. Among players with a frequency of 20 percent or higher, his 1.24 points per possession rank first. Who’s on that list?

Oh, nobody significant. Just Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Zion Williamson, Evan Mobley and Anthony Davis. Alperen Sengun posts up with a comparable volume to all of those players. He’s just better at it than any of them.

So let the Rockets zig where the league is zagging. Make Sengun's post touches a regular feature of the offense. Simple.

Next question?

Is Sengun’s defense defensible?

Remember what I said about not force-feeding readers sunshine and lollypops?

Sengun’s defensive outlook remains bleak. Per BballIndex, Sengun is in the 37th percentile in Rim Deterrence percentage, the 39th percentile in Rim dFG percentage vs Expected percentage and the 21.4th percentile in their Rim Protection metric. Not convinced? He’s in the 11.4th percentile in Rim Points Saved Per 75 Possessions.

People will clamor to remind you that he’s only 20 years old in the face of this data. That’s true, and it’s saliant enough. Still, feet don’t generally get a whole lot faster than they are, and his wingspan isn’t growing past average. He’ll probably never be a good defensive big.

He could be an average one. I saw some light against the Raptors last night. It was cool when he drew a charge — could developing that tool compensate for some shortcomings? He’s also got quick hands that help him get steals. That’s something.

None of that can completely compensate for good old-fashioned rim protection. Still, Sengun did make a good contest or two last night too. Defense is one-third effort, one-third instincts and one-third physical tools. By that logic, Sengun is two-thirds of the way there. Even if he never improves his physical profile, he could develop into a passable defender just by honing his instincts and continuing to give his fullest effort.

He may also have to accept a role with a large amount of variance. It’s easier for me to envision a world where Sengun makes regular All-Star appearances on a playoff team if he’s a player who’s willing to dominate one round and endure long spells on the bench in favor of Usman Garuba or Jabari Smith Jr. at the five in the next.

The future is uncertain

Of course, the upcoming NBA draft clouds Sengun’s future as a focal point for these Houston Rockets as much as anything.

If the team drafts Victor Wembanyama, I don’t buy Sengun as a long-term starter. Nobody will ever convince me that he can survive at the four. Watch Karl-Anthony Towns struggle to contain the perimeter in Minnesota right now. You can’t hide subpar defensive bigs on the perimeter — that will almost always accentuate their shortcomings.

I don’t actually think Sengun can co-exist with Scoot Henderson or Amen Thompson, either. They both look like lead ball handlers with shooting limitations. Dumping the ball into the low block, only to have a hyperathletic playmaker who doesn’t space the floor hover around the perimeter looking for a cut doesn’t sound optimal.

With that said...

The odds dictate that the Rockets are most likely to draft outside of the top two, just as every team is. Thompson probably isn't a lock at third overall. The list of prospects the Rockets could conceivably draft who ought to fit with Sengun is much longer. Any one of Nick Smith, Dariq Whitehead, Cam Whitmore or Brandon Miller projects as a player who could complement his game.

That would be great. Alperen Sengun has the potential to be one of the best offensive big men in the NBA. That fact outweighs every concern, and I see that now.

Being able to honestly say that makes me so happy.