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Sengun, Fernando, Garuba: A tale of three centers

The Rockets feature three bigs with wildly disparate skill sets. Which one is their best?

NBA: Houston Rockets at Cleveland Cavaliers
Who should be the Houston Rockets’ center of attention?
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Recently, I saw someone on Rockets Twitter suggest that the team’s center trio of Alperen Sengun, Usman Garuba and Bruno Fernando were like the three options at the beginning of Pokemon. I can’t remember who said it. If it was you, send me the Tweet, and I’ll come back here and embed it.

Provided that Twitter still exists by the time this is published, of course.

The analogy is apt. Each of this team’s options at the five comes equipped with significant strengths and glaring weaknesses.

Which one deserves the starting role?

Let’s start with the obvious

That question inspires a knee-jerk reaction from most Rockets fans. Alperen Sengun. Always.

Fair enough. Sengun is clearly the most talented basketball player of the three. He’s got clear star upside on the offensive end of the floor.

With that said, Sengun plays a throwback brand of basketball. Garuba stands in stark contrast. His ability to survive switches onto guards is a quality that modern teams covet in a big man. Unfortunately, Sengun still has limitations on that end of the floor.

Finally, Fernando is a good old-fashioned rim-runner. He doesn’t do much else on offense (those seven opening night dimes look increasingly like fool’s gold), but vertical spacing opens up many opportunities for ball handlers. Kevin Porter Jr. looks a lot more like a point guard when he shares the floor with Fernando. Meanwhile, his defense is best described somewhere in the narrow margin between “meh” and “eh!”.

Who do the numbers prefer?

Numbers don’t lie - do they draw conclusions?

When I was running some data through BballIndex, one metric really jumped out to me. In Total Post Frequency, Sengun is in the 92nd percentile, Garuba is in the 64.6th, and Fernando is in the 0.0th. If the Rockets are looking for a full buffet of big-man options, they’ll need a third plate with this group.

The numbers don’t tell us much that our eyes don’t already. Sengun is by far the best offensive player of the three. He’s in the 94.5th percentile in Post Up Impact Per 75 Possesions, and 83.2nd in Passing Creation Quality among NBA bigs.

Garuba is the best defensive player of the three. He’s in the 72.2nd percentile in Defensive Positional Versatility, and 97.3rd in Pick Pocket Rating.

As expected, Fernando’s the best roll man of the bunch. He scores 1.1 on Index’s Roll Man Impact metric. He’s the only one out of the trio with a positive score.

I’ll spare you more details — suffice it to say, I’m pointing these numbers out because each man towers over their teammates in the same metrics. I just wrote a whole piece on Garuba’s defense. If you need more details, get an Index subscription. Seriously, it’s a really fun tool.

So is CleaningTheGlass. What do they say about which big men have anchored the best lineups?

Sengun vs. Goons

Let me get this out of the way: this exercise isn’t fair to Alperen Sengun.

He’s tasked with trying to anchor a very flawed starting lineup. The Rockets may have the worst defensive backcourt in the NBA. Sorry. Eric Gordon is not a small forward. Jabari Smith Jr. is just starting to find his footing.

Caveats aside, the Rockets have run two lineups for more than 100 possessions this year. The most impactful of the two have been Garuba, Tari Eason, KJ Martin, Jalen Green and Daishen Nix. That group is -1.9 over 113 possessions. Swap Sengun in for Garuba, Smith Jr. in for Eason, and Kevin Porter Jr. for Nix, and you get the team’s most used lineup. That group is -10.3 over 445 possessions.

There are a lot of implications there. Eason is more NBA-ready than Smith. Kevin Porter Jr. isn’t a point guard. Playing a wing as a wing instead of a guard as a wing has some shocking benefits. Still, we shouldn’t take all the credit away from Garuba — his defense counts.

Should it vault him into the starting lineup?

Stick to the plan - for now

It’s notable that none of these guys space the floor (tiny sample Garuba shooting notwithstanding). Stephen Silas, a notorious proponent of a five-out offense, doesn’t have a stretch big at his disposal.

I’ll just come out and say it: Myles Turner is a popular free-agent target for this team for a reason. Until then, the Rockets ought to stick with Alperen Sengun in the starting lineup.

After all, stardom is born on the offensive end of the floor. If Sengun can develop into a decent defensive big, he’s due for multiple All-Star appearances.

Full transparency: I love Usman Garuba. He brings more of what I personally value at the position to the table. Still, at 6’8”, he’s closer to a combo big. That may make him more suited to be a high-minute reserve in the future.

As for Fernando — I can just say he’s not the guy, right? No nuance required? He’s a good rim runner, but he doesn’t offer much in terms of rim protection. To my eye, he’s more of a placeholder. He raises the question: how would this team look with a Mitch Robinson?

If Alperen Sengun can tighten up his rim protection, we’ll never have to find out — even if he’ll never be a lob threat.