Amongst Houston Rockets fans, Alperen Sengun is like a newborn puppy, a free lunch, or ‘90s sitcom star Ray Ramano: everybody loves him.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when he stole our hearts. It might have been his viral declaration that he was “so happy” on draft night. It might have been his goofy promotional dancing turned GIF. It might be his propensity for kindly asking the ball to go in before shooting a free throw.
Of course, it might also be his prodigious passing vision, his endless array of post moves, or his devastating isolation efficiency. It may simply be that Rockets fans didn’t expect to land a potential All-Star besides Jalen Green in the 2021 NBA Draft.
That happens to be exactly what they got. Alperen Sengun is an extraordinarily gifted basketball player. He’s also a potentially limited one. Is he a franchise cornerstone?
Alperen Sengun’s gifts
We’ll start with the reasons Rockets fans see Sengun as the center of the future. There are plenty of good ones.
It all starts with the passing. Sengun slings dimes with reckless abandon. He loves to operate in the high post as the distributor of dribble hand-offs, but don’t assume he’ll make the basic play. It’s equally likely that he’ll fake the handoff before launching a no-look bounce pass to an opportunistic cutter.
Get him in the low post, and he’ll probably do something more impressive. If he draws a double, it doesn’t matter where it comes from: Sengun finds the open man. His creativity knows no limits.
As it stands, he’s also prone to turnovers. He’s averaging 4.5 assists and 3.6 turnovers per 75 possessions. That’s fine: the Rockets love his willingness to attempt winning plays.
Take his passing lanes away, and Sengun remains impactful. As it stands, he’s scoring in 67.5 percent of his isolation situations. That puts him in the 91st percentile. Skeptics will point to the fact that he’s done most of that damage against second units.
A resounding chorus of boos for them. No rookie is supposed to be that good in isolation in any situation, let alone the 16th overall pick. The numbers still point to Sengun’s tremendous talent. The eye test tells us that he’s got the combination of footwork, head fakes, and crafty finishing he’ll need to score down low against anybody.
So Sengun is an elite passing big man with a devastating low block scoring game to match. He’s a future superstar, right?
Alperen Sengun’s limitations
A quality that defines an NBA player that’s entirely separate from their talent is their malleability. Some players have both. Kevin Durant can play with absolutely anybody. He can space the floor, defend multiple positions, and score without dribbling. Give him ball-dominant guards, non-spacing bigs, defensive specialists, it doesn’t matter: he’ll compliment them.
Other players have easily remedied limitations. Giannis Antetokounmpo is most effective alongside four shooters, given his inefficiency from long range. Still, his generational defensive versatility allows the Bucks to place him in a wide range of lineups.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, some players have very specific needs. Domantas Sabonis, for example, is an All-Star caliber talent. He’s just limited. He doesn’t space the floor. His physical limitations lend themselves to below-average defense. He needs to be surrounded with floor-spacers, and he needs a versatile three-and-D four alongside him in the frontcourt.
Which of these players does Alperen Sengun resemble most closely to you?
Sengun shares many of Sabonis’ strengths and weaknesses, particularly when it comes to those physical limitations. His wingspan is negative. His lateral mobility is lacking. He’s an undersized big who’s too slow to play the four.
On offense, he provides value off-ball with hard, well-set screens, but he doesn’t offer floor spacing. In a three-point dominant league, he’ll need four floor spacers around him to optimize his particular set of strengths.
All of those issues can be mitigated with the right roster construction. This is not a hit piece: I’m as smitten for Sengun as the next Dream Shake reader. He’ll find his way somewhere: it’s just too early in this rebuild to be certain it will be in Houston.
His future standing with the Rockets may come down to fortune more than anything else. Looking ahead to the 2022 draft, it may get decided sooner than later.
Could the draft determine Sengun’s fate in Houston?
Jabari Smith Jr. profiles as the picture-perfect fit alongside Sengun. He provides the three-point gravity needed to maximize the Turkish wunderkind’s low-block passing mastery, and the defensive range to compensate for those limitations.
Shaedon Sharpe or Adrian Griffin Jr. would be nice fits too. Although either would still leave the Rockets a defensive four away from maximizing Sengun, he provides the floor spacing and athletic cutting Sengun needs to thrive on offense.
Chet Holmgren is an interesting proposition. The Rockets may eventually find that both players are best fitted at the five spot. Still, the pairing would have potential. Holmgren’s a floor spacer, and his weakside shot-blocking could cover for Sengun’s shaky defense. On the other hand, containing the perimeter may be a challenge for such a generally slow pairing.
Jaden Ivey could be a fit, but he’ll need to improve his three-point shooting in order to thrive alongside Sengun. It’s hard to picture two ball-dominant offensive players co-existing when neither is able to provide the other with space.
Paolo Banchero projects as a disaster on both ends alongside Sengun. Three-point shooting and defense profile as his biggest weaknesses at the professional level. The Rockets would likely need to pair him with a Myles Turner type to make use of his skillset.
Some may protest that I’m projecting too distantly. They may have a point. Sengun may have the high motor and IQ required to overcome his physical limitations. Still, faster feet and longer arms don’t typically emerge from thin air. Sengun may have a year to have a growth spurt, but that’s not a safe outcome to bank on.
Rebuilding requires tough decisions in the NBA. Every player that any fanbase becomes enamored with isn’t assured to remain with the club for long.
Here’s hoping the Rockets can put the right pieces in place to put Sengun in the best position to succeed.
It would make Rockets fans so happy.