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How prolific of a passer can Alperen Şengün become?

With a knack for making incredible reads, should the second year pro operate as a point center?

NBA: Washington Wizards at Houston Rockets Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

It wouldn’t hurt for the Houston Rockets players to take some reps with Brandin Cooks and the rest of the Houston Texans’ receiving corps as they gear up for the upcoming season. As it currently stands, Texans’ QB Davis Mills might have competition as the best young passer in the city. I’m willing to put my money on Alperen Şengün. Always.

You may have recently seen some of Şengün’s dazzling highlights as he has starred for his native Turkish national team in FIBA play. While his country didn’t win the recent Acropolis International Basketball Tournament, there wasn’t a shortage of artistic post moves and majestic dimes on display. Şengün even found some time to get involved in a minor kerfuffle while he was at it.

Going into his second year as the unquestioned man in the middle for the Rockets, Alpie will have an incredible opportunity to assert himself as an interior scoring presence as well as a dynamic distributor. Already garnering attention as one of the best passing bigs in the league, I think it’s reasonable to ask how good he can be in that phase of the game.

Poetry in motion

Şengün can whip around no-look passes with some of the best in the league. His ability to turn impossible angles into immaculate passing lanes is something few his size are capable of doing. Given his height and his patience, if he can consistently attract eyeballs, it should lend to more success as he pirouettes in the lane while manipulating help-defenders with his crafty ball fakes.

His signature behind-the-back passes and overhead flips might very well become a staple to the Rockets’ offense. As long as the other four players on the court are committed to relentless cutting, it’s a cinch that his assist numbers will go up as he gets more playing time in his second year.

My favorite part of Şengün’s game is how quickly he recognizes where to throw the ball once he receives it himself. He has an innate ability to lead the cutter almost immediately after he touches it. If the ball wasn’t orange, I’d think I was watching FC Barcelona.

Another great aspect of Şengün’s passing is that he gets his teammates shots in rhythm. Of course nifty cuts to the basket will help the ol’ field goal percentage rise, but another encouraging sign is the results from behind the arc. As you can see below, among the main returning rotation players from last year, Garrison Matthews (surprisingly enough) was the only one to not shoot over 36 percent from three on passes from Alpie.

Yes, the sample size is small, but if this trend keeps up, the Rockets will be able to effectively space the floor going forward.

Room for improvement

All of that being said, it’s very clear that Şengün has to cut down on the turnovers. He was the 13th highest rated turnover prone player per 100 possessions in the entire league and that left him tied with Joel Embiid and only surpassed by Nikola Jokić among centers.

Şengün certainly has some catching up to do before he can be afforded the room for error that those premiere bigs have earned. It’s easier to look the other way when you’re contributing nearly 30 a night and have been neck-and-neck in the MVP race in consecutive seasons.

While extraordinary passing is fun to watch, the overzealousness to create highlight moments comes with the downfall of trying to get away with too much. However, in defense of Alpie, he was a 19-year-old rookie and not all of those turnovers are a result of errant passes.

As long as the fundamental plays are still being made and his flash isn’t causing momentum-killing turnovers, I’m all for letting Alpie be Alpie. His flair adds to the viewing experience, and the 20 year old still has plenty of time to gain a feel for NBA defenses. The more run he gets and the more chemistry this young team builds will help trim out the miscues.

Where does he rank?

For the season, Şengün averaged 5.9 assists per 100 possessions which placed him ninth among centers. The only centers that outpaced him in that regard were Jokić, Domantas Sabonis, Kelly Olynyk, Nemanja Bjelica, Isaiah Hartenstein, Embiid, Steven Adams and Mason Plumlee. Only Bjelica and the two former Rockets, Olynyk and Hartenstein, registered fewer minutes per game than Alpie.

Please note that I excluded some other prominent names being in this mix because they played the majority of their minutes at the four spot. I apologize to the likes of Pascal Siakim, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Julius Randle for missing the cut.

Another advanced stat that shows how Şengün is able to assert himself as a primary playmaker when on the court is that he registered the sixth highest assist percentage among Centers last season. Again, it’s a small sample size, so you’ll have to take it with a grain of salt, but consider that the other players above him were Jokić, LeBron James (he technically played half his minutes at the five last season, so I felt inclined to include him), Sabonis, Embiid and Olynyk.

Of course these stats were strategically selected to illustrate a point, but when there’s a handful of established names already being surpassed by a rookie in passing ratings, I think it bodes well for his future. Seeing names like Bam Adebayo and Al Horford below Şengün was a little surprising considering that they have operated significantly as playmakers during stretches of the game for their respective teams.

Let’s slow down on “that” comparison

I think why I tend to be so high on Alpie and his potential is due to the fluidity in which he dishes the ball. It’s almost like it’s his sixth sense as none of it looks forced. While he probably won’t ever match the wizardry of Jokić, I imagine he will continue to garner comparisons as long as he continues to make eye-popping passes.

That man that plays for the Denver Nuggets is truly an alien on the court. He has mastered every facet of passing, from taps, to one-handed outlets, impeccable eye misdirection and everything in between. An incredible basketball IQ coupled with an arsenal of skills has rightfully earned “The Joker” back-to-back MVPs, so I don’t think I’m saying anything too absurd when I reiterate the importance of keeping reasonable expectations for the 20-year-old Şengün.

An apt comparison

I do think there does exist a very respectable resemblance for Alpie, but I’ll get to that in a second. As the game has changed through rule changes, pacing and spacing, and increased athleticism, we’ve seen the evolution of the big man in real time. No longer can they just exist as plodding bodies that camp out near the paint. They have to be capable of stepping out and hitting a three, incorporating their handles, and for the focus of this article, be capable of hitting the open man.

All of the legendary giants found a way to impact the game while distributing the ball. I’m talking Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal and so many more. In more recent years we’ve seen the likes of Joakim Noah, Horford, Marc Gasol and someone I find underrated in this aspect, DeMarcus Cousins, help dictate their team’s success through playmaking.

None of these players are the one I had in mind when I watch Şengün though. That player is actually Gasol’s brother, Pau. However, I don’t find their semblance just limited to passing. A bevy of post moves, similar athleticism and overall hoops IQ encompass the comparison, but I’ll do my best to keep passing ability as the basis of this conversation.

I think where I find the similarity between Şengün and Pau Gasol’s passing is their ability to quickly identify the open man. This can vary from them catching it on the block, to running the break, to utilizing their footwork to create new passing lanes.

Şengün is absolutely the more adventurous passer at this stage in his career, but Gasol had some slick assists in his time too. On top of that, Gasol was a really good lob passer. Something I’m interested in seeing over time is if that is something that will become more incorporated into Şengün’s game as his outside shot improves and he can attract his defender further from the rim. The Rockets have the necessary high flyers required in Jalen Green, Kenyon Martin Jr. and Josh Christopher to go and get it, so that might be something Stephen Silas and his staff can explore.

At his peak, Gasol averaged 4.6 assists per game in the 2005-06 season, something I expect Alpie to eclipse, even possibly this season. Şengün might go on to put up higher assist averages with the pace of today’s game, but it’s important not to diminish Gasol’s numbers. He was truly instrumental operating out of Phil Jackson’s Triangle Offense as a scorer and playmaker, and those two Los Angeles Lakers’ championships in 2010 and 2011 don’t happen without him.

I’m aware that I said people need to slow down with the Jokić comparisons, so I also want to make it clear that none of this is to say that Alperen Şengün is going to be the next Pau Gasol. I just happen to see a closer parallel to the Spaniard legend for Şengün. If he’s able to grow and accomplish a fraction of what either Gasol or Jokić has, it was a draft pick well spent.

2022-23 expectations

If Şengün doesn’t break over 3.5 assists per game next season, I’d be genuinely surprised. Four is within the realm of possibility depending on how well his teammates finish at the rim. I’ll hope that a young and more talented team will capitalize on the golden opportunities that he gives them.

It’s also worth noting that Kevin Porter Jr. still holds the reigns as the Rockets’ official point guard, but that’s no issue because they won’t positionally overlap. It should be fun to see if Porter Jr. and the other players can replicate their shooting splits from last season when the ball shifts into Şengün’s hands.

This season provides an immense chance for Şengün to show that he’s a legitimate building block going forward for Houston. Like myself, I know you too are hoping he passes with flying colors.