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Should Alperen Sengun have been the first pick in 2021 NBA Draft?

The Rockets’ big man is an emerging star. Is he the best in his class?

Detroit Pistons v Houston Rockets
Could the Pistons regret taking Cade Cunningham over Alperen Sengun?
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

It’s too early.

I know. At the same time, it is rapidly approaching “right on time”. As fans, we’ve got the luxury of preaching patience. Every developmental curve isn’t linear, Steve Nash, etc.

Front offices don’t have the same leeway. Decision time is looming. The 2021 draft class will soon be extension-eligible. General Managers will need to make pivotal decisions that will impact their salary sheet moving forward. Part of the decision-making process will involve measuring players against their peers.

Where does Alperen Sengun measure against his?

Should Sengun have gone first in the 2021 draft?

If you’re a numbers guy, you like Sengun’s outlook. The advanced stats say that he's two if he’s not one.

Let’s start with Box Plus/Minus (BPM). Among third-year players, Sengun is tied for the highest mark. He and Scottie Barnes are tied for 10th in the NBA at 6.1. Where does the rest of their class stand?

Far behind. The next player to show up is Jalen Johnson of the Atlanta Hawks. His mark of 2.2 is 50th league-wide. Regarding players that anyone would feasibly consider taking first in a redraft, Franz Wagner is 62nd (1.6), and Evan Mobley is 69th (1.3).

Jalen Green is at -0.7, which is outside of the top 100. Cade Cunningham is at -3.7, which I’m guessing is somewhere around one hundred millionth in the NBA.

Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) paints a similar picture. Barnes is ninth in the NBA at 1.6, and Sengun is eleventh at 1.4. Everyone else is outside of walking distance. So, it’s either Sengun or Barnes, depending on your preferences, right?

Is the top two determined?

Let’s not be hasty.

There are a few normative discussions to hold before concluding based on two compound metrics. Let’s start with Cunningham - the actual number-one pick.

The Detroit Pistons aren’t a dumpster fire. They’re a raging inferno engulfing the entire planet. This is not a good evaluative context. Sure, Cunningham is turning the ball over 4.3 times per contest. That is (checks notes) bad. Still, it’s worth noting that it’s easy to crowd and hound him when he’s surrounded by this supporting cast. Detroit plays too many non-shooters. They’ve got a rotation full of offensive liabilities. You take Cunningham and put him on the Utah Jazz right now, and it’s impossible to say where his impact stats go.

The case with Mobley is a little more complicated. The Cavaliers are solid. It seems like he’s not a great fit alongside a traditional big like Jarrett Allen. Mobley may benefit from a full-time shift to the five, or he could stay at the four and continue as a defensive free safety alongside a big man who spaces the floor.

Finally, the hipsters will still take Wagner. They’ll take him like they take their fresh cup of Kopi luwak black (which is the bat poop coffee - I Googled it). I don’t see it. He’s a fantastic player, but to my eye, Wagner is a tailor-made number two.

It depends on your (re)draft philosophy. Projection is a factor - you may still think Green has the highest ceiling. That’s fair. On the other hand, if proven production means more to you, it’s got to be Sengun or Barnes.


Sengun or Barnes?

It is an exceedingly difficult call.

A B-Ball Index comparison doesn’t make it much easier. It tells us what we already know. Sengun is a better offensive player, and Barnes is a better defender.

There is a gulf in Index’s Stable Isolation Points Per Possession metric. Sengun is in the 84.1st percentile. Barnes is in the 1.6th percentile. Yikes.

So, Sengun is a comfortably better scorer. He’s strong in isolation and the pick-and-roll. That’s probably why Sengun is in the 80th percentile in Overall Shot Quality, and Barnes is in the 36.1st.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably a Rockets fan, and so you probably are assuming he’s a much better passer as well. Index says they’re comparable. Sengun is in the 89.9th percentile in Assist Points Per 75 Possessions, and Barnes is in the 86th. Barnes is an excellent passer - he just needs to find more ways to create for himself in the halfcourt.

Defensively, Barnes is in at least the 50th percentile in time spent guarding every position besides off-guard (44.7th). Sengun almost exclusively guards the five. Otherwise, Barnes has an advantage in every defensive metric that Index has available.

Once again, this boils down to personal preference. If you’ll allow me to beat the same dead horse that I beat to death, on principle, I’d take a versatile defensive wing with playmaking chops over a defensively limited playmaking big.

In principle.

In practice, I think there’s a very real case to be made that Sengun is so far ahead of his peers offensively that he has to be taken first. That holds especially true when considering that he’s making strides defensively. I’m not sure if Domantas Sabonis can hold up in Ime Udoka’s scheme. I doubt he has the quick hands or instincts to hedge and recover like Sengun has been doing this year.

At the same time, it’s hard to deny Barnes’ portability. Building an optimal team around Sengun means finding players who can shoot and defend. If you’re building around Barnes, you can afford a weak link defensively. In the end, you probably can’t go wrong with either. One thing is clear - Sengun was picked criminally low in the 2021 NBA draft.

It isn’t too early to say that.