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Are the Rockets misusing Alperen Sengun?

Does Ime Udoka have the right game plan for his young star?

Utah Jazz v Houston Rockets
Should the Rockets lean harder into Sengun?
Photo by Logan Riely/NBAE via Getty Images

Opinions are like... well, opinions. No analogy needed. Everybody has one.

There are a lot of opinions about Alperen Sengun. Most of them are positive in 2023-24. Sengun has taken the star turn. Whether you still harbor concerns about his ability to defend the pick-and-roll in the playoffs or you don’t, the facts are currently undeniable.

Sengun is the best player on the Rockets. He is going to make All-Star teams. He will be a franchise-caliber player.

Are the Rockets even using him correctly?

Are the Rockets underusing Sengun?

This is at least a double-pronged question. Are the Rockets using Sengun correctly - and are they using him enough?

Let’s make like The Beatles when they wrote Come Together and start with a baseline*. Sengun’s usage rate is 28.0 percent in 2023-24. That puts him in the same company as Jalen Brunson (28.0 percent) and the same neighborhood as Nikola Jokic (29.0 percent).

The league’s leaders in usage are Joel Embiid (38.1 percent) and Luka Doncic (35.8 percent) - if we’re willing to exclude the illustrious Charlie Brown Jr., who has a 66.7 percent usage rate in five minutes per game over three contests.

Embiid and Doncic are both interesting comparisons for Sengun. If there’s a better low-post scorer in the NBA than Sengun, it’s Embiid. Yet, Sengun shares Doncic’s passing creativity as well. At this moment, the Rockets don’t need to up Sengun’s usage to the level of those two superstars.

The Rockets are trying to build something sustainable - from the ground up. If you’ve been watching the Rockets for any significant amount of time, you’ve already learned this lesson:

Heliocentric basketball is unsustainable.

The ability to attack in a variety of ways is typically a quality of championship teams. This is why Jokic’s usage isn’t approaching Embiid or Doncic’s. The Denver Nuggets understand that if Jamal Murray doesn't have room to cook, they’re not going to get their best possible dish.

This could change in a few years. If this is Sengun’s team down the road and the Rockets haven't built a true title contender: fire up the helio machine. Surround Sengun with three-and-D wings, crank up his usage, let him go for the 50/10/10 stat lines and enjoy the Conference Semifinals. For now, the best course of action is to see who else on this roster can create.

The Rockets are using Sengun plenty. Are they using him the right way?

*Dear God what have I done?

Are the Rockets misusing Sengun?

I was surprised by some of the stats I dug up for this article. I was completely prepared to write that Sengun has been miscast as a pick-and-roll finisher and that the Rockets need to get back to using him as a low post hub.

Here’s the rub: Sengun is averaging 3.8 post-up possessions per game. That’s good for sixth in the NBA. It’s also more than he averaged in 2022-23 (3.0).

There may be a bit of an optical illusion at play here. Sengun’s possessions as a roll man have increased dramatically. He finishes 6.7 plays per game as a roll man - second in the NBA. Last year, he was 3.1 roll man possessions per contest, which was ninth league-wide.

It feels like because Sengun is in the pick-and-roll so much more often, he’s being used in other ways less often. That isn’t the case. He’s being used more - period. Sengun is also getting 2.0 isolation possessions per game, compared to 0.7 last season.

That’s not to say that Ime Udoka is using Sengun perfectly. There’s a bit of a gap between the very top players in low post frequency and the rest of the top ten. Sengun gets 3.8 post touches per game and generates 1.01 points per possession (PPP) out of those sets. By comparison, Bam Adebayo is posting up 5.0 times per game for 0.99 PPP.

So Udoka could increase Sengun’s post-up touches. They could come at the expense of some of his pick-and-roll possessions - or not.

The following point has been belabored by now, but it’s too relevant to ignore. When we picture a pick-and-roll in 2024, we usually picture James Harden with a lob threat. The big man is going to catch and dunk or else he’s going to roll as a decoy.

That’s not the pick-and-roll Udoka is running. Functionally, this is more like Stockton and Malone (if you’ll forgive a Utah Jazz comparison). Sengun is catching pocket passes as far back as the free-throw line. VanVleet isn’t spoon-feeding him. The Rockets use the pick-and-roll to get Sengun in a better position to make use of his impeccable footwork and craftiness to score in face-up situations.

These are good actions, and they shouldn't be abandoned. Still. it wouldn’t hurt to increase Sengun’s low post usage by a touch. There’s been discussion of some passing regression from Sengun this year - his assist percentage is higher, but that’s a function of usage. His assist-to-turnover ratio has declined.

Surely, his ability to pass hasn’t gotten worse. It’s more difficult to make passing reads out of the pick and roll than it is from drawing a double team on the low block. It does feel fair to say that Sengun’s passing creativity is lapping his processing speed. He can make any read in the book, but he doesn’t always make them quickly enough.

On the other hand, the spacing around him is frequently poor. This team isn’t built to maximize Sengun. We’ll see if that changes after the deadline.

It doesn’t have to. Again: the Rockets are building a foundation. Amen Thompson could break out after the All-Star break. Although, maximizing him and maximizing Sengun looks roughly the same - surround them with shooting and defense.

Jalen Green could make his case after the All-Star break. Wait, why are you laughing? Stop laughing. OK, fine - it’s a little funny.

The point is a broader one. The Rockets are finding their identity. They shouldn’t lean into a heliocentric Sengun system unless they’re desperate down the road. He’s already breaking out. A minor adjustment could be helpful, but otherwise, the Rockets should maintain the status quo.

At least, in my opinion.