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Is Alperen Şengün Ready To Be The Rockets’ Starting Center?

In late June, the Houston Rockets dealt Christian Wood to the Dallas Mavericks, shipping their starting center from last year to their divisional rival without getting a replacement in return. The Rockets didn’t address that vacancy in the Draft or free agency either, and it’s almost entirely because of Houston’s confidence in second-year big man Alperen Şengün.

As a rookie, the then-19-year-old largely adhered to a bench role but impressed throughout his 1,489 minutes (20.7/game). Despite not garnering an All-Rookie Team nod — that class is loaded! — he averaged 9.6 points (55.2 percent true shooting), 5.5 rebounds, and 2.6 assists. He laid the groundwork to potentially be an integral member of Houston’s core, now spearheaded by Jalen Green and Jabari Smith Jr. At the very least, the organization’s interest is piqued, a testament to the campaign Şengün authored in 2021-22.

Now, he’ll go from stand-in starter playing reserve minutes to first-string center for a team aiming to progress. The priority may still be youthful development, but presumably Houston would prefer to avoid the Western Conference cellar after two consecutive seasons there. Şengün, through his own contributions and evolution, can help achieve that.

The most remarkable component of Şengün’s rookie season was how he self-created fairly effectively amid poor floor-spacing and inconsistent decision-making from ball-handlers. According to Cleaning The Glass, half his buckets were unassisted, which ranked in the 97th percentile among bigs. Meanwhile, his 55.2 percent true shooting was just 1.4 points below league average, an encouraging number, given the aforementioned factors and his first-year status.

Playing alongside a dynamite shooter in the power forward Smith and maturation from young playmakers like Green, Kevin Porter Jr., and Josh Christopher represent external factors that could spike Şengün’s efficiency, even beyond anything he addresses this offseason.

Şengün is an ultra-skilled post player, particularly fueled by his rarified flexibility and capacity to endure contact without being deterred. Most centers are not pliable like him, nor do they handle physicality or instigate it as he does. Each game, he was seemingly good for one bonkers bucket full of pivots, fakes, and gyrations. His footwork is deft.

The issue, though, is his physical limitations generally necessitated such genius creativity to thrive inside. He’s only 6’9” with a 7-foot wingspan and a rather poor vertical leaper. Most NBA centers hold clear advantages over him in those regards and that spurred various problems. He shot 61 percent at the rim, which ranked in the 19th percentile among bigs. Granted, fewer than half of his makes were assisted (47 percent, 96th percentile), so the creation burden shouldn’t be ignored.

But the tape reinforced these issues, while also confirming his immense savvy. I’m fascinated to see how he navigates this moving forward, as he just turned 20 and is highly talented. I don’t expect these problems to persist forever, though I do have some hesitancies about to what magnitude they can be resolved. Even so, the dude can look like a wizard on the low block.

One of the most enjoyable angles of analyzing young players, especially as rookies, is aiming to discern which skill flashes are legitimate launching pads for future consistency and which may always be stuck in that purgatory of flashes. With Şengün, his driving game meets this criteria.

Among 180 players to register at least 200 drives last season, per, his 58.4 percent points rate ranked 68th. Yet his 41.6 field goal percentage ranked 154th. He went to the charity stripe a whole lot. I’m not at all here to rag on the merits or value of foul-drawing; it’s an excellent skill to tout.

However, in his 13 games as a starter, his free-throw was a mere .213. In 59 games as a reserve, it was a gaudy .522. That is a wide dichotomy, and one I think hints at some of the shortcomings in Şengün’s physical profile. From my view, he thrived exploiting smaller, ill-equipped bench bigs, whereas NBA-caliber starters proved thorny for him to exploit in a similar manner.

In fact, his true shooting percentage was 3.1 points higher off the bench (52.8 vs. 55.9). How he adapts to this shift will be a preeminent storyline for him this year. Foul-drawing was an essential facet in his offensive success.

Regardless of these specific numbers, I’m pretty optimistic about his long-term scope as a potent dribble handoff partner. He’s a master of establishing subtle contact to free ball-handlers. His flexibility and craft shine when he opts to fake the handoff and maneuver inside. I don’t know how menacing his pure driving prowess can become, but I do like it as a steady option out of DHOs. The rosy sequences surfaced intermittently.

The viability and potential of his dribble-drive weaponry could be considerably enhanced by growth as a long-range shooter. His 24.8 percent outside clip is uninspiring, but the strides he showcased in willingness were noteworthy. Throughout the first 3.5 months of the season, he regularly looked timid when afforded space and averaged about one three-point attempt per game. Over the final 2.5 months, that number spiked to about 2.5 per game.

At just 22.9 percent (16 of 70), the results were lackluster. Mind you, he launched 35 triples across 37 games with Beşiktaş Icrypex in 2020-21, so a heightened willingness at this age is a welcomed sight. Emerging as a viable stationary threat won’t occur overnight. I’m not guaranteeing anything, but the first step is at least taking them and Şengün did that much more confidently to close 2021-22.

Not only could this possible maturation amplify his drives, it could also broaden his playmaking opportunities. Sometimes, defenders will sag off and curb passing windows for him. If he’s a shooting presence, even if from 18 feet and in, his facilitating impact will swell. Whirling feeds through narrow openings, flinging no-look reads and inventing openings, he’s already an intrepid distributor.

Since the Rockets traded Wood, Şengün’s offensive translation to a grander, more daunting role has floated around my brain. His rookie year warrants hope. The passing, post craft, and foul-drawing all popped. How he scales up in spite of his undersized frame, in-transit jumper, and cumbersome physical tools is critical.

I’m also curious to monitor how he handles an increased off-ball role alongside the starting unit, with Green and Porter presumably commandeering the majority of touches. Last season, the offense often ran through him in his minutes.

The NBA is unkind to stagnation. Şengün’s talent and season one production have justifiably earned him some rope and patience, but that rope can shrink faster than anyone anticipates. Whether it does is up to him, his teammates, and the coaching staff.