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Alperen Sengun Has Liftoff

The third-year Rockets center known affectionately as “Discount Jokic” is making a name for himself this season—and fueling the most pleasant early surprise in the NBA

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When the Houston Rockets drafted Alperen Sengun, they were very concerned about how he would adjust to life in the NBA. Still only 19 years old, the Turkish teenager couldn’t speak any English.

They worried for nothing.

“He had absolutely no adjustment period,” Rockets general manager Rafael Stone tells me. “None. Zero. And that’s nothing we did. It’s entirely his personality.”

Sengun’s is big. He’s gregarious, engaging, warm, and authentic. The way that manifests on a basketball court was quickly evident to Stone in 2021, when he watched Sengun’s first workouts at the Las Vegas summer league. As Houston’s coaching staff installed their playbook, Sengun couldn’t understand what they were saying, but somehow managed to not only learn all the plays and where everybody else was supposed to be, but also “through grunts and groans” command his teammates to break the play so he could hit them with flashy between-the-legs and behind-the-back passes.

“That’s very much him,” Stone laughs. “That’s just very much him.”

Two years later, on a more seasoned team, beneath a new hard-nosed head coach, as part of an organization that spent the offseason showing a clear financial commitment to turning the page, the no. 16 draft pick is making a leap even his most optimistic admirers didn’t think would come so fast. Sengun is the best player on the NBA’s most pleasant surprise, a 6-3 upstart that ranked 29th in net rating in the 2022 and 2023 seasons. They’re currently sixth.

In the middle of it all, Sengun is a revelation who looks like an All-Star, averaging 19.4 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 6.0 assists per game, with top-10 leaguewide marks in several catch-all metrics. His scoring, playmaking, and efficiency are up significantly from last season, while his turnovers and fouls are down. None of it’s hollow. When Sengun is on the court, Houston is outscoring its opponents by 10.7 points per 100 possessions. When he sits, the Rockets are outscored by 5.1 points per 100 possessions. Sengun’s offense has entered a higher layer of the atmosphere. His defense still isn’t where the Rockets hope it can be, but the effort and influence on that end is night and day compared to some of his more hopeless stretches from the past couple of years.

All of this comes after two miserable seasons for a rebuilding franchise that prioritized the collection of lottery picks and draft assets over a competitive product. The Rockets won 42 total games over the past two seasons, as their young center blended growing pains with splashes of promise beside several high-upside, blunder-prone prospects. It was basketball through fire and water, with an understanding that major change was around the corner: The days of repeatedly playing through the same mistakes, without any real consequences, were about to end.

“When we drafted him, we kind of explained like, look, you’re gonna get a chance to prove some stuff. But not for long,” Stone told me. “Make sure you use the opportunities you have because this isn’t going to last forever.”

That new phase began in April, when head coach Ime Udoka was hired to reset the culture, implement accountability, and translate all that potential into wins. It continued over the summer, when the Rockets splurged on free agents Fred VanVleet and Dillon Brooks, then brought in additional veteran role players in Jeff Green, Jock Landale, Reggie Bullock, and Aaron Holiday. The moves catapulted Houston from the league’s youngest roster to the middle of the pack.

Sengun appreciates and has benefited from the accelerated timeline. “We were like a college team,” he tells me. “Of course, we wanted vets who can teach us and lead us, you know what I’m saying? And now we have two championship players on the team, and they’re talking a lot. … We love learning.”

Sengun’s talent was like a double-edged sword during his first couple of seasons, when the “right” play could be subjective; even if he passed to an open teammate, they might not leverage the advantage he just created, and the possession would go belly-up. It affected his decision-making, but that hasn’t been an issue this season.

The Rockets are no longer amorphous. VanVleet’s leadership mostly comes on the court, pointing out defensive assignments and instructing Sengun on where to be. The two developed near-instantaneous pick-and-roll chemistry: Only Cade Cunningham and Jalen Duren hook up more times per game. Jeff Green, though, gives advice that extends off the court. Sengun remembers getting frustrated by the referees during a preseason scrimmage. “In practice they’re not calling shit, you know? Everyone [is] getting mad,” he says. But Green kept reminding Sengun to stay composed. “[Jeff] just said, ‘Don’t react. Get better on that.’”

Udoka won’t hesitate to curse Sengun out in a film session or pull him from a game to intone defensive habits. It’s a treatment Sengun craves. “I love tough coaches,” he says, smiling. “Sometimes I lose my [concentration]. I feel like when I’m working with coaches [who get] mad I think that makes me wake up. It’s good for me.” (“When I signed on, he said he wants to be coached hard, like he was in Europe,” Udoka chuckles. “And so I will oblige that and do what he’s asking.”)

It’s not even Thanksgiving, but Sengun’s early-season impact as the most important member of Houston’s core is no fluke, yielding several reasons to be excited. Two simple ones stand above the rest. The first is age: Sengun turned 21 in July. For context, Nikola Jokic (Sengun’s basketball idol) was 20 years and 251 days old when he made his NBA debut on October 28, 2015. Sengun had already played 144 games at that exact age. “I think his IQ is even higher than you think,” Udoka says. “He really understands the game, and for a guy at his age, being so young, he’s able to do a lot of things that guys like Jokic and those guys are doing.”

That youth foregrounds a charmed future. Sengun has grown at least an inch since last season and now officially stands 6-foot-11. He also spent five weeks learning how to optimize his body at P3, a sports science company in Santa Barbara, California. The experience was new, but Sengun made the most of his workouts, reinforcing his legs (to better hold up defensively in the paint) and becoming more explosive (for finishing at the rim).

The second reason is stylistic. Sengun’s skill set is unconventional, highly valuable, and tailor-made to dominate the modern NBA. His strengths are a direct descendent of what big men like Jokic and Domantas Sabonis currently are—hyper-efficient, pass-first control centers who push buttons and pull levers for some of the greatest offenses in history.

“Obviously, you see the fancy passes, behind-the-back no-looks, and all that. It reminds me of some [Arvydas] Sabonis stuff, who I grew up watching a little bit in Portland,” Udoka tells me. “It’s almost like he gets bored with the game at times and wants to try to make the difficult pass instead of the simple one because he sees it ahead of time.”

Sengun can pummel literally anyone in the post, grab all the rebounds, make correct reads on a short roll or initiating a dribble handoff, and direct traffic from the elbow. He can impersonate a guard and either come off a screen or run his own pick-and-roll, thanks to a prodigious vision that inspires teammates to move when they don’t have the ball, knowing Sengun can and will find them.

In other words, his game inverts the court and forces opposing centers to defend in areas they aren’t used to. And when actions are funneled through Sengun, the effect is a rising tide that lifts the entire team.

Houston Rockets v San Antonio Spurs Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

Almost one year ago, after the Nuggets beat the Rockets in an early-season matchup, Jokic sat at a podium and was asked for his thoughts on Sengun. “I think he’s really talented,” the two-time MVP said. “Maybe this is going to sound weird, but I think they need to play a little bit more through him. Sometimes they look a little bit more stagnant, with all their 3s.”

Put another way: Do what we did.” When Denver won the title, it not only cemented a first-ballot Hall of Famer’s legacy, but also eliminated any doubt about the Nuggets’ general approach. They proved that a champion can be built around a relatively unathletic center who doesn’t protect the rim and would rather pass than score. Jokic is singular, but if there’s any organization that could even attempt to trace Denver’s blueprint, it’s the Rockets; Sengun is why.

His aesthetic resemblance to Jokic is simultaneously irresistible and unfair. Comparing anyone to one of the best players in basketball history is somewhat of a fool’s errand. Jokic is larger than Sengun and entered the league making the correct read almost every time he touched the ball. (Right now Jokic averages a league-high 58.4 frontcourt touches per game; Sengun is in sixth, at 44.0.) But there’s also some validity to the exercise. “Everybody compares him to … [he’s] got a little bit of Jokic in him,” Udoka says. “That’s the first thing you see.”

Both are brute post scorers with touch and crafty footwork. Both have excellent instincts on the glass. Both throw crafty passes that are one step (or two steps) ahead of the defense. “We like playing slow, taking time,” Sengun says. “Our pass skills and our touch under the rim is pretty similar.”

We’re only nine games into the season, but Sengun’s statistical profile feels like the tremors that come before a volcanic eruption when stacked beside what Jokic did during his third year.

Alperen Sengun Year 3 Vs. Nikola Jokic Year 3

Stat Nikola Jokic Alperen Sengun
Stat Nikola Jokic Alperen Sengun
Age 22 21
Season 2017-18 2023-24
Games Played 75 9
MInutes/Game 32.6 31.4
Points/Game 18.5 19.4
Rebounds/Game 10.7 8.2
Assists/Game 6.1 6
True Shooting % 0.603 0.625
Turnover Rate 15.5 12
Usage Rate 24.2 24.9
PER 24.4 24.8
Win Shares/48 0.211 0.24

Of course, so much of Jokic’s greatness is the consistent selflessness that encourages everyone around him to share even when it won’t directly benefit them as individuals. Jokic doesn’t hold the ball unless the rhythm of the game needs him to. So often his passes set up the pass that sets up the pass that sets up the basket. It’s a steady boil. “Jokic is like monster level,” Sengun says. “But I want to get [to] that level.”

The Rockets would love nothing more. The NBA’s most unstoppable offenses are diversified with a poker face. Unblinking. Indecipherable. Nothing is telegraphed, and everything is on the table. Sengun is a portal to this reality, as someone who can attack from so many different spots on the floor, in ways that directly benefit everyone whirling around him.

This isn’t lost on a Rockets organization that has several mouths to feed. During their coaches retreat over the summer, Udoka and his staff studied actions that have been unleashed by Jamal Murray and Jokic. Even if the Rockets are never that effective, the Nuggets’ strategy is worth mimicking.

Denver Nuggets v Houston Rockets Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

“I played against Denver in a playoff series. I understand the problems with Jokic handling and Murray setting it with the screen. I understand the problems that gives, so we want to implement those things,” Udoka says. “But also, he’s a guy that you can work with off the ball. And, you know, whether it’s a wedge action—which is something that Denver does—or a pindown action, because he knows how to navigate it, and if they go under, as most bigs will, he can pop and make reads from there. If they chase over, he’s good enough to recognize that and curl down the lane or set the screen. He can be anywhere on the court, you just have to find out the best ways to utilize.”

According to Second Spectrum, Sengun has come off a league-most 20 wedge screens this season, almost twice as many as Jokic, who has the most in Second Spectrum’s entire database.

More than anything for Udoka, though, it’s Jokic’s defense that he wants Sengun to keep top of mind. Houston’s ceiling can rise only so high if things don’t click on that end. “You look at a guy like Jokic who’s adjusted and become a decent defender because he knows angles, he knows how to use his hands. He may not be an elite rim protector, but knows how to cover up for his flaws,” Udoka says. “And so those are some of the things I’ve talked to Alpie about. If Jokic or some other guys that I’ve seen over the years can figure it out on the defensive end, you want him to be able to do the same with his IQ and his athleticism that people don’t think he has.”

The Rockets won’t put Sengun in a deep drop and let ball handlers drive at him. “That’s not beneficial to him as a rim protector,” Udoka said. “And that’s just kind of doing him a disservice.” Instead, they’ll spend this season experimenting with different schemes that offer matchup-dependent protection, be it having him closer to the screen—which is how the Nuggets most often use Jokic—switched out on an island, or pre-switched away from danger by a perceptive teammate. As one of the biggest people on the court, though, he’ll have to execute and consistently make multiple efforts regardless of the game plan. Plays like the one below are encouraging: First, Sengun identifies the need to help and then rotates out of it to get a block.

Even though the Rockets allow a dunk in this next clip, it represents a step in the right direction. Sengun switches out onto Harrison Barnes, then offers help at the nail before recovering back to the 3-point line. That is exhausting, necessary work that most big men aren’t able or willing to do.

And then here, he’s flying around the floor, poking the ball away and running shooters off the 3-point line. When Sengun gives this type of energy on every play, the Rockets will be a force.

Outside of the comparison to Jokic, Sengun has distinct characteristics of his own. The reigning Finals MVP won’t submit any Dunk of the Year candidates or smack layups off the backboard with a speed and force that’s completely misjudged by the shooter. Sengun contorts himself in ways most bodies his size aren’t meant to be contorted. An example: He can do a full split. “You don’t see that very often on NBA players,” Adam Hewitt, the general manager at P3, told me. “Most guys are bound pretty tight. … It’s pretty crazy.”

For more functional movements, “he’s kind of like an outlier with respect to how mobile he is at his joints,” Hewitt says. “He’s hyper-mobile through his shoulders, through his hips, so he has this ability just to get into positions that other athletes don’t, and I think he uses that to his advantage.” (Sengun’s initial assessment at P3 was nine years to the day after Jokic made his first visit.)

It’s constructive on both ends. Defenders have to worry about his power but can’t ignore the pseudo-tumbling routine. When it’s combined with lithe footwork and a body that can dip, twist, and bend without losing balance, it makes guarding him one-on-one so much harder than it looks:

Udoka wants Sengun to shoot more 3s, too. “A lot of times he passes up open ones,” he says. Sengun is only 4-for-16 this season, but it’s ultimately more about becoming a threat from the perimeter, knocking one or two down, then forcing a defender to pick their poison:

Right now, Sengun is far more deadly inside the arc, particularly on the block—his favorite zone on a basketball court because nobody can do anything with him when he’s down there. According to Second Spectrum, the Rockets generate a whopping 1.78 points per possession when Sengun posts up, which is first among all players who average at least two per game.

“There are not a ton in the NBA nowadays,” Udoka says. “Joel Embiid and Jokic, and I don’t know how many true low-post threats there are anymore. … [Sengun] has had success against pretty much everybody that’s guarded him in the league so far.”

When pushed farther out, Sengun also has a one-legged fallaway that looks like a (very) stunted version of the Sombor shuffle. It’s a fun little dagger when he’s one-on-one—in isolation, Sengun’s 1.33 points per direct play ranks second out of 62 players who’ve logged 30 or more possessions. His touch in and around the paint is well above average, with the 11th-highest 2-point percentage in the NBA right now (only LeBron James and Jokic are above him at a high volume).

It’s the dawn of possibility in Houston, with Sengun as a foundational centerpiece who—possibly even more than several lottery picks that share star potential—will dictate and define what the next era of Rockets basketball looks like.

He aspires to make good on the comparisons to Jokic and the Nuggets, but knows it won’t happen overnight. “They know each other very well, and I think that’s the most important thing for their championship last year,” he says. “We need to know each other like Denver does, and we just have a lot of players, new players, this year. But, you know, Jalen [Green], and me and Jabari [Smith Jr.], we’re getting used to it now knowing each other, but that’s taking time.”

So much can change in a year. Last week, after the Rockets beat the Nuggets in a game Sengun finished with 23 points, eight rebounds, and five assists, Jokic’s suggestion was realized. “I think it’s a good thing that they’re playing a little bit more through [Sengun],” he said. “I think that’s going to benefit the whole organization. He’s the guy who’s not selfish, he wants to play for the team. He wants to pass, the whole team is going to move when the ball is in his hands.”

Sengun has a long way to go before he can anchor a championship contender, score efficiently at a high volume, and still set the table for everyone around him. He might never make an All-NBA team or be an MVP candidate, but the path to genuine stardom is visible for a player who’s finally in an ideal setting.

If Sengun stays on this track, the Rockets will have no choice but to invest in players who accentuate his strengths and cover his weaknesses. And if Jokic and Denver are to be a loose road map, the Rockets know that patience and familiarity will be key. “The best teams in the NBA have continuity. They’ve been together five, six years, their core group,” Stone says. “I think we’re entering that phase.”

If Sengun is their hub, odds are solid that wherever they end up will be worth the wait.

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