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  • Nathan Fogg

Alperen Şengün deep dive: Everything you need to know about the new Houston Rocket

In the 2021 NBA draft the Houston Rockets swapped two future first round picks to snag Alperen Şengün at #16. As an international player, less was naturally known about his game, although by now many will have dug into the YouTube highlights and Twitter threads. I was a little surprised at how quickly most fans waved goodbye to the two first rounders Houston gave up, seemingly satisfied because they were heavily protected (number 16 isn’t exactly a high pick itself). Charlotte got the #19 pick for just one future 1st from New York. However, trades on draft day are beholden to a ticking clock and names sliding down draft boards, valuations can fluctuate from team to team and trade to trade. Ultimately, little will be remembered of the package which landed Şengün. It will be his play, and how it translates to an NBA court, which will be the only point of discussion. Before the pick was made, I hadn’t seen a single possession of Şengün’s. I’ve spent the last two weeks watching his play in Turkey and broke down everything I saw below. Most of the full game footage available online is from his 2019-20 season playing in the Basketball Champions League for Teksüt Bandirma, when he was playing in a smaller role, with limited minutes. He was a nice role player, but hardly flashed NBA potential. He got a couple of DNPs, in other games he got first-half minutes but was benched in the second. He was chubby, miscast on offense and with little of the polish and skill he came to develop later. Then, when it came to watching him in a Beşiktaş jersey last year, I was shocked at his explosion, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. In one year he went from a bench player on a poor team to MVP of the Turkish League for Beşiktaş, while starring for his national team on the international scene. He forced himself into draft contention and flew up the mock drafts. Kevin O’Connor had him 9th on his big board. Sam Vecenie had him 8th. He has plenty of tools to be a good NBA rotation player, and an outside chance of being a real offensive force to build around. With that, let’s dig into some of the tape.


OFFENSE


If you didn’t know by now, Şengün’s strength is on offense. He averaged 24.4 points and 3.2 assists per36 for Beşiktaş last year, shooting a monstrous 67.9% from inside the arc. They lost their first 6 games of the season, before firing their coach and rebuilding their team around the big man. After that, they went 19-5 the rest of the way in their domestic campaign, with Şengün shining as one of the brightest young talents in Europe. Rewind just one year, and things weren’t going as well. For Teksüt Bandirma he played in a crowded front court, sharing the floor with other bigs who couldn’t shoot. He was often relegated to the corner, which provided negative spacing as the defense ignored him and packed the paint. He shot 6-29 from deep, a putrid 20.7%. His lack of outside shooting meant he was stuck standing around on the perimeter, and you could see the damage it did for spacing, where the defense could stick two on the center in the paint.


You can’t blame a player for not being a shooter, Houston will hope Şengün continues to work on his shot and develop into at least a catch and shoot threat. What is less excusable is when a player will stand still and not get involved in other ways. Thankfully, Şengün is not one of those players. He made timely and effective cuts from both the weakside and strongside and got easy baskets as he ran through space along the baseline. As you'll notice in some of these clips, finishing in traffic was a struggle, but he got stronger once he moved to Beşiktaş and was less deterred by contact.


The other weapon a non-shooter must have is the ability to attack off the catch, to put the ball on the floor and use the space the defence is gifting to get to the rim. For Teksüt Bandirma, Şengün struggled in this area. We see it in the clips below. Whether it was driving out of the corner or when he got the ball at the free throw line, he struggled to make something. He was aggressive, he flashed some fairly convincing pump fakes and some of the footwork he had honed by the time he left for Beşiktaş, but it counted for little. Too often he lost his footing or stumbled clumsily into the defender, coughing up the ball or getting a charge call. When he did get to the rim, his poor finishing meant he couldn’t convert.


There need be little concern about this area of his game anymore. We'll see later how he worked on his footwork and balance in back to the basket and post up moves, but I'll highlight one drive from last year which really emphasises how far he’s come. In one single move he pulls out a crossover, a hesitation, a hop step, takes his time under pressure at the rim and gives the defenders a couple of pass fakes, and then lays it up.


And you can see this next move how much better the footwork is, it’s really incredible how he invents a gap between two defenders. It might come from the reduced weight he is carrying, or just more work in the gym, but it’s a marked improvement. You can envision him getting the ball from anywhere on the court and being able to put it on the floor, move between traffic and find an angle out of nowhere.


Pick n Roll


Şengün wasn’t used as the roll man often for Teksüt, but when he did he showed what is possibly his most elite skill – his hands. Either at the end of a screen and roll or off a cut, if the passer was able to put the ball anywhere in his vicinity he grabbed it. He can pluck it out of thin air, or catch it low in his stomach, and bring it straight up and finish. He also showed some better finishing ability once deep into the paint.


The NBA feeds on a diet of pick n roll, and I’m confident Şengün will develop a very strong two-man game with both Jalen Green and Kevin Porter Jr. I have little doubt in his ability to make those partnerships successful. Firstly, he’s a really strong screen setter. This is obviously a pivotal part of the pick n roll, but will prove useful also in two big lineups when he’s off ball setting flare screens for a shooter on the weakside. Watch how particularly adept he is at the handoff into the screen action, as well as rescreening.


At 6’9, even with his leaping ability, he clearly isn’t the lob threat in the mould of centers such as Clint Capela and Christian Wood. Pockets passes, bounce passes and wrap around passes will be the feeds he relies on. He can play above the rim and finish lobs, it just wasn’t a high usage play that I saw. The play below is typical of the sort we may see Houston run next season. The off guard performs an Iverson cut past two bigs, it doesn’t come off so the ballhandler switches sides of the court and turns into a handoff screen and roll action with Şengün. Şengün’s screen is solid and gets him separation to roll down the lane, catch the bounce pass and take it to the rim with his improved finishing strength.


On draft night, footage of his dunks were flying around social media, I decided to pick out just one below. It’s jaw dropping stuff if you fall into a lull of the ‘plodding European big’ narrative that unfortunately we all sometimes succumb to.


Post Ups


Most highlight videos and scouting reports of Şengün showcase his excellent post skills, with a devastating mix of power, footwork and contortions to get a clean look at the rim. He had very little of this in his bag at Teksüt. They ran a lot of sets that had him take up high post position, but for whatever reason he was often ignored, even when he had a smaller defender switched on to him. Maybe the reason was simply because it was such an inefficient play. For the most part, he was using simple backdowns, trying to get closer, and spinning when he got position. The finishing off such plays left much to be desired.


The next season, Şengün was a different beast. If you watch him in the play below, he isn’t simply backing his defender down. He’s angling one specific way, over his left shoulder, and that’s when he makes a spin over the reverse shoulder to completely bamboozle his defender.


In this next play, you get a sense for the patience and intelligence added to Şengün’s game. As he gets the ball in the post he sees the defender leaving his left arm out, so he purposefully attacks it and gets the foul call, all while making the basket.


The post up isn’t dead in the NBA. If you can score efficiently, any type of play on the court will be spammed over and over again. Şengün’s vision and passing projects him to be a playmaking hub out of the post. Even if he isn’t attracting traps and double teams like he was in Turkey, a smart enough offensive coach will have the right players around him manoeuvring around the court in a mix of cuts and screens to spring free, and he will find them. One area Şengün can improve is getting into post position in half-court as the play starts. If he’s just one on one and trying to get position, a pesty, strong defender can cover him and deter the pass. Both Teksüt and Beşiktaş ran plenty of plays to get him in position, such as 4/5 cross screens under the basket and in basic pick n rolls, Houston can do the same. His work with his back to the basket is mesmerizing. I could watch highlights of it for hours, for now I’ll leave you with a short montage.


Shooting


Şengün does have good touch around the rim, and in the compilation above we saw him hit some tough, contested shots simply by having a high release point over his stationary defender. It’s the sort of shot Christian Wood makes routinely, spinning and twisting and eventually just hurling a shot up while leaning over a wall of arms and it goes in. This is all well and good, but we do have to come to his 3-point shooting, because much of his eventual success in the NBA will depend on whether he can turn into a capable shooter. Many of the modern stars at the centre position were at one point, and in some aspects still are, touted as stretch bigs who can drain it from deep. In reality, their shooting has been pretty poor. Nikola Jokic is a career 34.7% shooter, Joel Embiid shoots 32.9%, Anthony Davis’s average is 31.2%, Demarcus Cousins hits 33.4%. The bar isn’t very high for Şengün, but it still feels some distance away. Below is a compilation of misses from his 2019-20 season. They are all open, off the catch, and they are all bricks. You can see the inconsistency in his form, especially when under any sort of pressure or contest from the defender, or when he didn’t catch the ball at the perfect angle. His marksmanship showed no signs of improvement for Beşiktaş, where he shot just 19% on low volume. Don’t expect any return from this part of his game any time soon, if ever.


Passing


Şengün is a phenomenal passer. What’s striking is not just the accuracy, and almost every single one is pinpoint, it’s the vision. It’s the quick decision making. He makes the game fun, a forward or center being able to pass is a dangerous weapon. They get the ball in areas of the court the point guard doesn’t – in the short roll, out of corners, after bringing the ball down from a defensive rebound. In the montage below, I picked out a variety of impressive passes. It shows his passing from the middle of the floor when he needs to quickly pick out a shooter, it has passes on the fast break, passes out of the post where he’s waiting to draw the double team and then hits the open man. He’s thinking ahead, he’s thinking on his feet. He averaged 3.2 assists per36 last year but he was the first scoring option on the team, he could average way more. We will be robbed of seeing him surrounded by shooters with this Rockets roster, but I’d love to see him get runs with combinations of Green/Brooks/Gordon/House/Tate, shooting with solid screen setters, running around Şengün operating out of the post or short roll. Even playing at power forward adds intriguing possibilities, with Christian Wood spacing the floor either in the corner or in the dunker spot, Şengün running a screen and roll on the opposite corner and hitting him when his defender leaves him open. Coach Silas will already have drawn up more plays than I can imagine involving his passing.



DEFENSE


The scouting report on Şengün will tell you he’s a poor defender, and if there’s anything that will stop him being a productive NBA player it’s his lack of speed and burst. I didn’t think his defense was any sort of disaster playing in Turkey, but it’s certainly a weak point and certainly threatens to be exposed when playing against the most skilled hoopers in the world. We’ll start with his help defense. I like his defensive IQ for the most part, and I got the sense he knew where to be on his assignment. However, his slow first step (and every step thereafter on reflection) caused him issues as the help defender, especially when he was the ‘dig’ man, leaving his perimeter man to help onto the driver as he rounds the corner on a screen. It’s a difficult task, to get into position to slow or stop the driver and be able to recover to the shooter on the pass out. It’s one he was not particularly suited to it and often it was a freebie for the shooter as he was stuck in mud trying to scramble back.


Some of what Şengün does on defense seems pre-rehearsed. It’s as if he isn’t reacting to what is happening in front of him, but instead robotically executing a gameplan, which a smart ball handler can easily expose. In this play, he’s again digging onto the driver but knows he has to get back into position to cover the shooter on the perimeter. The guard patiently waits for Şengün to abandon position and he drives into the wide-open space for the layup.


Hedge Defense


In the first half of the season when Şengün was the screen defender he was operating a ‘hard hedge’ coverage where he would momentarily flash to the ballhandler to stop him driving, then quickly scamper back to pick up the screener. This had some decent success. He used his arms well, he used angles well on side pick n rolls to equip the sideline as an extra defender, and he didn’t lose the screener.


There are some simple counters to the hard hedge and it’s fairly rare for it to be consistently used with success at NBA level, due to the quality of ballhandlers. These flaws were on display in the Basketball Champions League too, and in the clip below the guard easily splits the two defenders to get into the paint.


The slip screen is also an effective counter, and here Şengün is nowhere near the roller or the ballhandler as the play develops too quickly for him.


The positioning and the timing has to be nailed every time for the hard hedge to work. Rockets fans will be wondering how Şengün can be used in pick n roll coverage considering his obvious speed deficiency, and I don’t think this is the answer. Look at the play below at how he isn’t tight with the screener and doesn’t have the angle correct, it’s an easy blowby for the driver.


As the season progressed, Şengün began attempting more aggressive lunges at the ballhandler, looking to get a deflection or even a steal before he could attack downhill. There were a couple of examples of success, managing to get a deflection and reset the play, but this is the sort of defensive gamble I don’t like seeing players take. Houston fans saw it for years with James Harden and then Russell Westbrook, and they could point to fruitful steal numbers as testament to their defensive prowess. However, more often than not, it exposes the defense behind the play. It’s also a recipe for drawing fouls. If you leave your arm out, there are a multitude of guards in the NBA who will throw a shot up on contact and draw a 3-point shooting foul.


Drop Defense


For Beşiktas, Şengün was almost exclusively used as the pick n roll defender and was given a drop assignment. He usually stayed above the free throw line, and had some decent success keeping in front of guards, containing their drives and even blocking shots. He did this at a high point at the top of the key, a difficult position to be in with an incoming guard, showing at times genuinely impressive footwork.


In the play below, you see some of his impressive bball IQ. He faces two screens in a row as the defender. In the first, he sees the guard rounding the corner and there’s only really one way he can go if he wants to get into the paint, so Şengün sees no urgency to get out to him, instead staying around the free throw line and blocking that path. They try again and the second screen is set tighter with more momentum and he recognises he needs to be more aggressive and steps up to the ballhandler.


Unfortunately, Şengün’s work as the drop defender was a mixed bag and there were plenty more instances where you saw some of the ‘pre-rehearsed’ issues I mentioned earlier. In the two plays below he’s unsure of his positioning and allows the guard a free drive down the lane unchallenged until it is too late.


Defending the pick n roll as a big, whatever the coverage, is hard. It’s the most efficient form of offense for a reason, and if you put a good playmaking guard with an athletic big who can catch with reasonable ability, it’s going to be a pretty tough ask to shut it down. You can see below how simple it can be to score if the drop defender isn’t able to guard two players at once. Any drop defender is at a disadvantage any time the guard defender is slowed by the screen, which happens frequently even among the best on ball defenders. It’s also much more of a team defense than it gets credit for, strengths and weaknesses can be highlighted with the success of timely help from the corners or a dig from the perimeter.


Şengün is not a great drop defender, but neither is he a poor one. I would say he was above average from what I saw of his minutes in Beşiktaş. He will be facing tougher opposition in the NBA of course, but he will also continue to make his own strides. He’s not coming into the NBA as some sort of hopeless prospect defensively. He’s slow, but he has a great vertical leap and blocking ability. His positioning at times is very strong, but it’s inconsistent. Overall, I think he shows promise that he can be at least passable in drop coverage, if not ever a real plus. He sticks out his legs and arms when the pass is coming to get steals and deflections, but he also sometimes overplays the guard and abandons the center. The pick n pop is always a natural counter to drop defense and Şengün struggles to get out to the shooter if he concedes too much space. He doesn’t have a crazy long wingspan and his lack of burst form a standing position renders him unable to close out and contest. When he does contest, he overcommits and succumbs to blowbys.


1v1 Defense


The compilation below is from his attempts at guarding the perimeter in his Teksüt Bandirma days. For Beşiktaş, because he was the pick n roll defender he wasn’t defending on an island as often. In Houston, playing with Christian Wood and Daniel Theis, he might be asked to do this more. How he fares with his undoubtedly better agility and turning speed remains to be seen, but it clearly projects as a weakness. He will need to use his body to cut off angles, bump ballhandlers out of position without fouling, and whatever other dark arts he can find in his bag to make up for the athleticism deficit.


That’s not to say we don’t have any film of him defending on the perimeter from last season. Despite getting into better shape, his attempts to stop a guard 1 on 1 is still ugly. Watch the play below and 3 infamous words will come to your head immediately.


The guard there was Giordan Watson. He’s clearly a crafty ballhandler and scorer, and he can bomb from deep, but he’s also a 35 year old and there’s a big gap between what he can do and what NBA guards can do. He cooked Şengün again here, getting him on his heels and finding acres of separation for the 3.


Interior Defense


Using his body is certainly an area in which Şengün has improved in. For Teksüt, his interior defense was basically a non-factor. He was in position and was well disciplined to stay vertical without fouling, but he was easily brushed aside by older, stronger players. Despite reportedly losing 27 pounds by the time he was suiting up for Beşiktaş, he was able to hold his own a lot more. His core strength fared him better, and he used his body to bump a player trying to go through him, keeping his arm in position to swat down for the block. In the compilation below, you see his lack of strength causing him issues in 2019-20.


Now here’s his genuine interior D presence from last year.



Şengün averaged 2.1 blocks per 36 last year, which is genuinely impressive considering his smaller size. Nowhere is his leaping ability more obvious in his highlight videos on YouTube showing off his blocks. In the compilation below you see not just his chase down blocks in transition, but also weakside rotations and swatting away guards as the drop defender.


One of my favourite blocks is the one below which I made sure to separate, you really see the exaggerated hangtime he is able to get, and this was playing for Teksüt Bandirma when he was carrying a lot of extra weight.


CONCLUSION


There will be unknown things we don’t yet know how will translate to the NBA. Şengün played heavy minutes for Beşiktaş as their clear best player and eventual league MVP. Playing all 10 minutes of the 1st quarter and then coming back out and playing the first 3 minutes of the 2nd was part of his role. He doesn’t have the motor of the rim runner prototype, which is why he will need to develop a 3-point shot he can hit as he trails the play. With reduced minutes in his rookie season as a Rocket, he will have to empty the tank more in shorter bursts to keep up. He’s coming in with a foundation of talent and ability against experienced professionals in a tough league, you don’t get that with a prospect coming out of college. His strengths are obvious and so are his weaknesses. He will have highlight dunks and passes, he will have lowlight blowbys on the perimeter. Houston just made four first round picks in one draft, double the amount they had made in the previous 8 drafts since they traded for James Harden. Each will be dissected, eyes will be on every other player taken #17 and below at other teams and what they would look like in Rockets Red if Houston had picked them over Şengün. I am very confident this pick will work. Whether he will be a star, I don’t know. But he has a future in the league, he projects as a rotational player. His hands, his IQ, his passing, his strength on the interior and flashes of positional awareness defensively all back my prediction. If he learns to shoot and gets better with his lateral quickness, the former more likely than the latter – but still a poor bet - Houston grabbed one of the best players in the draft. If he fails, it will be because his post game fails to translate, which is of course a possibility. His preference for bounce passes rather than lobs might cause friction with his point guards. He might not be able to play in any pick n roll defensive coverage which will drop him to a 20-minute player rather than a 35 minute player. And I don’t think he will have the motor for that yet anyway. These are all the concerns that come with a pick outside the lottery. There are legitimate questions for the guy taken as high as #4 too. But Şengün already has long seasons and important games with hostile crowds under his belt. He’s learnt vet moves such as sealing off the center to allow his guard an open lane, something he will continue to develop playing with Daniel Theis. He is going to mesh really well with the skills of Kevin Porter Jr and Jalen Green and I think there are some exciting mismatch opportunities if he’s playing alongside Christian Wood. I hope to see Wood playing full-time at the 5 still defensively, because I was impressed by his improvements as the interior defender as the season went on and want to see that continue. Şengün can be hidden on the weakside corner most of the time, he’s smart enough to offer well-timed help on drives and his rotations and weakside blocking is a huge strength. Offensively, his patience in the post matured in just one season, which brings me to the best thing about evaluating him as a prospect. His improvement from one year to the next was truly remarkable. He didn’t do it by extending his range or suddenly being able to jump out of the gym. He did it by honing his skills and adapting his game. He took on the role of offensive leader of his team night in and night out, he wanted that responsibility and he grabbed it. Şengün will have a career in the NBA, and we get to watch it blossom over the next few years.