Impressed with Alperen Şengün's impressive breakout? Well, it almost didn't happen

It was the same basket inside Toyota Center, the same rim in front of Houston’s home bench, where Victor Wembanyama cracked the most vicious hammer of his rookie season atop Alperen Şengün’s curly hair.

Tuesday night, nearly three months later, Şengün drew the French phenom at the left block, scooping a pocket pass from Fred VanVleet that would help blend Wembanyama into the sweet taste of revenge. With one look over the wrong shoulder, Şengün froze the Spurs’ young center for just the second he needed to pirouette the opposite direction and into Houston’s red paint. Şengün cleared even more space with his lower half and baited Wembanyama with a few more fakes to return the favor; a poster jam of his own.

And it was just one highlight for Şengün during an evening replete with its own sizzle reel, perhaps the greatest showing of the 21-year-old’s three-year career. Şengün finished with a career-best 45 points, plus 16 rebounds, three assists and five steals. He bullied Wembanyama with his strength and footwork all night long. He drilled 2-of-3 triples. He poked the ball free from Big Vic’s grasp on multiple occasions. On one play, he even soared, full extension, to meet Spurs guard Devin Vassell at the rim. Şengün blocked the attempt with both hands before snatching it clean off the backboard. And how did he follow that performance? With a ho-hum 23-point, 19-rebound, 14-assist triple-double against the mighty Clippers on Wednesday.

It all encapsulates the detail and development Houston has prioritized for the No. 16 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft ever since head coach Ime Udoka was hired to lead a revamped era for these Rockets. A plan, as avid fans of the league’s slop cycle may recall, once focused on possibly starting Brook Lopez at center instead.

The NBA is full of sliding doors that open and close before free agency comes and goes. Steve Nash was nearly a Net before he was nearly a Raptor before he improbably became a Laker. Tim Duncan was going to sign with the Magic. The what-ifs stemming from Lopez’s flirtation with the Rockets this past summer, where Houston drew Lopez’s eye before he re-signed in Milwaukee, don’t bring as many league-shattering alternatives. Although him bailing on the Bucks would have certainly thrust another obstacle in Milwaukee’s ongoing effort to construct a contender around Giannis Antetokounmpo. And who’s to say if Şengün would have flourished to this degree, this season, without standing as Houston’s primary big?

(Taylar Sievert/Yahoo Sports illustration)
(Taylar Sievert/Yahoo Sports illustration)

Şengün is posting 21.3 points, hitting 53.9% from the field and grabbing 9.3 rebounds with 4.8 assists per game. He’s drawing comparisons to Nikola Jokić from Nikola Jokić himself, both with an immense appetite for gorgeous no-look dishes. The only players in NBA history age 22 or younger to even average 19-4-4 on 50% shooting over a full season: Antetokounmpo, Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, David Thompson and Kevin Johnson — with OKC wing Jalen Williams primed to join the illustrious list as well.

The Lopez noise surely reached Şengün as May bled into June and quickly became July. If he viewed the Rockets signing former second-round selection Bruno Fernando last season as competition for Houston’s starting center position, he was bracing for battle with the Bucks’ veteran shot blocker. “You know, of course, when you’re hearing that sh**, you’re getting nervous, of course,” Şengün told Yahoo Sports. “You don’t want to lose your spot. But if [Lopez] was coming, I was ready for a fight.”

That was part of Houston’s calculus. The Rockets were quite intentional about spending to speed forward after three seasons stuck in the league’s cellar. After all the innuendo about Houston reuniting with James Harden, the Rockets committed to a defensive-minded philosophy when they hired Udoka, aiming to establish the brick and mortar of a contending-caliber scheme, while one of Houston’s young lottery picks hopefully emerged as the backbone of an elite offense. It required a harsher leash and less space to commit mistakes. Udoka was never going to promise any minutes to any player, no matter their draft slot or salary. Even if you won your role, you could still lose it. Jalen Green and Jabari Smith Jr. have both been yanked from fourth-quarter action throughout this campaign.

There are risks a team weighs when creating that environment. Different players, different people, respond in their own ways when another man is placed across from his plate. VanVleet and Dillon Brooks were truly complementary veterans to help nourish the Rockets’ prospects. Lopez, though, could have stood directly in Şengün’s path, even if Houston envisioned them possibly sharing the floor. But Lopez was a strong enough player, a DPOY candidate seemingly for the taking, that the Rockets nonetheless felt compelled to pursue him.

“For us, we had money to spend and we wanted to balance the roster with leadership and veterans and somewhat different players,” Udoka said. “I think Alperen’s skillset is unique compared to other guys we were looking at. And so from that standpoint, we just looked at the depth overall, if we added another center, but something that complements what Alperen does already.”

Maybe Lopez and Şengün could have split an even platoon at the position, where Houston held two top-tier giants to man every minute of every matchup. That balance also offered the chance for Lopez, 35, to ease his way through the latter stages of his career, at one point maybe giving way to Şengün’s lead and shifting into more of a backup role himself. The Rockets, after all, went forward with acquiring injured center Steven Adams before the trade deadline, eying that similar setup for 2024-25.

Adams may be a more congruent mentor for Şengün, more of a right-place, right-time defender than a fearsome rim protector. Similar to how VanVleet and Brooks have already helped the Rockets sport the league’s seventh-stingiest defense this season. Houston’s coaching staff has marveled at their team’s proficiency on that side of the floor, such a prioritized principle of this regime, while Şengün and Green are still learning every possession how to defend within a competitive, connected web. The success has been largely due to the veterans’ know-how, but also a big credit to Şengün. He spent his first two seasons in a trial by fire in drop coverage — Lopez’s speciality — getting burned at the stake while the Rockets watched him try to withstand the heat. Now he’s grown impressively capable of adapting across multiple coverages.

He has quick hands and strong anticipation. Şengün has excelled at defending without fouling and gobbling everything off the boards. Progressing on this side of the sport was also Şengün’s leading takeaway following last season, how to personally start turning the page toward playoff contention, no matter his next coach or rumored replacement.

“I didn’t understand that as, ‘Brook was gonna come and I needed to.’ I just know I have to do a better job on defense. If you want to win, if you want to be a ‘winner player,’ you have to do everything on the court,” Şengün said. “I mean, Brook Lopez is a really good player. A really good defensive player, you know? But, I mean, he’s a good shot blocker. I don’t think he’s as good one-on-one player [as me]. We have different physical body. Like, he’s so tall. He’s big. He can block all the shots. I know I can’t block all the shots. I know that. I don’t have long arms. I’m not [that] tall. I just need to be where I have to be and just stay vertical. To jump straight up and just make their job harder.”

“His IQ and his skillset is all there,” Udoka said. “It’s just a matter of maturing and kind of taking that step, and he’s done that.”

The work began in Santa Barbara, where scores of NBA players have trained with the sports scientists at P3 Peak Performance Project. Like Jokić, and Luka Dončić, and Harden before them, Şengün registered impressive numbers for his hyper-fluid movements that traditional performance data doesn’t value. He is flexible beyond belief, light on his feet, able to stretch the long legs of his 6-foot-11 frame into a complete split.

He sported a movement quality, those nimble legs and melty hips, that clustered Şengün much more tightly with the guards P3 has tested than the bigs. There were plenty of similarities with Jokić’s biometric profile, a former youth point guard himself, and it’s even less surprising both have incorporated a one-footed fadeaway that’s proven virtually unguardable.

After helping the Turkish national team compete in pre-Olympic qualifiers, Şengün returned to Houston eager to learn the Rockets’ new principles from assistant Royal Ivey, a former point guard. There were long days, down in a stance, shuffling those dancing feet for every necessary rotation. “He took that step initially right when we got to camp,” Udoka said. “He kinda took that challenge on and he’s been really good this year.”

“They taught us all the things, but now we see how it works,” Şengün said.

Another former player, longtime Spurs center Tiago Splitter, is Şengün’s personal development coach. Assistant Ben Sullivan, who followed Udoka from the Celtics, is yet another towering presence at 6-10 who can impersonate Şengün’s particular shooting mechanics as easily as the coach offers him tidbits and low-post sparring tricks. “He’s always giving me advice,” Şengün said. This is as new of a challenge for Houston’s coaches as it is for their young core, a staff largely hailing from contending clubs and learning how to best impress day-to-day practices that culminate into victories. Şengün marks one clear success story. Their lunch-pail style has melded perfectly with the demanding approach Şengün always craved from his European coaches.

“They’re all helping us. Like, Ime’s a perfect coach. He’s the best coach I ever had, probably,” Şengün said. “But not just Ime. Our whole coaching staff is amazing. Everybody’s doing a great job. Everybody wants to win. I’ve never seen a coaching staff like this in my life. And when you see, you understand. They’re tough. They’re talking to us. They’re not scared of anything.”

All this, two years after Şengün arrived for Summer League from Turkey hardly comprehending a lick of the NBA’s language. Last season, our conversation would have required the help of Şengün’s translator, the former Turkish player Orhun Gungoren, who was also represented by Excel and lived with Şengün during his rookie campaign. They went everywhere together, Gungoren coming along for road trips, helping him understand daily walk-throughs and the minutia being described during player’s association meetings. “He knows, but he’s not really that good at English either,” Şengün grinned. “He was just trying his best.” Now Şengün’s adopted big brother has transitioned into a full-time role within the Rockets’ video room.

Şengün gave Gungoren one of his best clips in early January, when a certain Eastern Conference contender rolled through Houston. With just over 90 seconds to play and the Rockets nursing a six-point lead, Şengün drove hard out of another pick-and-roll from VanVleet. He plowed a shoulder into his mountainous defender, drawing defensive help from Antetokounmpo on the baseline. And there was nothing the Greek Freak, nothing Lopez, nothing anyone could do to stop Şengün from wrapping a no-look bounce pass. Not just around his back, but around Giannis as well, leaving Smith wide open in the corner for a triple and a dagger in the Bucks’ loss. Another sip of revenge for a budding All-Star.