The Houston Rockets have entered what the franchise calls “Section 2” of its rebuild.
Section 1, which started within the wake of buying and selling celebrity guard James Harden to the Brooklyn Nets on Jan. 14, 2021, noticed the Rockets go an NBA-worst 56-171 from the day of the deal till the top of the 2022-23 season.
Then, thanks to a couple splashy acquisitions this previous offseason, Houston expedited its transition into turning into a postseason contender. The Rockets employed former Boston Celtics coach Ime Udoka in April and spent over $200 million to sign free agents Fred VanVleet and Dillon Brooks to supply veteran management.
However the Rockets’ ceiling within the Western Convention might be decided by the event of their younger core of Jalen Green, Jabari Smith Jr., Amen Thompson — and 21-year-old middle Alperen Sengun, who has quickly developed from being a star within the Turkish League simply 4 years in the past into one of many NBA’s finest younger large males at the moment.
“He is so expert,” VanVleet informed ESPN of Sengun’s recreation. “He is unguardable. He is bought a thousand strikes. He is studying the upper elements of the sport now that he will be a featured man and possibly be an All-Star this yr.
“He’ll continue learning the steps to [be one of] the greats, and what they bought to cope with each evening. However yeah, he is an issue.”
Sengun has seen his numbers skyrocket, setting career-highs in factors (21.6), rebounds (8.9), assists (4.8) and steals (1.2) per recreation, and his particular person enchancment mirrors Houston’s large leap, because the 19-21 Rockets are a recreation behind the Los Angeles Lakers for the Western Conference’s final play-in spot.
Sengun provides a lot of the credit score for that enchancment to the management of Udoka, VanVleet and Brooks, and the brand new requirements which have been set in Houston.
“Once I grew up, I used to be at all times a successful participant,” Sengun informed ESPN. “I bought, like, plenty of championships. Like small [ones], however I bought all of them. I used to be by no means a loser.
“I simply wish to win. I can do something for the win. And all of the teaching workers, everybody simply desires to win.”
Houston is doing much more successful this yr, largely due to Sengun’s enchancment — particularly his stellar offensive play. When Houston despatched a pair of protected first-round picks to the Oklahoma City Thunder within the 2021 draft to accumulate Sengun at No. 16, there was little doubt about his means as a scorer.
That promise is being realized this season, as solely Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Julius Randle are averaging as many factors, rebounds and assists because the Rockets’ large man. The primary three have mixed to win the previous 5 MVP awards, and Randle has been an All-NBA choice in two of the previous three years.
Not surprisingly, that manufacturing has launched Sengun into the All-Star conversation in his third season.
“It simply comes with enjoying laborious and giving your finest on the court docket,” Sengun stated. “In fact it will be thrilling to play with all the very best stars that you just used to observe once you have been a child.”
However whereas Sengun’s offense is his calling card, the Rockets are targeted on his incremental enchancment as a defender, regardless of Udoka saying he is slipped “again into some outdated habits” at that finish.
“His offense is at all times there, each single evening,” Brooks added. “His protection is right here and there, and we want him each single evening. He is our middle. He’s our spine to our protection. And the extra that he figures that out, the extra he’ll get higher and higher.”
Each Sengun and the Rockets have, in truth, made actual progress defensively. Final yr, Houston was twenty ninth in defensive score. This yr? The Rockets have shot as much as eighth. And after Houston was six factors per 100 possessions worse defensively with Sengun on the court docket than off final season, that quantity has been minimize in half. Houston’s defensive score with Sengun on the court docket is 112.0 — slightly below the staff’s season-long mark of 112.4.
“It is a course of,” VanVleet stated. “We yell quite a bit about protection. He isn’t the one one, however undoubtedly, his largest problem has at all times been on the defensive finish. He is succesful. He is greater than succesful.
“I performed with a man named Marc Gasol, who was most likely not half the athlete [Sengun] is, and he was unimaginable.”
For his half, Sengun has embraced all of it. He admitted protection hasn’t at all times been a precedence, and credited the staff’s veterans and training workers for pushing him to enhance.
“I used to be by no means a defensive participant in my profession,” Sengun stated. “I used to be simply at all times scoring. However if you wish to be an All-Star and the opposite s—, you gotta do every part.”
Sengun additionally made it clear that he is not afraid of robust teaching, be it from Udoka — who made a repute doing simply that in his lone season in Boston — or from veterans like VanVleet and Brooks. As a child rising up on the shores of the Black Sea, Sengun stated that is the one factor he knew whereas creating his recreation enjoying professionally in Turkey.
“The place I grew up is, like, all of the laborious coaches. I used to be in a small city and my coaches have been at all times arguing and s—, cursing and s—. I grew up in that after which now Ime is like that. Fred is like that. He is a participant, however he is usually a coach on the court docket.
“They only need us to be taught and get higher. They do not need the rest.”
Sengun and the Rockets are strolling a line — making an attempt to win now whereas additionally creating the franchise’s future — that not often ends efficiently. Even with including VanVleet and Brooks, Houston is beginning three gamers underneath 22 years outdated in Sengun, Inexperienced and Smith and produce other younger gamers like Thompson (20) and Tari Eason (22) on rookie offers within the rotation.
However because the season’s midway level nears, with a shot on the postseason nonetheless very a lot in play for a staff that hasn’t reached the postseason with out Harden since 2009, the purpose is about because the franchise transitions into the subsequent part of its rebuild.
And the hope is that Sengun is the blossoming star to get them there.
“We do not like dropping. No person likes dropping,” Sengun stated. “So we’re simply going to go and combat.”