With a bounty of young and upcoming talent and a plethora of veteran signings during the offseason, the Houston Rockets seemed bound to improve in the 2023-24 season.
And through 17 games, that appears to be exactly the case. However, despite rostering blue-chip prospects like Jalen Green, Jabari Smith Jr. and Amen Thompson, it has been Alperen Sengun who has grown the most.
The third-year big man has been so good that he’s earned the praise of reigning NBA Finals MVP Nikola Jokic. And Jokic isn’t alone in his approval. In fact, some people have gone as far as to say that Sengun is “Baby Jokic.”
And if you know anything about children, you know that they eventually mature into adults who are similar to their parents. So, is that what is going to happen here?
To ask it simply, is Sengun going to be the next Jokic?
Why the Joker Comparisons?
Before we talk about Sengun’s long-term potential, let’s discuss what he is doing right now to garner such lofty comparisons.
Sengun is part of the new lineage (one that Jokic popularized) of offense-first big men. He possesses advanced ball skills relative to size (6-foot-11) and position (center).
But hold on a second. Just because Sengun is cut from a newer cloth make doesn’t mean he doesn’t have some old school in his hard drive.
Sengun can still score in the post (first clip in the montage below) or as a rim runner in pick-and-roll (second clip). He just combines those traditional methods with pick-and-pops (third clip), drives (fourth clip), isolations starting at the perimeter (fifth clip), and nifty push shots (sixth clip).
On the season, Sengun is averaging 31.9 points per 100 possessions, which puts him in the 87th percentile in scoring volume league-wide.
Along with being a great scorer, Sengun is a great passer. And that isn’t just relative to big men. His vision is on par with a lot of guards.
It isn’t a revelation for a big man to tout guard-level passing. For instance, Vlade Divac was a miraculous passer in his heyday. But few passing bigs of the past were equipped with the requisite scoring to truly leverage their passing into high-volume playmaking (Divac’s career-high in points per 100 was 22.9).
Sengun is a volume scorer. So, he can use his threat to score to create efficient offense for his teammates. The Rockets usually harness this power by using Sengun in dribble handoffs (first clip in the montage below), post-ups (second clip), and in pick-and-rolls as a short roll passer (third clip) or as the ball handler (fourth clip).
Sengun is fifth out of 69 centers with at least 10 games played in potential assists per game (8.1 potential assists, per NBA.com). When you factor in all positions, not just centers, Sengun is still in the 83rd percentile in this statistic. See, this dude can pass.
Overall, Sengun is one of only four players in the NBA averaging at least 21.0 points, 9.0 rebounds and 5.5 assists (minimum 16 games). And Jokic just happens to be one of them.
As a team, the Rockets sport a below-average offense (20th in offensive rating). However, when Sengun is on the floor, they score at a rate that puts them in the top quartile in efficiency. With Sengun, the Rockets’ offensive rating is 116.4, which is in the 75th percentile league-wide (per NBA.com).
Sengun’s blend of scoring and passing raises the floor of an otherwise poor offensive team. That trend was also present last season. What’s different this year is that Houston has strengthened its defense around Sengun, and he’s not letting his own problems on that end get in the way.
Sengun is limited in terms of verticality and horizontal agility. But he compensates for these shortcomings and remains serviceable on defense (D-DRIP of -0.1) by leaning on his size, length, positioning and quick hands.
Now, Sengun is far from a great defender. He still gets hunted on the perimeter by shiftier guards and wings. But Sengun is good enough to where the Rockets can still be an elite defense when he’s on the floor.
With Sengun, the Rockets’ defensive rating is 109.9, which is right around the team’s season average of 107.9 – fourth in the league.
The Next Nikola Jokic?
OK, so we’ve established that Sengun is very good. But is he next Jokic good?
To try to find this out, we’re going to compare Sengun’s age-21 season (this current year) to Jokic’s age-21 season (2016-17).
While Jokic and Sengun mirror one another in scoring volume (measured by points per 100), Jokic was much more efficient (measured by true shooting) at the age of 21. This is likely because Jokic displayed a lot more touch at this age, as evidenced by his superior free-throw and midrange percentages.
The two also had the exact same ranking in usage percentage among centers. However, Jokic still appears to have been a tier above Sengun as a passer when he was his age (this is measured by Ben Taylor’s passer rating metric). On top of that, Jokic was able to raise the Denver Nuggets to a much higher level when he was on the floor in 2016-17 than Sengun has been able to this year.
Some of Sengun’s defensive numbers appear sharper than 2016-17 Jokic (like on-court defensive rating). But that is mostly because Jokic had a much worse defensive infrastructure around him (the Nuggets were 29th in defensive rating that year).
Overall, it looks like the Jokic comparisons may be a bit too lofty for Sengun. Sengun is a very good offensive big man, but Jokic is just on another level as a two-time MVP.
But just because Sengun doesn’t seem to be on track to be the next iteration of (arguably) the greatest offensive big man ever doesn’t mean that Houston fans should be in disarray. By all indications, Sengun is trending toward being an All-Star caliber player very soon.
That is, of course, if he isn’t already one right now.