Alperen Sengun draws Nikola Jokic comparisons as he adjusts to life in the NBA
Adjusting to the NBA as a rookie is incredibly difficult. The competition is bigger, faster, and stronger than what you’re accustomed to. There’s nothing that can prepare you for an 82-game schedule with lots of traveling. You’re also constantly competing for a spot in the rotation with your teammates. Now imagine not speaking the language and living thousands of miles away from home. That’s the challenge rookies like Turkish big man Alperen Sengun face every year.
For Sengun, things are obviously a bit different. For one, he’s probably the most talented European big prospect we’ve seen enter the NBA since Domantas Sabonis five years ago. Not only has he been surrounded with high expectations since he was a young teenager, but he’s also put them on himself.
“I want to be one of the stars of the team,” said Alperen Sengun at Rockets Media Day. “I know there are many potential stars on this team and I’m going to work hard to become one of them.”
I’ve written about Alperen Sengun’s game before, but it bears repeating what his best qualities are. As an offensive prospect, he’s the full package. The strength, the footwork, the passing instincts, the touch around the basket, the foul bating, and the shooting form are all reasons why some projected him as a top two pick in the draft. It’s no secret that he’s an analytics darling, but his game film is truly something to behold for someone that young. He struck me as someone who should’ve gone in the top seven this year and the Rockets were fortunate to acquire at 16.
“He reminds me a lot of Enes Kanter,” said Daniel Theis, who played with Kanter in Boston. “He’s a really smart player. He’s a good post player. He can pass the ball.”
Alperen Sengun has actually modeled his game after some of the international big men that have entered the league before him. In his pre-draft availability, he mentioned Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, and Damontas Sabonis specifically as sources of inspiration. At Rockets Media Day, he echoed those sentiments again.
“He’s been watching the NBA since he was little,” said Sengun’s Turkish translator. “He’s actually been playing NBA 2k. He can’t believe that he’s playing with the players that he played with in the video game. He’s looking to exemplify the other European players in the NBA like Nikola Jokic.”
Jokic is a name that comes up a lot when people talk about Alperen Sengun’s game. Naturally, the European connection plays a part in it, but it’s really the gifted passing where people see the parallels. In addition to being an unselfish player, he’s got this ability to sense where players are on the court or guess when they’ll get there. There was near-highlight play in Las Vegas Summer League where Sengun almost connected with Jalen Green for a layup on a nutmeg pass.
“[Alperen Sengun] is really like a seven-foot guard,” said rookie Josh Christoper. “Playing with him is fun. He can make plays. He’s like Jokic almost, but 19-years-old.”
It takes some time to get used to the speed at which he sees these plays develop. The pass in Las Vegas wasn’t the only time Alperen Sengun has caught a teammate off guard with a pass. In the BSL league, teammates had gotten used to his ridiculous playmaking over time. The Rockets are making that adjustment on the fly in training camp.
“He’ll tell you ‘When I go here, you go there’,” said Christoper. “You just have to listen to him. He’s trying to make the play. So either you’ll be open or he’ll be able to make something happen.”
And no matter who you asked in training camp, the Jokic comparison wouldn’t go away.
“He looked good,” said Christian Wood. “I got to play with him for the first time in one on one. It was good. He has great footwork, he’s good at using his body. He reminds me kind of like a smaller Jokic.”
Sengen was quite flattered when he learned of this.
“It really makes me happy,” said Sengun. “I also want to play like him in the future, so it’s really good that they’re speaking like that.”
In the meantime, the Rockets have done everything in their power to make him feel comfortable. Head coach Stephen Silas invited Sengun to his home and talked to him on an even footing that he wasn’t used to overseas. Coaches there are viewed as figures to revere and look up to whereas the culture in the United States is obviously very different.
“Coach [Silas] is just like a friend to me, said Sengun. “We feel like equals, he’s very warm and communicative. Very down to Earth. I wasn’t expecting that when I came here.”
Josh Christopher’s brother Patrick played in Turkey, so Christoper called to inquire about the language. After learning the Turkish word for ‘brother’, Christopher has peppered Sengun with it throughout training camp. Alperen Sengun has gotten quite the kick out of it. Veteran guards Eric Gordon and D.J. Augustine have also been players he’s leaned on throughout this process.
“For him and also for Usman [Garuba], they’ve just got to learn how the NBA works,” said Theis. “It’s definitely a way faster game than in Europe. In Europe, it’s more playing the shot clock and going slow. Practice is practice, but if you go into a real NBA game, it’s fast. They’re going to see how fast it really is.”
This also checks out what Sengun has felt about the pace of practices.
In the process of writing this story, I decided it was best to speak to Alperen Sengun one more time before publishing. The Rockets were scheduled to start scrimmaging on Saturday, so it seemed like as good a time as any. According to sources who were at the scrimmage, Sengun was the standout player that day, outplaying fellow rookie Jalen Green.
“Alperen was very good today,” Silas confirmed. “He has shown that he can play in the high post and make plays for other guys. No look passes and all kinds of stuff. When he catches it in the paint, he has pivots, fakes, and all that.”
Sengen already had an impressive showing in Summer League, but he’s apparently been even better in training camp.
“He’s going to be exciting for people to see,” continued Silas. “I don’t think our fans have had a chance to see him really do the things that he was doing with our main group. He played well in Summer League and that was great, but he’s showing a little bit more I think than he showed in Summer League.”
In all likelihood, Alperen Sengun will be a rotation player at the minimum for Houston, so it should be fascinating to see how he fairs in his rookie campaign.