The indecisive flamingo has arrived: Alperen Şengün's substance has caught up to his style
Alperen Şengün has been a fascination of mine since his very first game, when he tried an outrageous over-the-head alley-oop off a rebound from a missed free throw:
That was as a 19-year-old rookie in his first NBA game! Most of his peers were just trying not to land on Shaqtin’ a Fool. What would he do as his skills caught up to his ambition?
We’re seeing it this season. Şengün is mounting a credible All-Star campaign as the propulsion system of the Houston Rockets, and thankfully, he’s lost none of his flash along the way.
Şengün is full of weird quirks, both good and bad, making him a delightful watch. A few weeks ago, Şengün committed a foul while lining up for a jump ball. He has some of the happiest feet in the league, impressionistically blurring the lines between pivots and travels until I’m unsure whether I’m looking at art or a practical joke. He loves a Dirkian one-legged fadeaway, but he’ll actually pump fake with his leg, a move I’ve dubbed “the indecisive flamingo:”
This season, the good far outweighs the bad. Şengün’s substance has caught up to his style to create one of the league’s most eminently watchable — and effective —players.
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Şengün’s passing is his best skill, and this has been by far the best passing season of his career. There have been way fewer insane flings into the third row or bowling-ball bounce passes that weakly roll past teammates’ ankles. Instead, he’s cut out the lowest-probability attempts and focused on execution: more whips into shooting pockets, a better sense of timing for cutters, and ball movement designed to stretch the defense, not to hunt highlights.
That doesn’t mean he’s lost his flair. He’s a master of the eye-bulging, head-snapping lookaway:
He reads the floor exceptionally well, letting him make adjustments in real-time. This absurd jump-catch-pass has lived in a rent-controlled apartment in my head all season:
But Şengün isn’t just a sweet passer. He has some schoolyard bully in him. Put somebody even slightly smaller in his way, and he’ll shoulder-check that player into a cameraman’s lap (even if it’s LeBron James):
Şengün isn’t a quick jumper, which limits his explosion at the rack and creates problems against tall, lanky shot blockers (he’s a below-average finisher at the rim). He makes up for that lack of vertical burst with a delicate touch and a strong short-midrange game (thanks to his signature shot-put floater), big reasons why Şengün and his new point guard Fred VanVleet have been the league’s most prolific assist pairing. And make no mistake: when he’s given a runway, he’ll catch a body. Şengün’s an underrated in-game dunker:
On the other hand, Şengün’s rebounding might be a tad overrated at this point. He’s a perfectly fine glass cleaner, sporting average offensive and defensive rebounding rates (he was better last year) and garnering nine boards per game. He might even be better than that, given that the team overall rebounds well when Şengün is on the floor. But he should be elite, and I see opportunities for improvement. Too often, he contests a shot and stands there, hand in the air, waiting to see what happens. Here, that results in his common comparison, Nikola Jokić, powering past him to give Denver another chance:
Contrast this to Jokić’s behavior in the same situation. As soon as the shot goes up, he immediately puts a forearm into Şengün to box him out before gravitating to the ball:
Şengün generally has a high level of effort and doesn’t make this mistake too often, but the difference between very good and great is doing the right thing every time. Şengün isn’t there yet — neither was the Joker, at this point — and that’s okay. This is a natural growth area for young players.
Şengün’s already grown his pick-and-roll defense to an exciting degree. While he’s still vulnerable on perimeter switches (he’s quicker going forward and backward than side-to-side), he’s gotten significantly savvier at the cat-and-mouse drop coverage. He’ll lunge at ballhandlers to make them pick up dribbles early before leaping backward to protect against the alley-oop, and he recognizes when a ballhandler is looking for the pass from the get-go. Here, Şengün knows that Duncan Robinson doesn’t have the angle for a layup and is looking for the lob to Bam Adebayo, so he gets up and bats away the pass to the athletic Miami big:
Şengün averages 2.5 deflections per game, the same number as Herb Jones, Derrick White, and Giannis Antetokounmpo, but he has allowed opponents to shoot 60.9% at the rim, a shrug-worthy number that’s virtually the same as Jokić. He doesn’t have the sort of quick-twitch leaping ability that the most menacing paint patrollers have, which will always limit his rim protection metrics to some degree. Şengün has quick hands and is better at contesting balls before they get in the air, but just like with his dunks, Şengün has enough athleticism to still make plays on the ball if he’s given time to lurch into motion. Look at this chase-down block on Kyrie Irving (one of several he’s had on the year):
Don’t forget that the Rockets heavily pursued Brook Lopez in the offseason, and it wasn’t likely to play alongside Şengün; this is a team (and a coach) that expected him to be a sieve on the defensive end. They wanted an upgrade. Instead, Şengün showed up in noticeably better shape — leaner, quicker, stronger — and has since played the second-most minutes on the team. (It’s no accident that Şengün’s been a monster on the second night of back-to-backs, as the Houston broadcast pointed out recently.)
Advanced all-in-one defensive metrics agree he’s been better than average (to a wildly overstated degree, in some cases), and lineups with Şengün have been in the 80th percentile defensively (thanks partially — though not entirely — to poor opponent three-point shooting). And at just 21 years old, Şengün is still improving as an athlete and defender.
Not all of Şengün’s future improvement lies on him, however. You’ll notice that many of the offensive clips I’ve used come from a traditional pick-and-roll or getting Şengün the ball on the block. For Şengün to take the next step, he’ll need the offense to work not just through him, but for him. The best centers in the world are Nikola Jokić and Joel Embiid, but despite the ostensible constraints of their position, they often get the ball and initiate action in creative, unconventional ways.
What has unlocked Jokić and Embiid even further in the past two seasons? Off-ball movement. Both players have excelled when getting the rock on the go. I don’t have access to Second Spectrum data (if you do and can help, please let me know!), but it feels as though so many of Şengün’s possessions have him catching the ball while stationary at the elbow, posted up on the block, or rolling in a traditional two-man game with VanVleet. Şengün has been effective, but I’d love to see more creativity. Coach Ime Udoka should follow suit with his peers in Denver and Philadelphia and treat Şengün like a playmaking wing, not just a traditional center.
To Udoka’s credit, that’s starting to happen more as he, VanVleet, and Şengün grow together. There have been occasional VanVleet ball screens for Şengün ; put on your readers, and you see shades of Jamal Murray and Jokić:
Last week, the Rockets ran a VanVleet DHO to Şengün at the top of the three-point arc that was ripped straight from Philadelphia’s playbook for Tyrese Maxey and Embiid:
Those are good actions! Şengün is a solid and improving roll man who excels in traditional center settings, but we’ve seen other players surpass their supposed ceilings when used inventively. Creativity is certainly not Şengün’s problem, and I don’t think it’s Udoka’s, either. Mark my words: we’ll see much more of this stuff by next season at the latest (but hopefully sooner than that).
Flamingos gain their famous pink hue thanks to pigments in their preferred snacks, shrimp and algae; they are what they eat. For Şengün to look his best, he’ll need to be fed a varied diet of play calls designed around his best skills on both ends. With an effective point guard, an exciting new coach, and a bevy of young, versatile talent, Houston is well-positioned to cook up just that.
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