The Houston Rockets have entered what the franchise calls “Phase 2” of its rebuild.
Phase 1, which began in the wake of trading superstar guard James Harden to the Brooklyn Nets on Jan. 14, 2021, saw the Rockets go an NBA-worst 56-171 from the day of the deal until the end of the 2022-23 season.
Then, thanks to a few splashy acquisitions this past offseason, Houston expedited its transition into becoming a postseason contender. The Rockets hired former Boston Celtics coach Ime Udoka in April and spent over $200 million to sign free agents Fred VanVleet and Dillon Brooks to provide veteran leadership.
But the Rockets’ ceiling in the Western Conference will be determined by the development of their young core of Jalen Green, Jabari Smith Jr., Amen Thompson — and 21-year-old center Alperen Sengun, who has rapidly developed from being a star in the Turkish League just four years ago into one of the NBA’s best young big men today.
“He’s so skilled,” VanVleet told ESPN of Sengun’s game. “He’s unguardable. He’s got a thousand moves. He’s learning the higher aspects of the game now that he’s going to be a featured guy and probably be an All-Star this year.
“He’s going to keep learning the steps to [be one of] the greats, and what they got to deal with every night. But yeah, he’s a problem.”
Sengun has seen his numbers skyrocket, setting career-highs in points (21.6), rebounds (8.9), assists (4.8) and steals (1.2) per game, and his individual improvement mirrors Houston’s massive leap, as the 19-21 Rockets are a game behind the Los Angeles Lakers for the Western Conference’s final play-in spot.
Sengun gives much of the credit for that improvement to the leadership of Udoka, VanVleet and Brooks, and the new standards that have been set in Houston.
“When I grew up, I was always a winning player,” Sengun told ESPN. “I got, like, a lot of championships. Like small [ones], but I got all of them. I was never a loser.
“I just want to win. I can do anything for the win. And all the coaching staff, everyone just wants to win.”
Houston is doing a lot more winning this year, in large part because of Sengun’s improvement — in particular his stellar offensive play. When Houston sent a pair of protected first-round picks to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2021 draft to acquire Sengun at No. 16, there was little doubt about his ability as a scorer.
That promise is being realized this season, as only Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Julius Randle are averaging as many points, rebounds and assists as the Rockets’ big man. The first three have combined to win the past five MVP awards, and Randle has been an All-NBA selection in two of the past three years.
Not surprisingly, that production has launched Sengun into the All-Star conversation in his third season.
“It just comes with playing hard and giving your best on the court,” Sengun said. “Of course it would be exciting to play with all the best stars that you used to watch when you were a kid.”
But while Sengun’s offense is his calling card, the Rockets are focused on his incremental improvement as a defender, despite Udoka saying he’s slipped “back into some old habits” at that end.
“His offense is always there, every single night,” Brooks added. “His defense is here and there, and we need him every single night. He’s our center. He is our backbone to our defense. And the more that he figures that out, the more he’ll get better and better.”
Both Sengun and the Rockets have, in fact, made real progress defensively. Last year, Houston was 29th in defensive rating. This year? The Rockets have shot up to eighth. And after Houston was six points per 100 possessions worse defensively with Sengun on the court than off last season, that number has been cut in half. Houston’s defensive rating with Sengun on the court is 112.0 — just below the team’s season-long mark of 112.4.
“It’s a process,” VanVleet said. “We yell a lot about defense. He is not the only one, but definitely, his biggest challenge has always been on the defensive end. He’s capable. He’s more than capable.
“I played with a guy named Marc Gasol, who was probably not half the athlete [Sengun] is, and he was incredible.”
For his part, Sengun has embraced it all. He admitted defense hasn’t always been a priority, and credited the team’s veterans and coaching staff for pushing him to improve.
“I was never a defensive player in my career,” Sengun said. “I was just always scoring. But if you want to be an All-Star and the other s—, you gotta do everything.”
Sengun also made it clear that he isn’t afraid of tough coaching, be it from Udoka — who made a reputation doing just that in his lone season in Boston — or from veterans like VanVleet and Brooks. As a kid growing up on the shores of the Black Sea, Sengun said that’s the only thing he knew while developing his game playing professionally in Turkey.
“Where I grew up is, like, all the hard coaches. I was in a small town and my coaches were always arguing and s—, cursing and s—. I grew up in that and then now Ime is like that. Fred is like that. He’s a player, but he can be a coach on the court.
“They just want us to learn and get better. They don’t want anything else.”
Sengun and the Rockets are walking a line — trying to win now while also developing the franchise’s future — that rarely ends successfully. Even with adding VanVleet and Brooks, Houston is starting three players under 22 years old in Sengun, Green and Smith and have other young players like Thompson (20) and Tari Eason (22) on rookie deals in the rotation.
But as the season’s halfway point nears, with a shot at the postseason still very much in play for a team that hasn’t reached the postseason without Harden since 2009, the goal is set as the franchise transitions into the next phase of its rebuild.
And the hope is that Sengun is the blossoming star to get them there.
“We don’t like losing. Nobody likes losing,” Sengun said. “So we’re just going to go and fight.”