When you’re the 15-52 Houston Rockets and your team owns the second-worst record in basketball, there isn’t really much you can hang your hat on.
With that said, one of the few bright spots in the series of unfortunate events that has been this season for the Rockets is the emergence of second-year big man Alperen Sengun into one of the most promising players of the 2021 draft class.
However, despite his improved play this year, Sengun’s game comes with some massive tradeoffs. The kind that would require the perfect frontcourt running mate to mask these shortcomings.
That fact turns the microphone over to this year’s first-round pick, Jabari Smith Jr. Did the Rockets use the third overall pick to select Sengun’s dream partner? Or should they use their high-end lottery pick in this year’s loaded class to keep on searching?
The first drawback to Sengun’s style is that his game is primarily ground-bound. He hardly leaves his feet, and as a result, he provides below-average rim protection relative to his position (49th percentile in block percentage, per Cleaning the Glass).
As we’ve established before, in most circumstances, rim protection is paramount to building a good/great defense. So, if Sengun (the team’s nominal center) can’t provide that service, they need to outsource that production to a different position.
Fortunately, Smith’s combination of length, jump timing, and reaction speed gives him the tools to be the torch-bearer in this regard.
On the season, Houston’s opponent rim accuracy decreases by three percentage points with Smith on the floor (78th percentile).
The second drawback of Sengun’s style is that he’s not a very mobile defender. Once upon a time, before the Spaced Out epoch of basketball, you could get away with having a more lethargic bruiser as your defensive anchor.
However, that is no longer the case. In today’s game, those bigs often get hunted mercilessly, particularly in the playoffs when matchup hunting frequency is at its highest.
So, if Houston wants to avoid having Sengun get played off the floor in a future playoff series, they need a uber flexible forward who can pre-switch or scram switch into these suboptimal matchups for him. It’s analogous to the Denver Nuggets pairing Nikola Jokic with Aaron Gordon (although, to his credit, Jokic is a much better defender than Sengun at this point in time).
And while his matchup data (per NBA.com) suggests that Smith normally lines up against like-sized adversaries, his tape is littered with glimpses of him using his condor wingspan and cat-quick agility to stay in front of smaller, slipperier opponents.
This next clip from the Rockets’ mid-February clash against the Miami Heat is the perfect encapsulation of the defensive vision for Smith. All of the tools we’ve outlined above – his length, mobility, and recovery speed – are in full effect in this possession.
First, he rotates over from the weakside on Jimmy Butler’s drive in order to deter one of the most fearless players in the history of the sport from taking a shot at the rim. Then, he immediately recovers back into drop coverage to contain the middle pick and roll action. And finally, he offers a meaningful contest on Caleb Martin’s late-clock jumper when the drop transposes into a late switch.
He’s still far from a perfect defender. He has plenty of miscommunication malfunctions and a bounty of moments where he looks more like a matador than a basketball player. But for the most part, his blunders are more so a product of effort (not always getting in a battle-ready stance) than of physical limitations, which is a huge sign for his defensive ceiling moving forward.
The third major drawback of the Sengun experience ties into the first one – because he’s so ground-bound, he offers very little by way of lob-finishing.
Smith’s dunk numbers are far from eye-popping – only 4.9% of his field goal attempts are dunks (59th percentile) – but that is largely due to underutilization (he’s largely relegated to spot-up three-point shooting) and poor interior passing teammates.
If given more chances and surrounded by better setup artists, Smith has the vertical bandwidth (as evidenced by his rim protection) to give the Rockets’ offense an aerial element it lacks with Sengun in the middle.
The last significant drawback of Sengun’s old-school game is his subpar outside shooting. On the year, he’s shooting 31.8% on less than one attempt (0.7, to be exact) per game.
In his lone season at Auburn, Smith shot 42 percent on 5.5 three-point attempts per game. This mark earned him a reputation as a credible floor-spacer coming into the draft, theoretically making him the perfect remedy for Sengun’s ailment.
Unfortunately, to this point, the marksmanship he demonstrated in college has not translated over to the NBA level, as this season, he’s only converting on 30.2 percent of his 5.1 attempts per game.
The good news here is that his form is swift, he’s got a high release point, and by all accounts, it seems like a motion that is easily replicable – all strong indicators that something is not fundamentally wrong with his jumper.
It’s also worth noting that the Rockets are the worst three-point shooting team in the league based on percentage (32.9 percent) and that their archaic spacing may be negatively impacting his own individual percentages.
A better, more context-independent indicator to turn to at this stage in the game is free throw shooting (free throw shooting has very little to do with the quality of scheme/teammates around a certain player). In this category, Smith is still performing fairly well, averaging a 79.1 percent hit rate on his 2.5 attempts per game.
The bigger concern with Smith is how uncomfortable he looks when he’s asked to put the ball on the floor. As we talked about with Trey Murphy III, the new age complimentary offensive pieces can’t just be good three-point shooters. They also need to be able to put the ball on the floor and attack aggressive closeouts when defenses try to run them off the line.
So far, Smith has resembled a deer in headlights in these spots, often failing to maintain a tight handle in traffic or keep his control when trying to absorb contact on drives.
Even if his jumper comes around, if he can’t consistently drive closeouts, he becomes an easier piece for opponents to scheme off the board, which in the long run, chips away at his overall ceiling if he can’t get that corrected.
In his novel “Basketball Analytics: Spatial Tracking,” Dr. Stephen Shea had this to say about young players: “College players are inconsistent. Their production can vary wildly from one game to the next. This is especially true for freshmen, and it is often after the freshman season that the most elite prospects enter the draft…The moral is that consistency is not something we should expect from even the very best of prospects. It is something that players gain with experience; it is something they can be taught.”
What Shea is saying here is that, with young players, it is more important to focus on the flashes they show early on than looking at their overall production as a whole. Players mature into consistency over time. So, if they are putting together some enticing single games/moments, there is a good chance that they can learn to harness and wield that potential on a more consistent basis as they age into their respective primes.
Arguably more than for any player in this class, this is how we need to view Smith’s long-term outlook. He’s on a terrible team. His per-game numbers are bad. And, more often than not, he looks lost out there.
But if you catch him on the right night (like that Miami game), you see the vision. You see the combination of rim protection and positional versatility that gives him the chance to be an elite defensive player. You see the confident jumper and aerial acumen that gives him the blueprint to becoming an elite dual play-finisher. You see the tantalizing flashes that give him the chance to be special.
When you think about the ceiling of that player archetype – a futuristic defensive anchor who provides offensive value through outside shooting and rim finishing – the first player that probably comes to mind is now All-Star Jaren Jackson Jr.
And there’s a chance that, if everything breaks his way, the best version of Smith can follow a similar path to All-Star status. However, Jackson is a generational defensive talent, and while the two have much in common, it is unwise (and frankly, unfair) to bet that Smith will reach his exact level of impact.
But even if he doesn’t get to All-Star level, if Smith can just continue to hone in his defense, rediscover his jumper, and improve his off-the-dribble game, at the very least, he becomes the perfect complimentary player to flank whoever Houston decides to build around.