It has been an interesting start to Houston Rockets center Alperen Sengun’s career, to say the least. By some measures, he’s been the team’s best player over the past two seasons. But if one based their conclusions solely upon the moves of Rockets management, that wouldn’t entirely be evident.
Sengun was drafted by the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2021 and subsequently traded on draft night to the Rockets for future draft picks. Shortly after, he signed a four-year, $15.55 million contract which will keep him under club control through the 2024-2025 season. In 2022-2023, the 20-year-old averaged 14.8 points, 9.0 rebounds, and 3.9 assists on 55.3% shooting in just 28.9 minutes per game. That came out to 18.4 points, 11.2 rebounds, and 4.8 assists per 36 minutes. To say the young big man has had a productive start to his career would be an understatement.
But in what came as a shock to observers, former Rockets head coach Stephen Silas opted to open last season with journeyman Bruno Fernando as the starter at the position, sending Sengun to the bench. Many had mistakenly believed that with the offseason trade of the former incumbent starter Christian Wood to Dallas, the position was Sengun’s to lose. It was not to be. Sengun eventually broke his way into the starting lineup due to injuries to Fernando and quietly produced.
Then, this past offseason, with a glut of cash to spend, the Rockets publicly flirted with Milwaukee Bucks big man Brook Lopez, offering him a contract believed to be close to $50 million. Houston lost its bidding war but the pursuit itself was telling.
Rockets management wanted to supplement its young core with veteran leadership through free agency and it largely accomplished that goal, inking veteran point guard Fred VanVleet and forward Dillon Brooks to lucrative long term contracts. Lopez was part of that plan. It’s difficult to envision Lopez coming off the bench in Houston had he been acquired for the type of money for which he resigned with Milwaukee. That would have moved Sengun—again—to the bench and unlikely to crack thirty minutes per game. As it stands, he’ll likely be the opening day starter at the position, but is he part of the team’s future?
Sengun will get a fresh start this season with a new head coach, and one who historically has featured two centers in his rotations, in former Boston Celtics coach Ime Udoka. And Udoka has always prioritized defense. Thus, to gain a firm grasp on the franchise’s starting center role, Sengun will have to improve upon an area of weakness for him over his first two seasons as a professional. Having VanVleet and Brooks on the perimeter can only help in that regard. Per sources, the Rockets have not felt like playing Sengun heavy minutes at this point in his career, due to his defensive struggles, is a recipe for winning basketball.
The team exercised its 2023-2024 club option on Sengun on October 30, 2022. They’ll have until October 31, 2023 to exercise the option on his fourth year, the 2024-2025 season, when he’s slated to earn $5.424 million, which they undoubtedly will. Sengun can enter restricted free agency in 2025 and with a rookie scale extension, earn a first year salary up to 25% of the salary cap. Unless something drastically changes with how he is used—which is very possible under a new head coach—the market for Sengun will likely be suppressed from what it could have been had he been featured from the get-go offensively. To anyone who has watched him closely, it’s not inconceivable that he could have been averaging 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 assists, and his per-36 numbers last season are a reflection of that assertion.
Should Rockets brass sell high on Sengun’s trade value if they don’t plan to feature him? Will they bring him again off the bench, behind new free agent acquisitions Jock Landale and/or Jeff Green? Many questions abound for Alperen Sengun’s future in Houston.