Make no mistake. The Rockets are delighted with Jalen Green’s performance in Summer League thus far, with his first two games as a professional showcasing his immense potential as a leading man. But the star of Las Vegas thus far isn’t Green. Nor is it Cade Cunningham, nor Evan Mobley. As we approach the second week of Summer League, our first taste of games can appropriately be described as The Şengün Show.
Let’s issue a quick disclaimer before the fawning begins. Summer League stats are effectively meaningless. Grand conclusions from Vegas matchups are almost always misguided. Lonzo Ball was a disaster in his Summer League debut, and Kevin Knox looked to be the next Allan Houston. Falling for Summer League brilliance is a decades-old tale, one that will continue through the 2020s. But even with all of those caveats established, it’s hard not to be impressed by Alperen Şengün.
The No. 16 pick in the 2021 NBA draft posted a 15-point, 15-rebound in his Summer League debut, outplaying Mobley in the process. Şengün then followed his first effort in Las Vegas with a 21-point, eight-rebound, four-block effort against Detroit on Tuesday, helping Houston to its second straight Summer League victory. Şengün has looked more than comfortable against NBA competition. His offensive skill set has been on full display. As the potential lottery pick fell on draft night, Rockets general manager Rafael Stone made his move and traded up to No. 16. Şengün has rewarded Stone thus far, albeit against diminished competition.
Şengün is an international prospect taken outside of the lottery, but he isn’t exactly a curiosity. The 19-year-old big man represented Turkey in international competition in 2018 and 2019. More impressively, he won MVP of the top league in Turkey in 2020–21. Şengün was in contention for a top-10 pick before the draft, and it’s not hard to see why after two Summer League performances. He is an elite passer for a player of his size and age, able to sling passes to corner shooters and streaking cutters from the block and elbow. He’s a canny post-up player armed with a bevy of post moves, and he’s even shown some ability to make plays off the bounce. Şengün will, admittedly, be a defensive disaster in his first NBA season(s). He could start his rookie year in the G League due to Houston's crowded frontcourt rotation. But the outline of a quality contributor is clear, and there is significant upside on hand. As the Rockets embark on the first full season of their rebuild, Şengün is a project worth investing in.
“[Şengün] certainly is a problem on the block. He’s got the ability to punish different matchups down there,” Rockets Summer League coach Will Weaver said on Tuesday night. "Both Jalen and Alperen's experience makes such a difference. These aren't their first professional games."
The Şengün experience has been a delight thus far, though ultimately his performance isn’t expected to drive the franchise for much of the next decade. That honor goes to Green. And so far, so good for the former G League Ignite standout.
Green dropped 23 points in his Summer League debut, and he scored 25 points on just 11 shots in his battle against Cunningham and the Pistons. Green is still a touch unrefined as a pick-and-roll ballhandler, and his defensive attention will wane in a given quarter. But his upside as a potential scoring champion is evident even from his opening Summer League quarters. Green creates separation on his step-back like Houston’s former franchise anchor. He can contort his body at the rim like Ja Morant, and his motion looks fluid on spot-up attempts. Yet as tantalizing as Green’s repertoire is, his mentality in Las Vegas has been his most impressive trait.
Green carries himself with a confidence that’s evident both on the floor and in his dealings with the media. There’s not necessarily a cockiness to his demeanor, but rather a self assurance that his talent and commitment will lead to a successful NBA career. Green defended Cunningham in a slew of early possessions in the first half, eager to take on the challenge against the No. 1 pick. Green reacted to traps from Detroit not with a panicked eye toward the basket, but rather with an acceptance to give up the ball and create a 4-on-3 situation. Green drew plaudits from G League coaches and players for his commitment and attitude. Like many young players in the league’s current era, Green enters the NBA with a polish unimaginable decades ago. He should have little trouble seizing the mantle as the face of the franchise in Houston.
“I saw [Green] drive winning,” Weaver said Tuesday. “I saw him pass to teammates. I saw him make the right plays. I continue to be really impressed with his approach."
The early success of Green and Şengün–as well as No. 24 pick and defensive ace Josh Christopher–is certainly encouraging for Rockets fans, and it reveals something important about Stone.
His predecessor Daryl Morey built a perennial contender in the West through shrewd trades and signings, but he treated the draft as little more than a dart board to be avoided if possible. Houston made just two first-round picks from 2013 to ’20, with Clint Capela standing as the only draft pick of the Morey era to make a significant impact in Houston. Morey’s pick flipping served as way to build a championship-ready roster around James Harden, though it also illustrated Morey’s lack of comfort in selecting and developing young talent. Stone doesn’t seem to share the same DNA.
Stone acquired Kevin Porter Jr. from Cleveland in January. He signed defensive ace Jae’Sean Tate out of Australia before the 2020–21 season. While the jury is still out on Christian Wood as a winning piece, his offensive skill is undeniable, and 2020 second-round pick K.J. Martin increasingly looks like a valuable rotation player, and. There’s plenty of young talent on hand for head coach Stephen Silas ahead of 2021–22, even if plenty of growing pains are to be expected.
The Rockets faced a disastrous situation early last season, with Harden’s dissatisfaction threatening to destroy nearly a decade of building a contender. And while there are still plenty of roadblocks ahead on the path to relevance, Stone has deftly pivoted to build one of the game’s most intriguing young cores in the aftermath of the Harden deal. Houston added four 19-year-olds in the first round of the 2021 draft, with three of the players—including Spanish forward Usman Garuba—sporting previous professional experience. Both Porter and Wood are standout offensive pieces, while Martin and Tate could be the defensive backbone of a postseason squad. Houston could have traded for Ben Simmons last year, treaded water toward mediocrity and entered 2021–22 as a team stuck in NBA purgatory. Stone took a different route.
Last year’s pain led to Green and a trio of other intriguing youngsters joining the Rockets. Porter Jr. is a franchise centerpiece, and Houston’s collection of wings and bigs should age well over the course of the next half decade. Will a Summer League title mean much of anything for the Rockets’ future? Not exactly. But it would be wrong to dismiss what we’ve seen from Houston’s rookie class thus far. Stone’s first picks as general manager have shined thus far in Vegas. Perhaps a competitive Rockets squad after the Harden era isn’t so far away after all.
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