The Houston Rockets are Reaping the Rewards of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Foolish Draft-Day Mistake

There are zero expectations for the Houston Rockets to be competitive this season. The team’s ultimate goal is simply to see its young players develop into building blocks for the future. Fortunately for H-Town, several youngsters are showing signs of growth and potential. One of those players is center Alperen Sengun, a rookie by whom Houston paid a steep price to acquire but has proven to be worth the investment.

The Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder struck a draft-day deal involving Alperen Sengun

On the night of the 2021 NBA Draft, both the Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder landed potential franchise-changing talents. Houston, who finished last season with a league-worst 17-55 record, selected G League star Jalen Green with the second overall pick. OKC, who didn’t finish much better at 22-50, took Josh Giddey with the sixth pick. Yet the night was far from over for either, as each rebuilding team had two more selections to make in the first round.

The Thunder were in the enviable position of owning picks 16 and 18. Meanwhile, the Rockets had to wait until picks 23 and 24 to secure more talent. But Houston saw how the board was falling, particularly how Sengun was falling further and further down in the draft.

It wasn’t terribly surprising seeing Sengun, a 19-year-old from Turkey, fall out of the lottery. But several draft experts saw the 6-foot-10 center as a top-10 talent in the class. One of whom — ESPN‘s Kevin Pelton — had the Turkish Super League MVP topping his ranking of all prospects according to statistics and scouting, even ahead of future first overall pick Cade Cunningham.

So with Sengun tumbling down the draft board, the Rockets worked out a deal with the Thunder. Houston would receive Sengun, who OKC selected on its behalf with the 16th overall pick. In exchange, the Rockets would send two future first-round picks to a Thunder team aiming to collect every draft pick in existence. Houston also kept picks 23 and 24, giving them four first-round players by night’s end.

Sengun is rewarding the Rockets for their steep investment in him

Trading two first-round picks for a non-lottery player is a risky proposition. But it was impossible to ignore Sengun’s production overseas in a competitive professional league. And right now, the Rockets look like geniuses for believing his production could translate to the NBA.

As the Thunder are losing games by 73 points, Sengun is growing more and more comfortable in H-Town. Alpy is averaging a cool 8.6 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 2.7 assists in just 18.0 minutes of action each night. If the Turkish big man was seeing 36.0 minutes of playing time, those numbers would climb to 17.1 points, 9.1 rebounds, and 5.4 assists, along with 2.2 steals and 1.2 blocks.

Based on his per-36 numbers, Sengun would firmly be in the Rookie of the Year conversation if given more minutes. But even in a limited capacity, the 19-year-old is making history.

Through 21 games, Sengun has a total of 57 assists. Among centers, only Chris Webber and Brad Daugherty had more through their first 21 career games. Yet both Webber and Daugherty averaged 30 minutes or more, while the 6-10 Sengun is averaging under 20 off the bench.

Additionally, Sengun’s 2.7 assists per game rank sixth among all NBA centers this season. The only five players ahead of him — Nikola Jokic, Al Horford, Bam Adebayo, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Mason Plumlee — are all starters averaging 26.2 minutes or more.

Thanks to Alperen Sengun and company, the Rockets are building toward a brighter future

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While Sengun continues to impress and make the Thunder look foolish for not keeping him for themselves, the Rockets are showing increasing signs of life.

Houston went on a ridiculous 15-game losing streak mere months after dropping a franchise-worst 20 games in a row. But in the blink of an eye, the Rockets now find themselves on a five-game winning streak.

Houston has strung together wins against the contending Chicago Bulls, improved Charlotte Hornets, and Orlando Magic. Not to mention a pair of victories against the Thunder, just to rub salt in the wound. Seven players have averaged double-digit points in those five games, and that’s not even counting Sengun. Instead, it’s been the underrated Christian Wood and young talents Jae’Sean Tate and Kevin Porter Jr. stepping up during the surprising win streak.

Those three, along with Sengun and the injured Green, give Houston a group of intriguing young players to build off of. Not to mention, Houston will very likely own a pair of first-round picks in 2022. One of those picks should be able to land another impact player.

Rather than taking the OKC approach and compiling draft picks, the Rockets are building a core ready to compete in the near future. And Sengun represents one key piece of the organization’s puzzle.

All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference and contract figures courtesy of Spotrac.