As I dive deeper into the NBA draft world and gain years of experience in seeing outcomes from the talent I evaluate, I've shifted perspectives on many of the hard-line philosophical guidelines I created for myself. Chief among those is the notion that, unless a five-tool multi-use alpha center, a big man shouldn't be drafted inside the top-15 or top-20.
âSuch a theory was rooted in good faith. The league was trending smaller and more skilled at the 4. Over the last 15 years, the amount of interior players has been cut in half as the 4 moves to a fully perimeter-oriented spot. Replacement value at the 5 has risen as a result, to the point where overpaying for non-elite big men can saddle a team's cap situation when the same level of production might be available near the minimum. The Indiana Pacers hamstring themselves with the Myles Turner deal, the Memphis Grizzlies with Jonas Valanciunas do the same, and the Cleveland Cavaliers are about to tether themselves to Jarrett Allen. Are those guys for $15 million a year that much better than taking a Richaun Holmes for $7 million, or Daniel Gafford on a rookie deal?
I do still firmly believe that a franchise tying themselves down to a league-average big for multiple years can be the death knell for their roster flexibility. What I'm starting to change my tune on is how that relates to the draft. Now, I don't necessarily think the fear of getting stuck with a mid-tier big is an excuse not to swing on one who has the potential to be better.
Part of that is looking at the top bigs in the NBA right now. By my measure, the top five are a clear tier of their own: Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Rudy Gobert, Bam Adebayo, Karl-Anthony Towns. No two are the same in their playing style, which has fueled my belief that there isn't one pathway to being an All-Star big. Four of them are on playoff teams and legitimate title contenders. If you re-draft any of their years in hindsight, every single guy goes in the top-five of their class.
That leads us to Alperen Sengun, the 18-year-old MVP of the Turkish League who has an interesting case for sliding up draft boards. No, he's not the hyperathletic big man like James Wiseman, Evan Mobley or DeAndre Ayton of the last few years. But let's not focus on who or what he is not. Sengun is wildly productive, shows flashes in so many different areas and is already productive at a professional level. Our goal here isn't to compare him within the positional confines of what it means to be a center. It's to figure out how good of a basketball player he is and can be.
If we truly believe that any type of player can become an All-NBA performer at the center position, then let's only focus on the type of impact Sengun could have.
The scouting report on most European bigs favors skill over athleticism, offensive impact over defensive. I think Sengun is a little unorthodox and, if there's one current NBA big to loft a comparison to, it's likely Domantas Sabonis. A two-time All-Star, Sabonis has emerged over the last two years, averaging 19.4 points, 12.2 rebounds, 5.8 assists a game with 1.0 steals, 0.5 blocks and barely shooting 30% from 3.
This season for Besiktas, Sengun has posted averages of 19.2 points, 9.4 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.3 steals, 1.7 blocks and a putrid 4-for-21 shooting from deep. A more statistically impactful defender, the baseline for production on that end is already higher for Sengun than the Lithuanian Pacer. Athletically and size-wise, the two are fairly similar.
What struck me most when putting together the scouting video on Sengun was his mobility. There's a notion throughout watching some clips that he's a stiff big. At only 6'10", he isn't large enough to bully around most centers, but also not quick enough to stay with the smallest, most athletic ones. It was a tough pigeonhole to be in as numerous types of matchups would thwart him.
The more I watched, the more his mobility seems competent on both ends in functional ways. Defensively, he has solid angles and recovery skills when playing pick-and-roll defense. He's a fine shot blocker with solid timing. We aren't talking about DPOY upside by any means. But he'll do enough to get by, akin to what Jusuf Nurkic does in Portlant.
Offensively, his mobility is notable in ways you don't really expect. He's good in the full-court, out-sprinting other bigs or even mismatch handling. He can drive past someone his size from atop the key to the basket. He has more vertical pop with a runway than I thought. He really isn't a subpar athlete, he just doesn't look as comfortable or fluid in the ways we've grown to expect or make snap judgments on what athleticism really is:
Offensively, Sengun has his quirks. He does way too much with his back to the basket and far too little on the perimeter. He isn't a 3-point shooter despite showing touch in an empty gym setting. He doesn't get used atop the key in facilitation situations too frequently, rarely engaging in dribble handoffs. When he catches the ball on a short roll near the wing, he turns it into a back down opportunity to get a post-up, where he's most comfortable.
Sengun is strong and skilled enough to be able to command some post touches in the NBA. He may not get the Jokic or Embiid volume ever in his life, but he's good enough that teams will play through him down low in some form.
Even without that usage, Sengun projects as a strong offensive player. He's a terrific pick-and-roll finisher. Soft hands help him catch in traffic, and the translation of post footwork to the catch-and-finish realm is evident with him. He can play above the rim or beneath it. The two traits that are quantifiably positive: his ability to get to the free throw line (7.9 FTA per 36, where he makes over 81%) and offensive rebounding (5.2 ORB per 36 minutes). For comparison, he'd be fourth in the NBA in offensive boards per 36 this year, and sixth in free throw attempts. Those are high-impact alpha traits.
I made the distinct decision not to put either as their own category on Sengun's scouting video, instead trying to incapsulate both in his offensive projection. Both are part of the reason why he's an impactful offensive player. But neither should serve as replacements for his mobility, an underrated trait he possesses. It's the marriage of mobility and these two strength-based stats (rebounding and drawing contact) that gives promise to Sengun.
Beyond the scoring in the post, Sengun is a terrific passer. He's got great feel for double-teams down low and makes the right reads. He's a good passer on the move from the perimeter. There's a ton of short roll potential for him. I can easily see him averaging 5 assists a game someday, especially if paired with an elite shooting threat of a PNR initiator.
What Sengun needs to work on is his quickness and shooting ability. The mobility only matters in the half-court if he's able to get past his man and draw help one-on-one. He's shown flashes against bigs, but doesn't do it consistently. What aids that is a legitimate jumper that forces his man to leave the lane to guard him. Those two or three feet closer give him more room to drive past someone.
Without the shooting or increased first step/ separation/ ball skills, some of Sengun's scoring and playmaking will be handicapped. Our job is to look at both ceiling and floor, though. The floor may be somewhat limited as a screen-and-roll big with solid passing chops but limited functional ways to deploy them. He won't be dominant enough defensively to make that his calling card, either.
The ceiling is really high, though. Sengun could become an alpha hub on the right team. Paired with a strong shooter and if he shows competent pick-and-pop skills, now Sengun is forcing switches in quick actions that allow him to dominate down low. He gains physicality on screens and handoffs and he gets smaller guys on him, crab dribbles them into the post and either finishes through them, gets to the free throw line or draws a double that he can make the right pass out of.
Force Sengun's man to hard hedge and aggressively get the ball out of a PNR initiator's hands and he'll do damage on the short roll. He's a competent finisher and a strong passer in those situations. He may not be the quickest or most athletic, but he knows how to play 4-on-3 and make something positive happen. Make a concerted effort to call a couple of post-up plays and, with high enough efficiency, he can buck the trends of the NBA and be played through there as he gets stronger and bigger.
Sengun is young for his class. Yet he's already MVP of a professional league, outplaying big men with NBA experience like Al Jefferson, Grant Jerrett, Kyle Wiltjer, Jonathan Williams and Kenny Kadji. He lead the league in points, offensive rebounds and field goal percentage, was second in total rebounds, blocks and free throw attempts, and did so while as a teenager.
At some point, productivity is what matters. Sengun isn't your traditional big who fits nicely into one mold or another. But he's wildly productive when on the floor. I think many of the traits he's been successful with this year translate. Even if they require unique handling or catering to in order to maximize who he can be, Sengun is good enough to work through that with. I have him as a lottery guy and can see him climbing into my top-ten as I revisit some other prospects closer to draft night.
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Adam Spinella, Head Boys Basketball Coach at Boys' Latin School (MD)