Rockets Week: Alperen Sengun, Shooting Woes and a Long Home Stand

Alperen Sengun right now looks like the team's best player.
Alperen Sengun right now looks like the team's best player. Photo by Jeff Balke
The first week of the Rockets 2023-24 season didn't exactly go as planned. They stumbled out of the gate to an 0-3 record including an overtime loss in San Antonio to No. 1 pick Victor Wembanyama. Given the number of players at or under 21-years-old, the new coaching staff and a mix of (again) new veterans, they look about like you might expect. That hasn't kept fans from overreacting — that is what fans do — but with just three games under their belt, it is difficult to know what this team will look like at 13 games or 30 games.

There are some bright spots — improved defense, a fast start from Alperen Sengun — but it's mostly lowlights given the lack of wins on the board. With a long home stand just getting started, this should be the time for Coach Ime Udoka and his squad to clean things up. Still a ton of basketball to be played.

Aleren Sengun looks legit.

One of the big question marks to start the season was related to how the team's offense would work in the half court. The Rockets want and expect to run. They certainly have the thoroughbreds to do it. They will also rely on a steady dose of pick-and-roll as most teams in the NBA do, particularly given the ball skills of some of their youngest players. But in half court sets, who would be the floor leader? Fred VanVleet is the point guard, but in reality the guy that has been heavily featured when it comes to controlling the offensive sets is Sengun.

A mini-Nikola Jokic, he has the length at 6'11" and the court awareness to handle the high post and screen-and-roll options, and Udoka is giving him the ball. In his first three games, he's averaging 19 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists. Only he, Jokic, Luka Doncic, Joel Embiid and LeBron James are putting up those numbers in the first week of the season. The best part is it is all replicable. It's not a fluke. This is something the Rockets can build upon going forward.

The defense seems better?

Look at the numbers that this might seem like wishcasting, but, in comparison to last year, this feels like a better team defensively. They don't give up nearly the number of transition buckets as they have in the past and the swarming defense in the half court has, at times, been impressive. Having said that, they still have a ways to go. The Spurs exposed a very weak backside defense with backdoor cuts over and over again. And they don't exactly have a traditional rim protector to shut down the paint.

In fact, you could argue that their lack of shot blocking is their biggest weakness and the one thing that is keeping them from reaching an elite status defensively. As is, they remain among the worst five teams in some of the key defensive statistical categories despite looking better to the eye. Honestly, we'd be surprised if they didn't see significant improvement here as the sample sizes get larger.

The shooting does not.

The Rockets are 29th in offensive rating and 26th in effective field goal percentage. They are 23rd in overall field goal percentage and 27th behind the three-point line. They are second to last in points per game and third from last in free throw percentage — they were dead last until a surge of good shooting from the charity stripe against Golden State on Sunday.

It is notable however that they are 17th in assists and 13th in turnovers, something that augers well for their future. But, when you don't have great shooting, offense is going to be a struggle and this team shoots poorly. While Dillon Brooks is off to a hot start from distance at well over 50 percent, no one else has shot 35 percent from downtown (not counting Jock Landale's 1-2 total for the season). In fact, only two players other than Brooks (VanVleet and Sengun) are shooting over 30 percent. Those are abysmal numbers that cannot continue if the Rockets want to be any good at all this year.

A very long home stand begins.

If there is good news it is that the Rockets are at the start of one of their longest home stands in team history. They still have six games remaining of seven straight at home before they hit the road again. Unfortunately, those six games include the Kings (twice), the Lakers, the Nuggets and the surprising Pelicans. Charlotte is the only "probably-should-win" game in the bunch. Despite the home-heavy start to the season, the schedule is pretty brutal through December.


All at home, first up is Charlotte and LaMelo Ball who is averaging almost 15 points, 9 assists and 6 rebounds per game. The Hornets are 1-2, but definitely have some talent on the roster with veteran guard Terry Rozier leading them in scoring and forwards Brandon Miller and Gordon Hayward both shooting lights out from beyond the arc.

After that, the Rockets play a pair of games against Sacramento, a practice the league began last year of having some teams stay in the same city for two in a row. It's weird. Sacramento is as good as expected coming off a division win and a seven-game series loss to Golden State. But their best player De'Aaron Fox will miss both games with a sprained ankle that was initially feared worse. Even without Fox, they will be a tough out.
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke