Nikola Jokic is one of the greatest players in NBA history. This is not hyperbole, but he has a real shot at going down as one of the ten greatest players ever. His statistical resume, both traditional and advanced, is second to none, but simply looking at him, it’s hard to believe.
Jokic doesn’t look or move like an all-time great, but he doesn’t need to. He’s massive, surprisingly nimble, and incredibly skilled, but his secret weapon is a basketball brain capable of quantum computing. Which is what makes his comments about Alperen Sengun, another bruising ballerina with touch and passing moxie, so interesting.
Nikola Jokic has high praise for Alperen Sengun
Following the Rockets and Nuggets game on Monday, Jokic was asked to comment on Sengun modeling his game after him. He opened by laughing a little and sarcastically saying, “I don’t know if that’s a good thing,” before getting more detailed in his analysis.
"I think he’s really talented. Maybe this is going to sound weird, but I think they need to play a little bit more through him. Sometimes they look a little bit more stagnant… with all their 3s. This guy has the talent. He can pass the ball, He can post up, he has the touch around the rim. You can see some different moves that he’s made."- Nikola Jokic
Jokic wasn’t just being a nice guy. Sengun torched him in the first half for 15 points on seven of eleven shooting and three assists in 17 minutes. Sengun was able to blow by Jokic with a nasty pump fake and later backed him down in the post for a nice lefty hook.
Can the Rockets' offense bloom around Sengun?
Jokic’s most fascinating comment was his belief that the Rockets should play through Sengun more to prevent their offense from becoming stagnant. The Rockets and Nuggets have wildly different offensive styles, and it’s primarily due to how they utilize their centers.
With Jokic, the Nuggets feature a heavy dosage of post, elbow, and paint touches. His scoring threat draws the defense in, but instead of standing around the 3-point line to space the floor, his teammates provide a steady stream of off-ball movement and cuts. From there, Jokic goes to work dissecting the defense with pinpoint passes to high-value areas if defenses get too focused on him, and if they’re not concerned enough, he punishes them with insanely efficient scoring.
The Rockets, on the other hand, usually remain stagnant even when Sengun does get post touches, and elbow touches are still not a prominent part of the Sengun experience. However, when Sengun does pass out of the post, even with limited off-ball movement, the Rockets’ offense suddenly becomes more free-flowing.
The point that Jokic is picking up has been a debate among Rockets’ fans for months now. Sengun is an extremely talented post-scorer and has flashed incredible passing creativity in his young career. While the Rockets have made sure to get Sengun post touches, they’ve failed to implement actions off the ball to fully take advantage of his passing from those positions.
At the Rockets’ core, they’re a guard-dominant offense that has the proverbial wrench thrown into their plans in the form of a gifted offensive big. So while Jokic believes the Rockets should run more of their offense through Sengun, it would fundamentally change what their offense is.
Jalen Green has made rapid strides as a backcourt playmaker in recent weeks, and asking him to play off of Sengun could hamper his own development. The problem the Rockets face is how to get the most out of two players who will likely operate best in different offensive systems.
Jokic believes that an offense built around him and his style can flourish, but he’s Nikola Jokic, back-to-back MVP and the greatest passing center in the history of the sport. If Sengun becomes 80% of Jokic, which is still an incredible player, can the Rockets build as explosive of an offense as they could with a perimeter-oriented attack designed to get the most out of Green’s talents?
There is no easy answer, but the Rockets do need to incorporate more off ball actions when Sengun has the ball. As a rebuilding team, experimentation and development should go hand in hand. Jokic sees something in Alperen Sengun, but it’s not clear that the Rockets’ coaching staff does too. The truth is somewhat irrelevant, but the quest for truth is paramount. The Rockets should take Jokic’s advice, and see if he’s right. The Nuggets did, and it has worked out okay for them.