Is Paolo Banchero a fitting choice for Rockets?

When you’re a fan of a team in the NBA Lottery, you start trying to read tea leaves from the moment the draft order is announced. That doesn’t necessarily mean you know how to read them.

Misdirection is the name of the game. If a rumor leaks that a team is set on Prospect X, it probably means they’re taking Prospect Y. Unless, of course, that’s what they want you to think…

Paranoia sets in. It’s an inevitable product of so much smoke and so many mirrors. Unless you work in an NBA front office, the best you can do is make an educated guess. As of this writing, the most educated guess is that Paolo Banchero will be a Houston Rocket.

The current conventional wisdom says that Orlando is set on Jabari Smith Jr. The Thunder will likely take Chet Holmgren at number two. Neither of those facts is certain, but if you had to place money on an outcome right now, that’s where it would be safest.

Rockets fans ought to be thrilled. To add a 6’10”, 250-pound point forward at this stage in a rebuild is a blessing. Believe it or not, some Rockets fans aren’t thrilled with the idea.

Out with the new, in with the newer?

The majority of reservations among Rockets fans about drafting Banchero have to do with his fit alongside Alperen Sengun. On paper, it isn’t great.

That’s not going to sit with his most ardent supporters. Sengun captured hearts and minds in 2021-22 with his passing wizardry, masterful footwork, and meme-able moments.

He’s a remarkable talent. Of course, so is Banchero. Whatever aspects of his game you may be concerned about, he wouldn’t be a candidate to be selected in the top three in the draft if he weren’t.

Is there any hope that the Rockets can play the two together? If not, which one projects to be the better NBA player?

Can Banchero and Sengun fit?

In a superficial way, Banchero and Sengun are very similar players. They’re both jumbo-sized playmakers, capable of providing highlight dimes you expect to see from men half their stature. They’re both bruising inside scorers. Neither appears to be a reliable floor-spacer at this stage, but each has the potential to develop that side of their game.

So what’s not to love about the fit between the two?

Unfortunately, there is a glaring potential redundant weakness between the two exciting young players.

It’s got nothing to do with offense. You can never have enough playmaking. One of the two would have to eventually develop into a serviceable three-point threat to co-exist, but it feels likely that at least one of them will do so.

The concerns come on the defensive end.

If you’re at all familiar with my thinking, you know I’m concerned about Sengun on that end of the floor. I’m not narcissistic enough to assume that you are, so let me be quite clear:

I am deeply concerned about the viability of Alperen Sengun on the defensive end. Like, it keeps me up at night. This man’s arms are unexceptional, and his feet move slower than trees grow.

It’s not a popular opinion. It’ll make you feel like a pariah, if not an outright leper, in certain circles. Nevertheless, it’s true.

A look around the league’s current landscape suggests that it could be a problem. Negative frontcourt defenders didn’t survive the first round of this year’s playoffs. That’s not likely to be a coincidence. Rangy, versatile bigs rule the day.

It’s hard to say whether Banchero will be much better than Sengun projects to be. There were times that he looked highly effective on that end at Duke, but it’s hard to say whether he was leveraging his NBA-ready body against lesser competition.

There were other times that he looked slow to rotate and disengaged. He made mistakes that flew in the NCAA and simply won’t at the professional level. Of course, it’s also possible that Banchero knows that. Rumors suggest that he’d prefer to slim down from his currently substantial frame. That could improve his currently questionable lateral mobility.

My hunch is that Banchero is an average defender at the NBA level, whereas Sengun struggles in that area throughout his career. For argument’s sake, let’s assume they end up on a similar level on the defensive end. Let’s also assume that it’s not a high level.

The question then becomes this: who would you rather build around on the offensive end?

Which engine purrs louder?

As a rule of thumb, when I’m asking myself questions about my beloved Rockets, the first step in my process is to pretend I’m not a Rockets fan.

I’m trying to remove the bias from my thinking. The question then becomes as follows: if I were a (shudder) Spurs fan, would I rather be adding Paolo Banchero or Alperen Sengun this summer?

The obvious, intuitive answer feels like Banchero. Undeniably, both have the potential to be primary playmakers in this league. Between the two, only Banchero has potential as an initiator.

Who should pick Rockets for role in the pick and roll?

Like many questions in the NBA, this one revolves around the pick-and-roll. Banchero is likely to orchestrate them as a ball-handler. It’s hard to envision Sengun doing the same.

Banchero will initiate plays, while on the other hand, Sengun operates most effectively on the low block as a passing hub.

In other words, someone has to get him the ball.

There’s a tremendous benefit in starting a possession with the ball in your primary decision-maker’s hands. For all of the discourse around Kevin Porter Jr. as a point guard last year, it’s fair to wonder whether, at times, making an entry pass to Sengun on the low block felt counterintuitive to him.

After all, nobody really plays that way anymore. NBA teams have largely cut out the middle man. It just makes sense to start a possession with the ball in the hands of the player who’s expected to make a decision.

Banchero can penetrate from the perimeter to the paint. That’s a rare quality in a player his size, but he’s got the footwork, handles, and straight-up bag to do it. Sengun is unlikely to develop the same skill. He’s too slow and prodding.

Meanwhile, he’s not as effective on the other end of the pick-and-roll as you’d like either. Sengun finished 2021-22 in the 26.1st percentile in points per possession as a roll man. As a rookie, that’s not necessarily shocking. It’s also worth noting that at 1.7 possessions per game, his sample size was limited. It’s still sub-optimal.

Sengun can leverage his size, positioning IQ, and aggressiveness to be a solid finisher in those sets. On the other hand, his lack of lateral quickness and verticality limits him.

Neither of those projects as strengths for Banchero either, but he should be at least a little stronger in both areas. In a pick-and-roll dominant league, passing on a player who’s likely to be better on both ends of those sets for Sengun feels a bit silly.

The Rockets can’t pass on Banchero

I strongly believe that passing on Banchero to accommodate Sengun could be a franchise-altering mistake.

No, they don’t project as a good fit. That’s fine. As fans of a rebuilding team, we tend to assume a linear progression that’s not necessarily going to unfold. We just found “our” playmaking big man: why draft another one?

The answer is simple: he’ll probably be a better one. Who knows, maybe they can fit. Sengun could come back after this summer leaner, quicker, and more capable of making rotations to defend the rim.

There’s so much left to be seen. In that event, the two could be a viable pairing. The Rockets should at least give them a season to see if they can make it work.

If it becomes obvious that they can’t, Rockets fans may be saying a sooner-than-expected, tearful goodbye to Alperen Sengun. This happens. The longer you follow a given team, the more you come to see that just because you’re attached to a player doesn’t mean your team’s front office will commit to him for life.

It won’t be easy, but there will be one thing that dulls the pain:

Saying hello to Paolo Banchero.

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