Alperen Şengün drops career-high 45 points, outduels Victor Wembanyama in Rockets’ win vs. Spurs

By the time the final buzzer sounded at Toyota Center, with members of the San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets exchanging postgame pleasantries, a frustrated Victor Wembanyama stormed off the floor and headed to the locker room.

Defensively, Wembanyama continues to showcase his versatility and the growth in his game, accumulating 11 rebounds and seven blocks on Tuesday night. At the other end of the floor, however, the No. 1 pick struggled, finishing with just 10 points on 4-for-10 shooting, including a scoreless second half.

“That’s what you call a real ass whooping right there,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said following a 114-101 loss. “They deserve a lot of credit, they were physical from the get-go until the end of the game. They came after it that way, played that way. Put us in mud and we didn’t respond to it very well, and you got the outcome. It requires a little more mental toughness and we didn’t have it.”

This isn’t the first time this season that Wembanyama has expressed his displeasure with a matchup against another talented center — he was visibly annoyed after Joel Embiid’s 70-point performance earlier this season and has made no secret of his rivalry with Oklahoma City Thunder big man Chet Holmgren. Wembanyama is a fierce competitor who detests losing.

At its crux, most of Wembanyama’s frustrations came at the hands of Alperen Şengün, Houston’s third-year center who continues to progress by leaps and bounds within his own development arc. There have been times this season when Şengün has looked the part of a budding superstar and others when he still shows areas that need tightening up, but on Tuesday night, he simply looked unstoppable. Şengün finished with a career-high 45 points to go along with 16 rebounds, five steals, three assists and a block.

Wembanyama was able to block Şengün a few times and ironically enough, an early rim stuff deterred the Turkish big man from forcing the issue. But after some encouragement from the sidelines — particularly from Rockets coach Ime Udoka — Şengün doubled down on his approach and took the game to Wembanyama, literally.

“Going against one of the best defenders in the league, a lot of times, you gotta go right at him and make him work,” Udoka said. “All over the place from top of the key, elbows, on the post, in the pocket and on the rolls, he was doing a great job.”

“He’s so tall but he’s not that strong yet,” Şengün said of Wembanyama. “I was going at his chest and putting him under the rim.”

Şengün’s defensive work against Wembanyama was part of a larger Rockets scheme to keep the French center off balance. Physical wings Dillon Brooks and Jabari Smith Jr. had the initial assignments, using their strength and length to attempt to push Wembanyama out of his favored positions — and for good reason. Wembanyama, who was recently named Rookie of the Month, has been on an offensive tear, shooting 41.3 percent from distance on over five attempts per game in February, in addition to his other impressive counting stats of 21.3 points, 10.7 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 3.9 blocks and 2.0 steals per game last month.

Houston’s aggressive approach Tuesday worked, racking up 15 steals to just 15 team fouls. Even in the moments when San Antonio hunted Şengün in switch-heavy schemes, he was able to hold his ground, with a career-high five steals serving as a timely reminder of the potential that Şengün has as a viable team defender. The confidence built on the defensive end of the floor spurned an MVP-level performance for Şengün, who utilized his impressive array of footwork and fakes to keep Wembanyama guessing. Şengün completely outplayed Wembanyama in the second half of the game, amassing 30 points to 0 against the top pick.

It was an eye-opening performance for Houston’s big man, the sort of callback that rebuilding teams need as they move from phase to phase. For Wembanyama, it was a needle in a haystack of a rookie season, but a necessary reminder that aliens can be taken down — even for one night.

“I mean, yeah, of course,” Şengün said of his extra motivation going up against Wembanyama. “I didn’t play that well against him last game I can say. And I didn’t have many double teams, they just left me one-on-one with Wemby. I just did what I do.”

For the past six months, Wembanyama’s otherworldly superstar potential has taken the league by storm, and, at times, it’s easy to forget he’s still just a rookie. On Tuesday against Şengün and his interstate rivals, he looked like a mere mortal.

Required reading

(Photo: Troy Taormina / USA Today)

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