18 is just a number: Sengun already focused on being a role model for younger guys
ISTANBUL (Turkey) - The 12 Giant Men struggled throughout the FIBA EuroBasket 2022 Qualifiers, but the adventure has a double happy end, because Turkey did manage to qualify and Alperen Sengun has transformed into a star.
Sengun was already a prominent figure in youth events, and his battles with Usman Garuba, Santi Aldama, Ariel Hukporti or Roko Prkacin have been documented since the FIBA U16 European Championship 2018 in Novi Sad, Serbia.
The kids are all grown up now, taking their talents all over the world, at the club level, but also as players for the national team.
The fact that they've been in the spotlight for so long has made them grow up faster than 18-year-olds usually do.
"Not a lot of young players can get this kind of a chance. It was like a blessing for us," Sengun said in between the last two games of the campaign for Turkey in Istanbul, referencing the fact that he's sharing minutes with his long time club teammates Sehmus Hazer and Furkan Haltali here, too.
"This is what we get in return for hard work. We managed to use the opportunity and will continue to use it, which is very important for Turkish basketball. I hope we can be good examples to the younger ones."
That sounded weird. Who are the younger ones, if Alperen is only 18 right now?
"I receive a lot of messages from the boys younger than me, writing that they want to be like me in the future and they are working for that. This makes me very happy and I hope I will be a good role model to them. It is also good for our basketball that we have young talents coming," a mature sounding center said.
Sengun is 2.06m (6ft 9in) tall, and he had a lot of trouble with the Croatian and Dutch bigs back in November, especially on the defensive end. Fast forward to February, and the problems are gone, Sengun is capable of putting up 24 points and 12 rebounds against Sweden, to lead Turkey to a win and qualification, effectively.
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"My first game was not that good, my performance was lower than my performances in Turkish Super League. I did not expect that I will play this good, but I was thinking that I am going to contribute to the team for sure. For the game against Sweden, it was a game made for me, as our opponent's force under the hoop wasn't so strong, so I played efficiently. I still think I could have been better and contributed more on defense. I did my best and it was a good game for me overall," Sengun said after his double-double.
Home court advantage also helped. It doesn't get more advantageous than this for Alperen, since he's playing club basketball for Besiktas in the exact same arena where he's playing right now.
"I thought about this too. I was very excited to play in the Sinan Erdem Hall in the previous Qualifiers and I am still excited about it. But as this is my home, I was used to playing in this arena and I felt more relaxed. I used the advantages of playing at home in the game against Sweden."
Is there a better 18-year-old prospect out there? 🤯🦅— FIBA Europe Cup (@FIBAEuropeCup) February 2, 2021
Besiktas' @alperennsengun put up an individual show in the #FIBAEuropeCup! 🔥
📊 𝟮𝟯.𝟬 PTS, 𝟳.𝟯 REB, 𝟮.𝟳 AST & 𝟮.𝟬 BLK | 𝟮𝟴.𝟬 EFF pic.twitter.com/mOKSx9UI70
Putting up big numbers sounds good, but there are still areas in which Sengun should improve. Actually, MUST improve, because his 10-of-22 shooting from the free throw line won't impress anyone. You could see a change in his free throw ritual, because Alperen is clearly saying something before taking the shot, reminding people of what Karl Malone or DeAndre Jordan have been doing in their careers.
"It is a kind of prayer, I am trying to motivate myself by talking to the ball, saying things like: 'You need to make this! It is very important' and similar. I think I need to change this routine, some of my teammates also told me to change it, because it takes more than 10 seconds for me to shoot the ball during the free throws. It is okay in the Turkish League, but they warn me in Europe if I pass 10 seconds. I shoot better when I take my time a little bit, I miss the ones that I shoot in a rush. I will work on this," he said.
"I TRY TO MOTIVATE MYSELF BY TALKING TO THE BALL BEFORE THE FREE THROWS. IT'S LIKE A KIND OF A PRAYER."
Free throws aren't the only pressure situation for Sengun and Turkey. The nation was on a verge of being knocked out, which can be both helpful and harmful for a basketball team. Harmful, if it turns the ship around and sinks it. Helpful, because...
"It helped us a lot, to build character for sure. Maybe if we were guaranteed to qualify before maybe we might have felt more comfortable. Like Croatia felt a bit comfortable against the Netherlands and they lost. It might have been the same for us. This way, we worked harder to be more focused on the court. Having pressure is what develops a team for me. We came to the court very focused and with the thought that we must win that game against Sweden," Sengun explained.
In a bizarre twist of fate, the fact that Turkey struggled in the Qualifiers may actually help them in the Final Round.
"Of course, we learned a lot in these Qualifiers. And in the FIBA EuroBasket 2022 we will have our NBA players, we will have a lot of options of good players. I think our team will be stronger and more experienced. We could not show ourselves as a team in the Qualifiers, but we will be ready in FIBA EuroBasket 2022. Maybe we even win the cup!"
Ambitious. But who could blame the ambitions of an 18-year-old when he's playing alongside a dominant player such as Shane Larkin.
"He is one of the best players in Europe, no doubt. We all know that. We have a good communication in the games, he is a very clever player, he understands what will I do during the game and directs the team on what to do. It was easy to cooperate with him. He supports everyone in the team and that is a great contribution to have on the court."
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The biggest change from this high-flying, fast moving Alperen compared to his U16 version is the evident weight loss. Growing into his frame is not a done process yet, but from afar, it seems that he's headed in the right direction.
"I do not follow a strict diet. But I am being very careful on what I eat. I do not eat dessert, and I practice a lot. I am also doing a lot of fitness and I can see that it helped me make my body better. My weight now is better than the time the season started. I will continue working hard, I still have to lose some weight and turn fats into muscles," Turkey's big guy commented.
With such dedication, with that focus on winning, with the mature mind he already has, it's easy to see why Sengun is Turkey's number one prospect right now. His game-time analysis go so deep that he's even had the time to find out what works for him in mental preparation for a game.
"I should not condition myself against an opponent, or a player that we must beat. When I do that, I do not play well. Or, when I think that I must play good in a game, it affects me badly. I need to go to the court with a free mind, just thinking about basketball. There were also news being published about me on the topic of transfers. I tried not to lose my focus on just basketball. I also talk with the players older than I am, to act like a professional. The most important thing for me is not to have any other thoughts than playing good basketball."
And playing good basketball is exactly what he is doing right now. Good enough to give an entire nation a new hero, and a positive role model for the ones younger than him.