Even though he’s a Boston Celtic, I began the FIBA World Championships without the slightest interest in Semih Erden. After watching him play in summer league, I had already determined that the Turkish seven-footer would be getting intimate with Maine this season. I crossed him off my list of priorities, thinking, “This scrub won’t come anywhere close to sniffing playing time… now or ever.”
Then I saw him play in Istanbul. While Erden will probably still spend a lot more time in the Pine Tree State than he would like (it ain’t easy to beat out the O’Neal brothers, Kevin Garnett, Big Baby and Perk for playing time), watching him play for Turkey increased my intrigue.
Don’t get me wrong, Erden didn’t put together any earth-shattering performances. He never scorched the nets and didn’t quite make Turkish fans forget about Mehmet Okur. Erden only scored more than 10 points or notched more than six rebounds once, and even the 18 points and 12 rebounds he registered against China should come with an asterisk — they were scored in a 47-point blowout against an already-weak Chinese team that played without Yi Jianlian. (I know NBA fans probably think playing without Yi actually helps matters, but he was China’s best player by a few miles.)
Yet Erden still displayed some upside, and even better than that, some potential to contribute right away. Barring injury, Erden still probably won’t play more than a few garbage-time minutes (and who knows? Despite a guaranteed contract, maybe he won’t even make the team), but he showed some positives in Turkey.
For one, he’s a legit seven-footer. I knew that before, but seeing Erden on the court against some of the best players in the world only reinforced his size. The man’s a legitimate presence in the middle, and — even better — he’s an agile center. He won’t blow you away with athleticism or dunk on many players’ heads, but Erden doesn’t have lead feet either. He can move his feet side-to-side and solidly defends the pick-and-roll, displaying the physical skills to be an above-average defender.
On top of his impressive physique and agility, Erden knows how to play his role. He understands he isn’t the next Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon or Bill Walton, so Erden looks to contribute the “little things.” Never trying to make “hero plays,” Erden looks for garbage buckets on dives to the hoop or putbacks, and runs the pick-and-roll well offensively. He makes a nice target cutting to the hoop, always with his hands high, always ready to catch a pass and finish. Almost never did I see Erden catch a pass with his back to the basket looking to post up, and for the Celtics that’s probably a good sign. They wouldn’t need Erden to shake and bake in the post; they would just need him to throw his body around, grab a few boards, and make a few layups. Erden can do that.
Then there are the intangibles, and Erden passed that test too. When he sprinted ten feet to block a last-second Serbian shot and preserve Turkey’s berth in the Finals, I had only one thought: “Yup, that’s a Celtic right there.” And thirty seconds or so before that, when Erden’s dunk put Turkey in the lead, he snarled and screamed and hung on the rim. The loud display of emotion may have seemed like showboating to some people, but to me it represented a mean streak and swagger. To put it quite eloquently, I loved that shit. Erden’s a competitor.
He’ll just probably be competing in Maine for most of this season. As much as I waxed poetically about Erden, my expectations are very low for this year. He’s sitting behind a combined 21 All-Star appearances for now, and when you add Perk to the equation Erden will be the fourth-string center. I don’t have any illusions of stardom for Erden, and I would advise him to buy an apartment in Maine.
But still, I’ll leave you with this: There are worse things than having a fourth-string center who spent the summer as sixth man for the world’s second-best team.