"I'm happy," he managed after great hesitation. "I played good."
Coming from anyone else in today's star-driven NBA, that sound bite would exude egotism and a complete lack of self-awareness. But with Erden, the 24-year-old rookie making his NBA debut Wednesday night at Verizon Wireless Arena, you have to give him credit for saying anything at all.
"I'm so sorry," Erden stammered to the crowd of reporters gathered around him. "My English is not so good."
Erden was a bit unprepared for the moment — his interpreter hadn't made the trip with him up to Manchester, and he didn't expect to be talking to a throng of media members after his first preseason game in the NBA. But maybe that's because he didn't expect to lead the C's in minutes and contribute 13 points, five rebounds and two blocks to their blowout win over the Sixers, 93-65, to open the preseason.
"Semih was terrific," head coach Doc Rivers said. "He played great, and that's why I kept him out there. I told you guys before the game that I would anyway, but he was great. He knows how to play, he's very physical, and I really think it's great for him that he's playing against [Shaquille O'Neal] every day in practice. I wouldn't wish that on anybody, because we don't call those offensive fouls in practice — he has to play through it. So for him to play against someone else was probably a joy for him. But he knows how to play. You can see his high basketball IQ."
After a week of training camp and two practices this week against the Diesel himself, Erden was quick to settle into his matchup with a young Philadelphia big man corps led by Spencer Hawes, Marreese Speights and Trent Plaisted. He was poised on both ends of the floor — attacking on the offensive end, and standing up to the Sixers' physical post play on D. He didn't shy away from the moment of his first NBA experience.
"Defensively and offensively, you can see that he's played the game," Rivers said. "He has a really high IQ. And he's been able to pick up our defense pretty well. He's had some coverages today that were fantastic. The bumps, getting back out, finding his guy in rotation, that takes a while to get, and he has it already."
While Kevin Garnett was the defensive anchor for the Celtics' starting five from the jump, Erden emerged quickly as the backbone of the second unit. He was a constant shot-blocking threat from the moment he stepped on the court, with his mere presence forcing the Sixers to stay on the perimeter and force difficult jump shots. The specter of Erden down low was a huge factor in the Sixers' shooting 26.9 percent from the field.
He grabbed a couple of impressive defensive rebounds in the second quarter, drawing heaps of praise from the starters seated comfortably on Doc Rivers' bench. Tonight was his night, and the Celtics' more established stars were happy to sit back and watch.
"I'm really impressed with how he's picked up things in training camp," said captain Paul Pierce. "He's been a pro in Turkey for a number of years now, so he's coming in and fitting in nicely. He knows the plays and he understands what we're trying to accomplish, and he's in all the right spots. He's been really good."
Erden didn't have much to say about himself on Wednesday night, for obvious reasons. But everyone else was eager to do the talking for him, and consensus around the Celtics' locker room was that the depth of big men on this Celtics' roster was pushing Erden to improve. The guidance of Shaq, KG, Jermaine O'Neal and Glen Davis has been instrumental in readying Erden for this moment.
"He plays aggressive," Shaquille O'Neal said. "He goes against three great big men in Jermaine, myself, Kevin. So he's going to learn a lot, and he's going to be a force for us."
"He played well," Rajon Rondo added. "I think he's only going to get better, playing with two future Hall of Famers, plus Jermaine and Baby, and [Kendrick Perkins] when he comes back. Against the competition he played tonight, he did a great job."
No doubt about it — basketball has come easy to Erden. The only hard part is the English.
"He clearly understands better than he speaks," Rivers said. "But he's pretty good. He clearly understands what we're saying. Whenever I communicate with him, he just looks at me, but that's very similar to most of my players."
Sounds like Semih Erden is looking more and more like an NBA player every day. He may not talk a big game, but he's already proven he can play one.