The lanky 24-year-old Turkish rookie was brought in this summer to be a fourth-string center on the Celtics, a fringe rotation guy buried under two O'Neals and the injured Kendrick Perkins waiting in the wings. Back on July 5 when the Celtics signed Erden to arrive stateside and suit up in green, they never expected him to be a real factor.
And yet Erden made his first career start last week, on Dec. 9 against the Sixers, and he's had three more games since then as the starting center under Doc Rivers. Erden keeps producing, and the Celtics keep winning. They're now 4-0 with the rookie in their starting five.
"Semih was phenomenal for us," Rivers said after the most recent victory, 102-90 over the Hawks on Thursday night. "He had a big three-point play [attempt]. He just did some good things for us. And the fact that we can still keep Kevin [Garnett's] minutes down at 31, 32 — it?s good right now that we?re getting away with something. To me, that?s what we?re getting away with."
The Celtics have had to make all kinds of adjustments to their depth chart due to injuries. Their guard rotation is a big issue, but their bigs are even worse — with Jermaine O'Neal nursing a sore knee, and Shaquille O'Neal a calf, it's been Erden and Garnett playing the bulk of the minutes in the low post for the C's. The youngster has had to learn on the fly how to adjust to the physical NBA game, and he's done so admirably.
On Thursday night Erden shot 5-for-6, matching his career high with 10 points, including a couple of electrifying dunks that fired up the home crowd at the TD Garden. It was Erden's first time starting in Boston, and he made the most of it.
"I thought Semih gave us some valuable minutes," Garnett said after the win. "I thought he was active. What you don't know is that the kid has a lot of confidence in himself, and he's very skillful with either hand. He has a lot of post game moves — really a brilliant game. He played against Shaq and J.O. in camp and he held his own, and that's saying a lot. He's not just out there — he's definitely worthy of being on this team. We wouldn't have that confidence in him he he didn't build that in us."
"He was terrific," Rivers said. "He really was. He's just playing with energy. You know, he's young, and he's from a different country, and he's starting, and for us as a staff, we can't forget that. We give him a lot of instruction, and we've just got to be careful with him. He's playing great, though."
Rivers knows to tread carefully with his young center going forward. You never know when he might need big things from him.
Erden has gotten a few unexpected starts this past week. Any minute now, though, Shaq could decide that he's over his calf injury, and it would be back to the bench for Erden. Jermaine O'Neal isn't far behind on the comeback trail. And then sometime in early 2011, Perkins will be back as well.
Erden will be bouncing around all season, from first string to fourth and everywhere in between. No matter what happens, he's just got to stay ready. So far, he's done a great job of that.