Is Semih Erden an NBA player?
I don’t know.
None of us do, yet.
And by framing the question that way, rather than asking, say – should the Celtics be giving Erden the chance to prove he can play rotation minutes in this league – we poison the well from the outset. Plus, by engaging the question this early in Erden’s career, as he battles a shoulder injury and plays minutes he’d never even sniff if the Celtics’ bigs were healthy, we risk making fools of ourselves.
Or I do, anyway.
But Erden has a 6.88 PER so far this season. By that measure, he’s one of the worst players in the NBA. And who besides the Celtics’ brass thought we’d ever see this guy come across the pond and suit up, much less play meaningful minutes?
Erden, selected with the final pick in the 2008 NBA draft, may have benefited from the Celtics’ game 7 loss in the finals and Ainge’s summer mandate to track down more length to match up with the Lakers, and to exploit the Heat’s interior weaknesses. A young, mobile seven-footer must have seemed like the perfect occupant for the end of the bench. The Celtics could bring him along slowly and he could provide some resistance in practice for the rotation players.
Erden may have moved a notch up the depth chart with his performance at the World’s this summer. In September, Chris Forsberg of ESPN Boston checked in with Danny Ainge on that topic:
Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said he watched every Turkey game on TV, while also dispatching director of player personnel Ryan McDonough overseas to report back on Erden’s exploits. The 6-foot-11 rookie center averaged 9.1 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 1.2 assists per game in nine appearances, while helping the hosts earn silver.
“I really liked what I saw,” said Ainge. “I thought Semih played with great energy and confidence.”
While Erden wasn’t overly dominant on the glass and struggled at the free-throw line, he did show a nice ability to finish around the basket and, maybe most notably, displayed good passing skills when defenses committed double teams.
“Semih’s a player,” said Ainge. “He plays hard, he plays with energy. He definitely made a handful of nice passes.”
Eleven games into his career, Ainge’s observations feel accurate. Erden has good hands, and touch around the basket. He runs the floor well and plays with good energy. He has the potential to be a strong pick and roll defender.
But right now he’s part of the problem with the Celtics’ underachieving bench.
Over the last few days, I’ve gone back and rewatched the bulk of Erden’s minutes as a Celtic. A few observations mixed in with some number crunching:
- He is raw like sushi on the offensive end. Most of his baskets (83.3% assisted) have come as a result of rolling to the basket and finishing off someone else’s creation. Or in transition.
- He eschews the traditional perimeter-based, face-up European offensive game by staying in the paint area. This is encouraging. Erden doesn’t take shots outside of ten feet. Essentially 75% of the shots he takes are from point blank range and the other 25% are from 10 feet and closer. To develop an offensive game that moves his PER from atrocious to passable, he’ll have to refine a couple post-moves and a face-up jumper. That may not be feasible in the 2010-11 season.
- He’s a turnover machine. Erden turns the ball over on 21.84% of his possessions (9th worst in the league). Many of these have come on back-to-the-basket attempts, as he goes into a post-move. Doubling Erden in those circumstances is pretty much a guaranteed T/O. Soft hands, yes. Sticky hands – not yet. This has to improve.
- He is active on the defense end, but often ineffective. This is a subjective assessment, but Erden seems always a step behind on rotations. And insufficiently physical in his man-to-man defense. Part of that seems to be tied into learning the Celtics defensive system (it’s not like he’s logging heavy game minutes – it’s gonna take time) and part of it may be tied into his shoulder injury. Erden has real height, length and weight – he should be throwing it around. But the prognosis on his shoulder suggests we may not see that before next year.
- He has potential as a rebounder. His 11.6 rebound rate is in the top 40% of the league – not a terrible figure for a hobbled first year player from a foreign country. With his size and mobility, and facing bench-level competition more often than not, Erden could make himself into a plus on the boards for the second unit. Again – full health would go a long way towards improving this figure. Erden could use his size to move people out of the way, if he trusted his body.
What we have right now is a 7-foot center, who provides little on offense, without a great prospect of becoming fluid on that side of the ball until his body heals. Which won’t be until the summer. Erden’s offensive struggles alone would be reason to relegate him to the bench – except the alternative is Luke Harangody, who may actually give them less. Still, it might be worth looking at Harangody at some point in the near future, if you can stomach the thought of he and Glen Davis at the 4 and 5.
And here’s where I get a bit mushy-headed on this topic. Erden, by all accounts, is a good worker in practice, and has fit in well with his teammates. He is laboring under difficult circumstances. He is surrounded by great teachers. Can the Celtics live with him until Jermaine O’Neal and Kendrick Perkins are able to return to their spots in the rotation? Probably.
In the meantime – the Celtics will struggle with his contributions to the bench. That’s where the problem lies. In the bench’s overall ineffectiveness. And how to deal with it. The regular season is one thing but it’s hard for me to imagine the Celtics heading into the playoffs with Erden as a rotation player. If some combo of JO/Perk/Shaq aren’t able to contribute during the second half of the season, it may be time for another Ainge waiver wire special.
Because whatever you think of Erden’s long term potential, right now he’s struggling. And the dim spotlight of fall is only going to gather intensity as winter gives way to spring.