Erden’s starting to get comfortable

Manning middle
By Frank Dell’Apa
Globe Staff / December 18, 2010

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WALTHAM — Semih Erden was not expecting to be in the Celtics’ starting lineup so soon. He was planning to learn the ropes gradually as a rookie, pick up some tips in practice, ease his way into mop-up situations. Now, though, Erden is the starting center by default.

Erden has had to learn quickly, on and off the court. Besides getting the hang of the Celtics’ pick-and-roll defense, Erden had to pick out a car, find the best route to TD Garden — basics of everyday living. When Erden arrived from Turkey in September, it was apparent that breaking bread with his teammates would not be easy.

“It was tough for him because he speaks very little English,’’ said Ilker Belgutay, Erden’s personal trainer/translator. “He didn’t even want to go and have breakfast in the morning with the team because he felt uncomfortable. I told him he should go earlier and get along with the guys — the older guys are really nice and I saw it was way better than he expected, so I started telling him these guys are really good, they are helpful. In a short time, he understood that, and for the first time he felt a part of the team. They respect him, starting from the coaching staff, all the guys took care of him.’’

Erden has started the last four games with Jermaine O’Neal, Shaquille O’Neal, and Kendrick Perkins out with injuries. Erden is still a liability because of a tendency to commit fouls, but he has been able to adjust his game and is displaying quickness and resiliency in the low post.

“Honestly, he wasn’t expecting to play much,’’ Belgutay said. “But I was always telling him to be ready, because you never know when the chance is going to come. And, he was ready, not only physically, but mentally. The chance came and he is playing decent.

“Plus, he had some bad times. His shoulder was hurt and he was thinking of having an operation. He had some hard times at the beginning but the doctors, trainers, strength coaches helped him and he’s really sacrificed and now he is playing. I think support was important for him because, honestly, he wasn’t expecting to play.

“Slowly, slowly, he feels more comfortable. Now, he feels like 80 percent comfortable here and when he learns better English he will be more comfortable. Communication is important. The language of basketball is not very different, so he can understand the main idea. But, at the same time, the NBA is show business, and after the games you have to talk to the press, so it’s important for his career — he has to show what kind of person he is to people. It’s important for his image.’’

Erden’s language skills are good. He learned Serbian within two months of arriving in Belgrade to play for Partizan in 2004. English has been more difficult, Erden said, and he’s been working with an instructor.

“Different rules, language, culture, different team, everything,’’ Erden said of his move from Fenerbahce, one of Turkey’s biggest clubs. “The basketball is different. I don’t feel like a rookie because everybody on the team respects me. Everybody knows my career, I played a lot of years in the Euro League, Turkish League.

“I like Boston a lot. There are so many students here, so it’s a little European, because all of the world comes here to study. I miss my parents, friends, Turkish food a little bit. I don’t miss the basketball. I mean, the NBA is the best league in the world. I’m happy to be here and to be on a real team.’’

Erden might be the lowest-paid starter in the league — he earns the league minimum of $437,000. But Erden has been a professional since he was 16 and has accumulated salaries and bonus money from top clubs in Europe, plus the Turkish national team. He has played in nearly every major city in Europe, before hostile crowds, in pressure situations. He might be getting rookie money and rookie treatment from officials, but Erden’s basketball wisdom is greater than that of most 24-year-olds, and that must have appealed to the Celtics when they drafted him in the second round in 2008.

Erden, 24, grew up on the European side of the Bosporous in Istanbul. He started out as a soccer player and considers Hakan Sukur, Turkey’s all-time leading goal scorer, a friend and role model.

“After one year, I changed and played basketball,’’ Erden said. “I’m not bad at soccer but I’m tall and I don’t like to play goalkeeper. I like to play forward.’’

Erden took a pay cut to join the Celtics, but stands to be in line for a major payday if he continues to improve.

“It was very hard for me at first,’’ Erden said. “New team, new coach, everything is new, I don’t know what is happening. So, I was not scared, but shy, because everything was complicated. Now, it’s totally changed. Everybody likes me and it’s very nice.

“I think it was one of the best decisions because, you know what, this is a chance. I’m really lucky. If you are lucky and you get a chance you can have whatever you want. Good timing and everything is good.’’

Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at

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