Last night, Kevin Garnett saw what we saw. He saw Semih Erden shoot 5-5 from the field against the Utah Jazz. He saw Erden turn the second half into his personal audition for the Slam Dunk Contest. He saw a more aggressive Erden; an Erden who extends his long arm to dunk on your face and then scowls at you afterwards; an Erden who attacked rebounds out of his zone, rather than letting them fall to someone else.
But Garnett also sees things we don't. (Green Street)
"He’s very good," Garnett said. "I don’t think you guys understand how methodical he is with both hands."
The quote, by itself, is rather meaningless. Just another older player hyping up a younger, less experienced teammate. It happens every day, across the league, as veterans try to raise their teammates' confidence or simply offer support. But last night wasn't the first time Garnett spoke highly of Erden's game. The 13-time All-Star has repeatedly shown a real appreciation for the zero-time All-Star's talents. (CSNNE)
Added Garnett: "NBA games are tough man; it's not something you pick up in one or two days. It is a work in progress and he is doing a good job of it. He has come a long way. He plays against Shaq and all the bigs that he does, so he has no choice but to get better. He's starting to get some time to play, so that's a good thing."
The last time Garnett spoke glowingly about a young player, I didn't believe him. Not one bit. Back in 2007 when Garnett said the Celtics' young point guard would become the league's best point guard one day, I thought Garnett was the world's biggest liar. Of course, the point guard was Rajon Rondo, and if he's not the league's best point guard he's pretty darn close.
"Rondo is exceptional," Garnett said during 2007 training camp. "He has a high IQ for basketball. I look forward to watching him being the best point guard in the league someday. That kid works hard. I like his work ethic. I see great things for him in the future."
Now Garnett's praise is being directed toward Erden, and though Garnett has never said Erden will became the league's best big man, he clearly believes Erden has a bright future ahead of him. It's easy to see where Garnett's optimism comes from. There are times when Erden excels, and you wonder why he's not the league's best backup big man (see: last night). He's long, semih-athletic (hearty har har), and skilled. He possesses a keen knowledge of the game, and knows where to position himself.
Most of Erden's points come off sharp cuts to the basket, where he settles himself to receive a dump-off from his teammates. He works well within the confines of the Celtics' offense, and moves his feet more quickly than the average seven-footer. He's even shown the occasional no-look pass, and looked good doing it. He shows undeniable potential, and reveals far more to be excited about than the normal "Mr. Irrelevant" 60th draft pick. (For example, the 60th draft pick in 2007 -- the year before Erden -- was Milovan Rakovic. In other words, a 6'10 pile of dung.)
Unfortunately for the Celtics, Erden's also a work in progress. He was thrust into the Celtics rotation early this season due to injuries, but wasn't quite ready for his role -- he had yet to adjust to the speed and toughness of the NBA game. Erden has been a professional basketball player since 2004, but he didn't often match up against the likes of Dwight Howard or Amare Stoudemire while playing in Turkey. The NBA's a different animal, a beast Erden has had to become accustomed to.
The process hasn't always been perfect -- during his early stint of playing time Erden was often a step late with his cuts, or his defensive rotations, or his box outs -- but Erden has shown signs of progress lately. Against the Pistons he dunked the ball, with far more authority than the average European big man, on two successive possessions. Last night Erden treated the Jazz like flies; he swatted them away on his way to dunk after dunk. (Boston Herald)
"He played great," said Doc Rivers, who has been critical of Erden’s initiative lately. "He was physical. He played hard.
"Again, when Semih just plays hard and does his job, he helps us. And, you know, sometimes sitting down a little bit reminds him of that — reminds you that you want to play. And he’s doing that, and we’re going to need him probably in the next couple games."
Doc spoke of the need for Erden just to play hard and do his job. But I think he has always played hard. I've never looked at Erden and thought, "Man, he's giving a Rasheed-ian effort tonight." Quite the contrary. He always seems active, and, even when he's a step late, I've always felt it was his inexperience -- rather than a lack of effort -- holding him down. Erden's a rookie with a lot to learn, and he's picking up the NBA game on the fly. This is not always going to be a smooth magic carpet ride. (Boston Herald)
"I played better," [Erden] said. "That’s true, because I learned better. I have to learn better — better court vision and everything. Right now I feel better when I play, and when I’m feeling comfortable, I play better.
"I try my best. I think I played good and I helped my teammates, so I’m very happy."
Translated to proper English, I think what Erden's trying to say is this: He's starting to get the hang of the NBA game. It's good timing for Erden's increased comfort level, too. Shaq missed the flight to Washington, and the starting center position should be Erden's for at least one night.
Will potential start to meet production? As long as Erden continues his adjustment to NBA basketball.