- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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WALTHAM, Mass. -- "Saldirgan, Semih."
That's the advice Shaquille O'Neal suggested he's been imparting on Boston Celtics rookie center Semih Erden lately. No need to break out the Turkish version of your Rosetta Stone software: That means to be an aggressor, which is the one thing O'Neal thinks Boston's fresh-faced import needs to be on the court.
"He's an excellent player, very skilled," O'Neal said. "Sometimes he's too shy. I always have to tell him -- in Turkish -- to just be aggressive, to go out and play hard. He's a great player, a great kid -- one of the greatest players out of his country. I'm glad to get to know him and show him some things."
Unfortunately for Erden, those "elbows-on" lessons typically have come on the practice floor, where he's been forced to guard Shaq for the better part of the past two months. With Jermaine O'Neal sidelined since the early stages of training camp, Erden has served as the second-unit center, meaning he's the one absorbing Shaq's sharp elbows during daily intrasquad scrimmages.
Maybe that's why he's dealt with some minor injuries (hand, shoulder), but after being held off the court (coach's decision) in Boston's first three regular-season games, Erden is expected to see his first NBA action Tuesday night in Detroit if Shaq can't play. Shaq missed his second consecutive practice Monday with a sore right knee.
Is Erden ready? Both his coaches and teammates suggest he's going to be a very good NBA player down the road. But right now he remains raw and could use some more seasoning.
Alas, Boston doesn't have the luxury of bringing Erden along slowly because of the brittleness of both O'Neals at this stage of their careers. Heck, Celtics coach Doc Rivers pegged Erden as a possible starter if both O'Neals were forced to sit out against Detroit, and Erden logged first-team reps at the end of Sunday's practice in order to gain some continuity with that unit.
Jermaine O'Neal was just about a full participant at practice Sunday and Monday, and is expected to start Tuesday. But Erden is likely to see time considering Shaq remains behind on his conditioning because of a quartet of nagging injuries (hamstring, back, wrist and knee).
Erden at times showcased NBA-ready moves during the preseason but looked woefully overmatched at other times (Amare Stoudemire feasted on him during a preseason game in New York). Rivers acknowledged it would be easier to bring Erden along slowly.
"He's getting deeper in everything that we've done, but he doesn't have any one thing down yet," Rivers said. "It's going to take time. The problem is, we're going to have to use him in that time that you'd like to have him get it down.
"Defensively, he's OK at knowing our stuff. Offensively, he's a great pick-and-roller, but he needs to learn how to finish better. He's really struggling offensively at the basket. But he'll get that."
Don't be deceived, however. Erden can finish around the rim. Just ask Shaq.
"He gave me a move in the open scrimmage," Shaq said. "A real nice move -- a pump-fake move. I jumped, left my feet, and he was already under the basket, throwing it down. That showed me he has potential to go at anybody, whenever he wants to."
Taken with the final pick (60th overall) of the 2008 NBA draft, Erden did not join the Celtics to high expectations. He ventured stateside just long enough to snap a picture alongside fellow rookies J.R. Giddens and Bill Walker, then promptly returned to his native Turkey for two more years of seasoning.
With Boston struggling to rebound the ball much of last season, the Celtics elected to bring Erden back across the pond to add depth up front.
At the FIBA World Championship, Erden opened some eyes with a solid showing as a reserve big for Turkey, helping the hosts earn a silver medal. While he looked pretty raw early in the preseason, particularly rebounding and finishing in traffic, he appears to get a little better every day, thanks in large part to his battles with Shaq and Jermaine O'Neal.
"[Erden] plays against Shaq every day, so he has no choice but to get better," Kevin Garnett said. "He's very skillful; a very, very high IQ when it comes to basketball. He's just learning our plays and our system. He plays really hard, and I love him here; he fits right in.
"Even though he's a foreigner, you can't tell. The way he dances, the way he interacts, the way he presents himself -- he fits right in."
The hardest part has been the language barrier. Erden has a translator with him most times, but prefers not to lean on him, hoping to accelerate his understanding of English.
"He knows how to play; he's just trying to learn how to play our way," Rivers said. "The language barrier is a problem, no doubt about that, but we've just got to keep working on it. He's going to be a good big in this league and he's going to be a good big in this league for a long time.
"I don't know if he's a good enough big right now. He is talent-wise, but there's just so many things. It's tough when you're a rookie and you understand me; it's even tougher when you don't."
Maybe the Celtics need to take a page out of Shaq's playbook and invest in pocket translators. Then everyone could impart advice to the rookie in his native tongue, just like Shaquille O'Neal.
Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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