The Celtics aren't quite sure yet what they have in rookie Semih Erden. The early signs, however, are encouraging, which could make the 7-foot Turkish center the first international player of import on the team in the past 15 years.
A few international players have passed through Boston since Dino Radja nearly averaged a 20-10 season in 1995-96. (We are not counting internationals who played collegiately in the United States, such as Vitaly Potapenko, Ramon Rivas or Jerome Moiso.) There was Zan Tabak for 18 games in 1997-98. There was the immortal Bruno Sundov for 26 games in 2002-03. Czech Republic star Jiri Welsch, of whom big things were expected, played two unremarkable seasons (2003-2005) and was traded.
It seems unthinkable that the Celtics have gone so long without a significant international, especially given that the franchise was at the vanguard of signing such players 20 years ago, when it really was the "Wild, Wild, West" overseas. It is much, much cleaner now (although you'd have a hard time convincing Minnesota GM David Kahn, who has labored, unsuccessfully, to get Ricky Rubio to the Timberwolves.)
Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said the absence of an S.I. (significant international) has not been for a lack of effort or interest.
"We thoroughly scout the entire world and we've been close to getting guys from overseas in the draft before," Ainge said. "There have been a lot of European players we've been close to getting. We've tried to sign some of them as free agents. It just didn't work out."
According to the NBA, the Celtics were one of three teams last season not to have one of the 83 international players in the league on their opening night roster. Erden stands to become the first since Welsch in 2004.
The franchise's international cupboard is bare. According to Ainge, the Celtics still own the rights to Albert Miralles, a 6-foot-11 center who plays in Spain and came to Boston as a throw-in in the Antoine Walker megadeal with Miami in 2005. But indications are that Miralles will stay where he is for the foreseeable future; he turns 29 next year.
The rights to previous foreign-born draftees Josip Sesar (second round, 2000, in a trade with Seattle) and Ben Pepper (second round, 1997) have been allowed to expire, Ainge said. Normally, if a team wants to keep its rights, it merely has to tender an offer by a certain deadline.
The Celtics were among the teams interested in Rudy Fernandez, now with Portland, but so were a lot of other clubs. He is still with the Blazers. There also was interest in free-agent Russian center Timofey Mozgov, whom the Knicks signed this past summer. The Celtics brought in 23-year-old Slava Kravtsov for their Summer League team in 2010; he now plays in the Ukraine and is a free agent.
Erden, who turned 24 in July, was drafted No. 60 overall in 2008.
"We had him rated higher than that,'' Ainge said. "But we also knew when we drafted him, he was not ready for the NBA."
Two years later, it's a different story.
"We were anxious to get him over here because of [the injury to] Perk,'' Ainge said. "It was good timing for us. He turned down money to come over here." (It also has been reported that Erden received 1 million euros from a Turkish benefactor as a member of the runner-up team in the recent FIBA World Championship, which was held in Turkey. He played well in the tournament.)
The Celtics are one of only four NBA title teams of the past 15 years that didn't have an international player on their roster. The internationals over that span have ranged from the indispensable (Pau Gasol, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Toni Kukoc) to the fringe (Tabak, Slava Medvedenko). This seems almost unimaginable given that the team exhausted plenty of time, capital (read: legal fees) and effort to bring internationals to Boston when the market opened up in the late 1980s.
"We were very active, very early,'' recalled former general manager Jan Volk. "It was us, Portland and Atlanta. The way we looked at it, we were a capped team with not a lot of resources to try to perpetuate our success. And we felt there certainly were enough European players to monitor."
In those days, "European" was virtually synonymous with Yugoslavia, before the country split apart. The Celtics scouted Drazen Petrovic, Vlade Divac, Zarko Paspalj and Kukoc. All but Paspalj had very good NBA careers, although Petrovic's was cut short by his untimely death in an auto accident. In 1988, the team signed Stojko Vrankovic, a 7-foot-2 center, but he stayed in Europe for two more years, eventually arriving in 1990. He played in 50 games over two seasons.
Radja, was a second-round pick in 1989, but did not get to Boston until 1993. The Celtics thought they had a deal with him before then and went to court to try to get it enforced. Instead, a federal judge in Boston sided with Radja's team in Yugoslavia and called the Celtics "contract poachers."
The following year, Radja signed with Il Messagero in Rome, a move widely seen at the time as retribution by the Italian team for the Celtics going to court to get Brian Shaw's NBA contract enforced. Shaw had played the previous year for Il Messagero and tried to remain there. The Celtics won that one.
"A lot of these endeavors proved to be adversarial,'' Volk said. "We went to a lot of trouble to get both Dino and Stojko."
Another Yugo, Aleksandar Djordjevic, was invited to the Celtics' training camp in 1990. He had great promise, but he had just completed his mandatory stint in the army and was not in NBA shape, and was released. Djordjevic did appear in 29 games for the Portland Trail Blazers in the 1996-97 season, but had much more success in Europe.
The great "what if" international story in Celtics history centers on the 1998 draft. Rick Pitino had gone over to Europe to work out a German teen named Dirk Nowitzki. He came away understandably smitten by the 7-footer and thought he had the inside track on Nowitzki. The Celtics held the 10th pick that year and Nowitzki was still on the board at No. 9. But Dallas engineered a deal with Milwaukee and the Bucks took Nowitzki at No. 9, then traded him to Dallas.
The consolation prize: Paul Pierce, who went No. 10. He was a Californian.
Erden has averaged 5.8 points and 3.4 rebounds in 20.6 minutes in the Celtics' first five exhibition games. He is getting plenty of playing time, as Doc Rivers feels he may need the rookie sooner rather than later, given the tenuous health issues of Kendrick Perkins, Shaquille O'Neal and Jermaine O'Neal. If nothing else, Erden has shown he does not look out of place among the NBA regulars.
"I look at how smart guys are, no matter where they're from or where they play,'' Ainge said. "Semih is smart. He knows how to play. He sets good screens. He plays good defense. If he keeps improving at this pace, he'll be a very good player one day."
Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.