Semi Ojeleye officially arrived as an NBA player on October 26, the Celtics’ fifth game of the season. Subbed in midway through the fourth quarter of a tight game against Milwaukee, Ojeleye found himself matched up against the Bucks’ young MVP candidate Giannis Antetokoumpo. The Greek Freak posted up the rookie three times. The results of those possessions? Two contested fadeaway jumpers and a pass.
The sequence against Milwaukee has been emblematic of Ojeleye’s contributions to the Celtics this year. He’s already emerged as one of the best one-on-one defenders on the roster, and has spent more time guarding players like Giannis and LeBron James than one could ever reasonably expect from a rookie. He’s acquitted himself well thus far, and shown the potential for a productive NBA career defensively.
As much as Ojeleye has impressed on defense, however, his offense has left much to be desired. Today, I’m interested in examining the root problems behind his offensive struggles and how the Celtics might be able to find him some more traction on that end of the court going forward.
Ojeleye’s shooting numbers this season have been ghastly — an effective field goal percentage of 42.5%, including 28.8% from behind the three-point line. For contrast, Marcus Smart – nobody’s favorite shooter – currently sits at 41.4% and 29%, respectively. The quick assessment most people would make is that, like Smart, Ojeleye is simply a defensive specialist who is limited in what he can accomplish on the other end of the court.
That might be true in some ways, but the foundation for Ojeleye’s offensive skillset is fundamentally different than what we saw from Smart. Smart was a terrible shooter from range at Oklahoma State — an inefficient scorer who didn’t necessarily project to build that into a strength as a pro. In contrast, Ojeleye was one of the most efficient players in the American Athletic Conference in his one year with SMU. We view him as a defensive specialist because of how he’s excelled on that end in the NBA, but in terms of AAC rankings, he was…
- Second in Effective Field Goal Percentage (57.4%)
- Third in True Shooting Percentage (62.3%)
- Sixth in Usage Percentage (25.8)
- Third in Player Efficiency Rating (26.4)
- Second in Turnover Percentage (8.6%)
- First in Offensive Rating (132.0)
- First in Offensive Win Shares (5.5)
- First in Offensive Box Plus-Minus (+7.9)
Playing in the AAC is a vastly different beast than the NBA, of course. There’s much more of an opportunity for a physical monster like Ojeleye to dominate against college competition than there is against grown men. Still, Ojeleye carried a heavy offensive burden on the Mustangs with confidence and effectiveness, which makes it somewhat surprising to see how timid he currently looks as an offensive player in the pros.
Mike Schmitz, now with ESPN, discussed Ojeleye’s strengths in one of DraftExpress’ informative pre-Draft scouting videos.
It’s surprising to see how few of the offensive strengths Schmitz highlighted have carried over into Ojeleye’s NBA performance. After a massive usage season at SMU, Ojeleye is now barely involved in the Celtics offense, taking a measly six shot attempts per 36 minutes. There doesn’t seem to be much of a gameplan for him as an offensive player at all. About three-quarters of his shot attempts this season have been three-pointers, and the majority of those are of the “last-second kick-out” variety.
Ojeleye has an acceptable shooting stroke — a quick release and decent motion, though the ball can come out a bit flat. He’s erratic, though. Over 65% of his tracked shots are classified as “Wide Open,” meaning he had six or more feet of space, but he has only a 42.1% eFG% on these attempts. There just isn’t much opportunity for him to build confidence or consistency when the extent of his offensive involvement is doing this maybe twice a game:
While the three-point arc is the best way for defensive-minded players to contribute on the other end of the floor, there’s more to Ojeleye on offense than just three-point shooting. Semi was third in the NCAA in isolation efficiency (1.37 PPP), after all. Fans recognize him most for his infamous “thick, jacked frame” and stellar one-on-one defense, but Ojeleye is quietly an all-around excellent athlete.
At SMU, Ojeleye was particularly effective as an offensive rebounder. His combination of strength and leaping ability enabled him to carve out his own chunk of real estate in the paint and generate second-chance points. His putback dunk against USC was probably the highlight of last year’s NCAA Tournament, and also serves as a great example of his instincts on the offensive glass and his simply absurd athleticism.
Ojeleye has an offensive rebound percentage of only 4.2% this season – lower than his SMU rate by half – and a significant reason for this is that his offensive role consists of drifting to the corners and waiting for a kick-out pass to set up a three-point attempt. This seems like wasted potential, but also an opportunity for future growth. Ojeleye shows a nice sense of positioning in the paint, and compensates for his lack of height with leaping ability and a seven-foot wingspan. At the Combine his maximum vertical leap was a whopping 40.5 inches, good for fifth-best.
Despite all this athleticism, Ojeleye has yet to finish a dunk this season. He’s 0-for-4 on dunk attempts to this point, two of which have been blocked. This is partly on Ojeleye himself, as he tends to play a little too soft through contact and lacks some decisiveness that costs him valuable moments of defensive weakness.
His usage is also at fault, though. Ojeleye has only taken 20 two-pointers all season, across from 73 threes, and the offense isn’t giving him an opportunity for much else. A whopping 88.5% of Ojeleye’s offensive touches have lasted two seconds or fewer, according to NBA Stats. These are predominantly catch-and-shoot threes, with some quick pull-ups and step-backs sprinkled in. He’s connected on seven of his 11 layup attempts — a miniscule sample size, but one that suggests he should get at least a few more opportunities to attack the basket.
Ojeleye might not be the most agile player, but he’s a bulldozer in a straight line and has the quickness to keep pace with wing players on both ends. He can get to the rim off the dribble – how many players are strong enough to stay in his way? – and positions himself well on offense, with some upside as a cutter. These are some of his most tantalizing offensive flashes.
One particular surprise — Ojeleye was an outrageously efficient pick-and-pop shooter last season at SMU, leading all of college basketball with 2.19 points per possession on those attempts. You would think there might be some potential for these sets in Boston’s bench units. Ojeleye is stronger than Atlas, and he could apply this strength to on-ball screens to open up new opportunities for Marcus Smart’s crafty passing or Terry Rozier’s rampaging drives to the basket. Despite this, the pick-and-pop – or really, any kind of pick-based offense – hasn’t been a significant part of his game at all this year.
I would like to see the Celtics embrace Ojeleye as a power forward/center on offense, rather than a combo wing. He can physically hang with virtually any forward and he has the potential to cause some serious headaches going to the rim if he gets a full head of steam. Stevens could explore some pick-and-roll/pick-and-pop action with Smart that could net Ojeleye some comfortable jumpers or lanes to attack the basket. We got a flash of what this could look like in December against Utah, and it’s a look I’d like to see the offense return to a little more going forward.
So what’s the solution for Ojeleye’s shooting woes? I believe he just needs to see some sets actually run for him. Brad Stevens has consistently been one of the best coaches in the league at maximizing players’ skillets and, defensively, that has held true with Ojeleye. On the other end of the floor, though, he seems overlooked. I’m not convinced he’s at his best taking one or two quick threes per game, and it’s not making him any more comfortable or confident as an offensive player.
It’s hard for any player to build offensive rhythm when they’re not included in the offense, and Ojeleye is taking only nine shots per 100 possessions. There are obviously never going to be enough shots to go around on a team with this much quality depth and Boston’s bench units are dominated by Smart, Rozier and (when healthy) Marcus Morris. Still, Semi deserves a better opportunity. It’s not as if the bench has been blowing teams away with their scoring capabilities. The Celtics play consistently excellent defense, but when Kyrie Irving and Al Horford leave the floor, the offense craters. There’s room here for some creative thinking.
The Trade Deadline is on the horizon, and the Celtics are still sitting on the Disabled Player Exception they received after the Gordon Hayward injury. This is mostly likely going to lead to a much-needed infusion of offensive talent to bolster Boston’s inconsistent scoring. Until that time, they need all the scoring punch they can find, and Ojeleye might be the most reasonable source of improvement they have right now.
Ojeleye has managed to bring positive value to the Celtics’ bench with his defense alone and, with some changes, it’s still not out of the question for him to be carrying his weight on both ends of the court by season’s end. At the very least, this should be the focus of Ojeleye’s offseason program so Stevens can be comfortable expanding his role next season. Whether it’s this season or next, the Celtics will be that much more dangerous when he can.