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Are the Celtics asking too much of Semi Ojeleye?

Boston’s powerful rookie wing is dripping with potential, but the Celtics are in need of the player he could become, not the one he currently is.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

NBA rookies don’t usually bring a lot of value to their teams. That’s not to say that they never contribute, or that they’re incapable of growing into meaningful roles through the course of the year. This is rather an assertion that they’re far from finished products. Adjusting to the speed of the game at its highest level takes time. The same is true of learning the nuances of NBA actions, and developing one’s body to withstand the rigors of an 82-game season.

You can imagine the Boston Celtics’ delight, then, when 2017 second round pick Semi Ojeleye flashed the potential to function as an impact defender, early in his rookie campaign, most notably by stonewalling the Milwaukee Bucks’ insatiable athletic dynamo and presumed MVP candidate, Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Ojeleye has continued to demonstrate an impressive blend of strength and quickness, that has helped him consistently deter would be drivers from turning the corner around him, and allowed him to toggle between forward positions. He’s even spent some time at the center spot in super-small lineups, but despite Ojeleye’s impressive individual play and positional versatility, the Celtics have actually fared substantially worse on defense in his minutes.

Boston is allowing 6.1 more points per 100 possessions when Ojeleye is on the floor. That’s not necessarily a reflection on his play. It’s hard for a wing defender to single handedly lift a team’s defense the way an elite rim protector can. The Celtics ineffectiveness in Ojeleye’s minutes is almost assuredly the result of a collective effort, not his individual performance. Though there are some small reasons for concern in that regard.

Opponents are actually shooting 2.0 percent better than expected on shots that Ojeleye contests. There is a small enough sample size not to be concerned about that just yet, but he also isn’t getting his hands on the ball very frequently. Ojeleye is averaging just 0.5 deflections, 0.3 steals, and 0.0 blocks per game. Such statistics aren’t perfect measurements, but they do tend to reflect a certain level of activity, particularly as a help defender.

We’re nitpicking here. Ojeleye’s defensive efforts have been largely good. He’s no slouch to go up against off the dribble or in the post. That’s miles ahead of where most rookies are through their first 32 games.

What is of greater concern are Ojeleye’s offensive struggles. He’s shot the ball poorly, posting meager .325/.286/.632 splits. Boston’s offense has cratered in his minutes, scoring 98.6 points per 100 possessions, a full 12.8 points worse than when Ojeleye is on the bench. Again, context is important. Ojeleye has spent most of his time surrounded by streaky shooters and relatively limited creators. He certainly hasn’t helped matters, but he also isn’t the entire problem.

Regardless, the results with Ojeleye on the floor haven’t been great. The Celtics have a net rating of -8.4 points when he plays, 18.9 points worse than when he sits. It begs the dual questions of just how much time on the court Ojeleye should see, and what the team’s expectations should be for him when he plays?

Such is the quandary with all young players. Boston, just like every non-tanking team, must find minutes that Ojeleye can develop in, without compromising their immediate odds of winning. Injuries have made walking that line challenging.

With Gordon Hayward out for the year, and Marcus Morris sidelined with knee troubles, the Celtics are in need of wings, particularly those with enough defensive versatility to switch assignments onto both bigs and ballhandlers. Ojeleye fits that bill off the bench better than any of Boston’s alternative options (we’re excluding Marcus Smart from consideration, because he was going to have a significant role in the rotation regardless of injuries). That leaves Ojeleye in a situation that isn’t entirely fair, but it’s both necessary and pragmatic, given the attrition of the Celtics roster.

So yes, it might be fair to say that Boston is asking too much of Semi Ojeleye, but it’s not as if they’re operating in a condition-less environment. Boston can simultaneously make unrealistic requests of their rookie and maintain reasonable expectations for how he will produce within the context he has been placed, and there is still plenty of reason for optimism.

Ojeleye clearly has a solid defensive foundation, and his shot distribution is a model of efficiency. Seventy-one percent of his attempts have come from deep, twenty-three more at the rim (per Cleaning the Glass). If Ojeleye can start making those shots at even a slightly below average rate, he will transform into a substantially more valuable player. That’s entirely possible.

He isn’t Klay Thompson, but Ojeleye’s form is far from broken, and he has a collegiate track record that would suggest he should develop into a decent jump shooter. It’s not hard to envision a future in which he cans threes, where he is currently laying bricks. Where plays like the following end in points, and not as “highlights that weren’t”.

Ojeleye has the bones of a good player, he just needs time to grow his game to fit them. Unfortunately, the Celtics need the player his potential holds now, not what he’s providing in the present. In the immediate term, both sides would likely settle for meeting someplace in between.