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Magic number: it’s time for Semi Ojeleye to take the offensive

Semi Ojeleye is a gifted athlete who struggled to translate that athleticism into offensive results last season.

Boston Celtics v Cleveland Cavaliers - Game Three Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

We’re deep into the dog days of the off season at this point, the time of year where the biggest news consists of stuff like Jayson Tatum’s 2k rating. Opening Night is almost exactly two months away at this point, and it feels more like two years. I don’t know about you, but I’m bored. Let’s talk about Semi Ojeleye.

On this edition of Magic Number, our statistical benchmark is a bit of an odd one: three total dunks.

This is, of course, the total number of dunks Ojeleye was able to throw down last season (in nine attempts). This was a little quirk I noticed early on in the year; Ojeleye wasn’t doing well at the rim, and didn’t even successfully dunk at all until March. Back-of-the-rotation rookies generally lack the opportunity to create many shots offensively, of course, but given Ojeleye’s basketball history, this seemed like a trend worthy of some investigation.

We all know about Ojeleye’s prodigious combat muscles, but he also has showstopping athleticism that might be a little overlooked. He was a ferocious finisher at SMU, the kind of player who looks like he could register on the Richter scale when he lands. He was one of seven players in the 2017 Draft to post a max vertical leap of better than 40 inches at the combine, and the other six were all guards or wings like Donovan Mitchell or Hamidou Diallo.

Ojeleye’s name really appeared in the national sports consciousness after his supernatural put-back dunk against USC in the NCAA Tournament. I’ve watched this play dozens of times and I honestly still can’t believe a human being can move like that, let alone one that weighs 240 pounds.

He’s also remarkably quick for his size when he moves with purpose (more on that in a minute). At the combine, he had the third-best time on the lane agility test, the ninth-best time on the three-quarter sprint, and his 3.07 time on the shuttle run tied Mitchell and beat out players like Frank Mason III and Terrance Ferguson. There were times at SMU where he looked like a LeBron-esque freight train in the open court.

It goes without saying that the transition from a program like SMU to the NBA is a significant one, but it’s still surprising just how little these athletic gifts were put on display during his rookie season. The Celtics asked very little of Ojeleye offensively — again, quite understandable, especially considering his much more significant defensive assignments — but he still showed a certain hesitancy when the ball came his way, seemingly uncertain of what he was expected to do. Take, for instance, the play against the Bulls that caused his mid-season back injury. He catches Nikola Mirotic with his pump fake and you can feel his surprise at his own success. The split-second pause helps Paul Zipser catch up and block the shot.

This general lack of confidence comes as a bit of a surprise. At SMU, Ojeleye was one of the most efficient and highest-usage players in college basketball. He used 26% of SMU’s offensive possessions while he was on the court, and posted a true shooting percentage of 62%. While that kind of role was never going to exist for a player at the end of the rotation, it was unexpected to see him look so uncertain and ineffective with the ball when he’s been a high-level shot-maker in the past.

On the bright side, the second half of the season showed us a slightly different Ojeleye that gave some reason for optimism on his offensive development. He posted his two best offensive months of the season in March and April, and while his usage remained at its usual sub-10% rate, there were encouraging flashes scattered among the limited looks he did receive. Ojeleye made 11 of his 24 three-point attempts and looked to be asserting himself a little bit more at the rim, recording all three of his successful dunks in that span of time and attempting 14 free throws in 18 games (he attempted only 27 in the other 55). A dash of new looks started to pepper his usual diet of catch-and-shoot jumpers, like this quick cut off a feed from Greg Monroe:

In March, he even attempted to recreate the infamous tournament dunk against the hapless Kings:

The issue here really isn’t the dunks themselves, of course. It’s about his offensive assertiveness. If Ojeleye is dunking more, it means he’s attacking the rim more, which in turn brings more free throw attempts and forces a change in defensive coverage. Opposing defenses never really respected him last season, and it could really gunk up the Celtics’ offensive possessions. In my last post, I poked some fun at a bad late-season possession against the Hawks, and it’s evident in that play as well — one factor that allows Taurean Prince to ultimately come away with the steal is the fact that he’s playing a solid 15 feet off Ojeleye at the time, not really even watching him.

Ojeleye’s long-term viability as a rotation contributor likely depends on him becoming at least an average offensive threat. With the Celtics finally looking to be at full strength, though, minutes and shots are likely going to be even harder for him to come by this season. There may not be much for him beyond the customary catch-and-shoot looks from behind the arc, but he should be attacking close outs more and expanding his repertoire. This will obviously complicate his growth, but there will be some opportunities that arise, and he will have to make the most of them. With any luck, we’ll be seeing a lot more Ojeleye dunks someday soon — and who doesn’t want that, really?