Last November, I made the trip to Boston to watch the Celtics take on the Bucks in what turned out to be an Eastern Conference semi-finals preview. Things were different back then. Gordon Hayward was starting, Kyrie Irving was planning re-signing, and Celtics fans weren’t just hopeful, but fully confident that the team was more than ready to go on another deep playoff run. Prior to the game, I received both the best and worst pieces of news in my entire life. The bad news: Jaylen Brown was out with an injury. The best news: Semi Ojeleye was starting. It was destiny. Here’s the box score and some highlights:
Semi’s greatest obstacle is Boston’s depth chart, which predictably favors getting Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown’s developmental minutes as well as maximizing the investment in Gordon Hayward. After playing 1150 minutes in his rookie season, Semi played 594 last year. As is often the case with young players, his efficiency went up as his opportunities dwindled, although I’m not sure that helps his case to be given a more prominent role next season. Semi scored only nine fewer points in 600 fewer minutes, which looks good on paper, but probably doesn’t make up for having such a reduced workload to begin with.
His biggest draw is his defense, which is fantastic, but we have to face the reality sooner or later that, statistically, it’s not great. And in small sample sizes, it’s hard to tell what’s real and what isn’t, but typically a player’s strengths are greatly exaggerated with limited data rather than the opposite (see: Robert Williams 6.8 blocks per 100 possessions).
To figure out Semi’s role, let’s review what he does best and take a look at what he can add to it.
Semi as a slasher
Acrobatic finishes like this one make me wonder why we don’t see more of Semi around the rim. The Celtics are typically great with opportunistic scoring opportunities, especially in transition. Why wouldn’t it translate to the half court? Here’s another great finish:
I’m on the fence about whether or not the floater over Anthony Davis was more luck than skill, and I can’t ignore how quick Lopez was to give Semi a free lane to the basket. But these are still fine basketball plays that punish the defense for their mistakes. Per Basketball Reference, Semi shot 72% within three feet of the basket last season, where 27% of his attempts came from.
I won’t spend too much time on his outside shooting since it’s all but implied that he has to get better to be a consistent rotation player. Surviving in the NBA without a consistent jump shot means having at least one other elite skill, if not more (for all the grief Ben Simmons gets, he’s really good at just about every non-shooting aspect of basketball). Semi might not be elite in any category, but adding a shot would make him well-rounded enough that the increased scoring could offset other weaknesses. My hope is that he can become our next Jae Crowder:
Crowder’s lateral quickness didn’t last long in Boston, and his perimeter defense took a hit because of it. But that quick first step on drives to the basket, especially in the last clip, is something Semi could realistically add to his game.
Adding a mid-range shot could also help him expand his role. For example:
Washington playing zone in the midst of blowing an enormous lead in a meaningless regular season game will never make sense to me, especially given Boston’s somewhat telegraphed strategy to attack it. In theory, giving up a lot of mid-range shots isn’t terrible, but when you’re getting the doors blown off your home court, maybe zone isn’t a great answer? Regardless, the Celtics typically respond to a zone defense by jamming someone into the middle of it, just like you see in the clip.
Being able to finish through contact is extremely underrated, and it’s one of the reasons I was so confident in Jaylen Brown during his rookie year. There’s a lot of balance and body control at work, which I see as a strong indicator of a player’s skill.
Semi isn’t Jaylen, but I’m sticking to my guns on this. This is mostly based on my own biases, but I rank body control pretty highly as a necessary trait for a player to take the next big step. The window to break into Boston’s rotation is often pretty small, and Ojeleye is entering his third season. Barring a major leap or a total roster tear down, Ojeleye’s best opportunity might come with another team. In any case, I still believe in him as an NBA player, and I hope he gets the minutes this year to prove it.