Semi Ojeleye kind of feels like the forgotten player of the 2019-20 Boston Celtics. Occasionally he has flashes of good play, which we’ll cover in a bit, but often he’s just kind of there. One of Ojeleye’s best qualities is that he’s ready when his number is called. In his second season, Ojeleye played in just 56 games. He would sometimes go a week or more without playing, then Brad Stevens would bring him in and Ojeleye would deliver decent minutes
This season, Ojeleye has played more than you probably realize. He’s played in 61-of-64 games for Boston. Ojeleye has probably had his best season for what his most-projectible role is in the NBA. When we think about 3&D players, they are commonly thought of as wings. Ojeleye has started to shown signs of being a 3&D forward. And he’s occasionally flashes better offense than just being able to hit three-pointers too.
So, what’s next for the combo forward? Unfortunately for Ojeleye and a few others, the Celtics are facing a major roster crunch heading into next season. Boston likely only has one or two open roster spots. Ojeleye will be in a mix of five to six players competing for those spots.
The Case for a Roster Spot
·Offense: For the vast majority of his NBA time, Ojeleye has been strictly a spot-up shooter. Unlike in college, where Ojeleye was a solid scoring option, he’s shown little off the dribble as an attacking player. In order to succeed as a stretch-four or 3&D wing, Ojeleye has to be able to knock down shots at a decent clip. After a couple of rough shooting years, he’s up to 36.7% this season. That’s a good sign, even if Ojeleye’s role and playing time keep his volume fairly low.
To be more than just an occasional rotation player, Ojeleye had to show some of that ability he had off the bounce in college. He’s done that some this season. Here’s an example of Ojeleye putting in on the floor against the bigger Larry Nance Jr. and knocking down the pull-up:
Ojeleye has also improved as a passer. He understands when and where to move the ball. More importantly, if he can attack off the dribble, Ojeleye will open up his own offense and his teammate’s. This is a good example of the latter:
Ojeleye still has a long way to go, as his role still confines him to mostly being a spot-up shooter. To see him showing signs of being capable of more is very encouraging.
·Defense: Defense remains Ojeleye’s calling card. It’s why he’s in the NBA. Despite being just 6-foot-6, his incredible strength allows him to hold his own against much bigger players. And he’s got just enough footspeed to stay in front of off-the-dribble bigs like Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James.
It’s defending Antetokounmpo that is often cited as Ojeleye’s main purpose for being on the roster. The good news is, that sort of holds some water. This season, Ojeleye has defended Antetokounmpo for 34 possessions and has held him to 3-of-9 shooting and 10 points. That’s one of the best marks in the NBA against the reigning MVP.
How does Ojeleye do it? He uses his quickness and strength to match Antetokounmpo’s size and physicality. Ojeleye gives up some fouls this way, but he’s able to bother Antetokounmpo more than most. It’s not easy to slow down Giannis in the open court, but Ojeleye stays in front of him and forces him into a tough attempt at the rim with help coming:
From that same game, Ojeleye does a nice job here in a few respects. Milwaukee loves to use their shooters as screeners to free up Antetokounmpo. If you overreact to staying with the MVP, the shooter pops free. If you stick to the shooter, Antetokounmpo gets a quality touch. Ojeleye’s play here allows Boston to avoid either.
First, Ojeleye gets through George Hill’s screen with relative ease. Next, he takes the shoulder from Antetokounmpo in the chest, but doesn’t give an inch. Finally, with Antetokounmpo not getting by him, Ojeleye challenges the fallaway jumper and forces an airball.
·Intangibles: At the top, we talked about Ojeleye stays ready when his number is called. It’s underrated how important that is. One of the hardest things for an NBA player to do is to perform with an inconsistent role that comes with inconsistent minutes. Because of injuries on the wing, and depth up front, Ojeleye has been asked to play a lot as a small forward this season. That’s counter to his previous roles as a stretch-four.
The important part is that that no matter how irregularly he is used, Ojeleye comes in and plays with great effort. That, combined with improved offensive play, has seen him have an increased role in his third season.
·The Contract: Ojeleye’s contract has a bit of a interesting structure. The Celtics have a team option for 2020-21 for Ojeleye. Even Boston exercises that team option, Ojeleye’s contract is still non-guaranteed until July 1. If Boston exercises the team option, they’ll keep Ojeleye and allow his contract to become fully guaranteed.
As for the contract value, it’s fairly low at $1.7 million. For a regular rotation player with his ability, paying the veteran minimum amount is a solid value.
There is one other option, if an unlikely one. If Boston were to decline the team option, Ojeleye could become a restricted free agent. What makes this unlikely is that the Celtics would likely only go this route if the intention was to sign Ojeleye long-term. That would only come at a low number, which isn’t in Ojeleye’s best interest.
The Case against a Roster Spot
·Offense: Ojeleye’s offense has improved, but not by enough. 98 of Ojeleye’s 159 field goal attempts were three-pointers. That’s 62% of his shots coming from downtown. At an improved 36.7% that’s not awful, but it’s also not good enough. Ojeleye’s at somewhat of a tipping point. If he’s going to be a 3&D wing, he needs to improve on that percentage. If he’s a stretch-four, that’s not bad, but could still be better.
Beyond the shooting, Ojeleye needs to continue to show he can do more off the dribble. Even an improved ability to drive close-outs would be nice to see. There have been glimpses of this, but not regularly enough that you feel confident it’s fully there.
·Defense: We highlighted how Ojeleye’s value lies in his ability to defend bigger ballhandlers like Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James. The challenge is projecting that beyond those types of players. Against true post-up threats, Ojeleye’s simply too small at 6-foot-6. Those players turn and shoot over him. He’s also not quite quick enough to handle perimeter scoring threats. While being able to defend one type of player is a skill, is that one skill enough to keep Ojeleye on the roster?
·Intangibles: While we lauded Ojeleye’s ability to stay ready, it’s a bit concerning that he hasn’t locked down a full rotation spot. This year is the closest he’s come, but his playing time has come and gone. This one basically comes down to upside. If a draft pick, or an impressive undrafted player, has the potential to become more than a sometimes-in-the-rotation guy, Boston is better served with that player than Ojeleye.
·The Contract: As much as Ojeleye’s contract is a value now, you have to project a bit beyond this season. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent after the season. At that point, you’ll have a better idea of where Ojeleye is in your pecking order. But that comes with some chance of going sideways for the Celtics. If he has a good season, he likely becomes too expensive to retain. If he doesn’t, Boston may have lost out on a player with more upside to keep Ojeleye.
Semi Ojeleye is probably coming back next year. We asked if his signature skill of defending players like Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James is enough to keep him on the roster? The answer is yes. For the Celtics to get to where they want to go, they’ll have to beat Antetokounmpo and possibly James. As a contender, that means you can afford the luxury of a roster spot for a specialist like Ojeleye.
Beyond that, Ojeleye has shown enough improvement as a shooter and playmaker that he’s worth bringing back next year. The reality is that the Celtics roster is already looking very expensive, they won’t find a player with upside (however minimal it might be) and the ability of Ojeleye for just $1.7 million. Put it all together, and unless Danny Ainge hits several homeruns at the 2020 NBA Draft, Ojeleye will be back in green next season.