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CelticsBlog exit interview: the Celtics can’t afford to wait on Semi Ojeleye any longer

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Semi Ojeleye’s lack of development makes it difficult to justify giving him another shot at the rotation next season.

NBA: Washington Wizards at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Believe it or not, it’s now been four (mostly) full seasons since Semi Ojeleye joined the Boston Celtics as the 37th pick of the 2017 NBA Draft. One of the more intriguing second rounds the Celtics have picked in recent years, Ojeleye captured fans’ attention as a rookie with some inspired defense on Giannis Antetokounmpo in the wake of the Gordon Hayward injury, as well as his prodigious strength and the intriguing athleticism he put on display during his time at SMU.

Yet, after four years, it feel as though Ojeleye is stuck in neutral. He never fully played his way into the rotation, instead remaining more of a situationally useful piece and not showing significant signs of growth. Despite the increased opportunity available in the wake of Hayward’s offseason departure, so much of what was written about Ojeleye in this space after last season’s conclusion remains applicable today. Now, with his contract about to expire and his future with the team in question, it’s time to evaluate what we’ve seen from the 26-year-old forward.

2021 NBA Playoffs - Brooklyn Nets v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Ojeleye’s season can be divided into into two distinct parts: an intriguing stretch from January through February that saw him shoot 38% from behind the three-point arc (on 96 attempts), and a disappointing rest of the way that saw him connect on just 34%, back in line with his career norms. His regression came rapidly, from a no-brainer rotation lock in mid-February to receiving DNP - Coach’s Decision designations by the end of April and into the playoffs.

The discussion about Ojeleye revolves mostly around the three-point shot because, frankly, there isn’t much else he has to offer on the offensive end of the floor. He barely even touches the ball inside the arc; he attempted just 65 two-pointers on the season. Part of this is by design, as the Celtics have clearly planned to develop him as a 3-and-D role player. And in theory, that sort of player is something they desperately need.

The other part of it, though, is that Ojeleye hasn’t shown proficiency at much beyond shooting from range. He isn’t particularly skilled as a ball-handler, and he doesn’t provide much value moving off the ball, either. Furthermore, while he’s developed into at least a league average shooter, percentage-wise, defenses still don’t seem to treat him with much respect when the ball moves his way, which mitigates the spacing benefit of always having him hanging around behind the arc. He’s just kind of always standing in the corner, and the defense never seems particularly bothered by it.

He also operates with incredibly low volume. It’s not uncommon to check a Boston box score and see just one or two attempts like this as his only offensive contribution.

On a team that already enjoys two very high usage scorers on the wings, a role player like Ojeleye obviously isn’t going to see a whole lot of opportunities to create his own shots. But it feels as though there’s still fruit on the tree that Ojeleye (as well as the coaching staff) haven’t been grabbing. As an athletic, 6’6” forward, he could theoretically pressure the rim off of straight line drives and off-ball cuts, but neither have really appeared to be options during his time in Boston. Per NBA Stats, he attempted just 12 shots out of off-ball cuts across the entire season, making five.

I say “theoretically” pressure the rim because in truth, Ojeleye’s finishing is an issue. There is a lack of physicality to his game that is frankly startling. For a player as athletic as he is — and one who is arguably the strongest player on the court in most of his minutes — Ojeleye simply doesn’t play strong enough. He seems to actively avoid contact in the rare instances he attacks the paint, contorting into high-difficulty layups instead of trying to finish strong at the rim. It’s a little stunning to see a guy who did this in college seem so timid in the face of the defense at the NBA level.

Ojeleye also simply never dunks. He dunked the ball just six times this season! This shouldn’t be the case; he is simply too athletic to be so ground-bound. Why are plays like this so rare? Where is this assertiveness hiding?

He has a reputation as a defense-first player, and he does show some assertiveness when matched up one-on-one against forwards. But the lack of utilization of his athletic gifts bleeds over to the defensive end of the floor as well. Counting stats aren’t everything on defense, but his complete lack of blocks (he recorded zero in the regular season, a staggering feat) and steals (just 17) illustrate how rare it is for him to make individual impact plays as a defender.

The biggest weakness of this season’s roster was the lack of reliable depth around the team’s core players. If there’s one thing these NBA Playoffs have illustrated thus far, it’s just how important that depth can be. Role players have shaped teams’ fortunes in each round; players like Nic Batum, Reggie Jackson, Cam Payne, Blake Griffin, Bruce Brown and Austin Rivers have played huge roles in winning series this postseason, and only Brown cost more than a small contract to acquire.

The Celtics are suffering from the two-pronged issue of not having found veteran role players while also not seeing substantial development from their younger talent. Second-round value picks like Ojeleye and Carsen Edwards have not panned out, while recent first-round talent has struggled to contribute, as Romeo Langford hasn’t been able to stay healthy (not his fault, but nonetheless unfortunate) and Grant Williams suffered some regression in his sophomore season. As a result, Boston’s roster has grown progressively more top-heavy over time.

The bottom line is that the Celtics are a team that needs to restructure their bench. Langford and Williams will get another shot to earn their way into the rotation — especially the former, given that he’s about to have the first healthy offseason of his NBA career — and others like Edwards or Tremont Waters would seem to be out of the picture. Ojeleye, though, has had the most consistent rotation opportunities of any of that group, and it’s hard to make the case that should continue.

Semi Ojeleye is, by all accounts, a stand-up individual and a well-liked teammate in the Celtics’ locker room. He should get another opportunity with an NBA franchise before long. But with the Celtics needing an injection of new blood in the second unit, and Ojeleye about to enter unrestricted free agency, it seems like it might now be time for team and player to part ways.