In the last edition of the Boston Celtics Offseason Preview Series we tackled the upcoming free agency of Evan Fournier. Now, it’s time to look at the “Other Guys” who are free agents this summer.
The Celtics only have five total free agents. The two Two-Way players, Tacko Fall and Tremont Waters, will be handled in a different preview. This article is all about veterans Semi Ojeleye and Luke Kornet, who are both unrestricted free agents come August.
We’ll start with the combat muscles and by looking at Ojeleye.
When the Celtics snagged Ojeleye with the 37th pick in the 2017 NBA Draft there was considerable excitement. After two years of barely playing at Duke and a redshirt season at SMU, Ojeleye’s junior year saw him bust out in a big way. He averaged 19 points on good shooting splits and flashed the defensive ability that would come to be his calling card in the NBA.
2017 Summer League only added to the excitement as Ojeleye shot it well from behind the arc. His rookie season was a little up-and-down, but come playoff time Ojeleye was a key rotation player and had a hand in slowing down Giannis Antetokounmpo in Boston’s win over Milwaukee.
Sadly, it never really got better from there for Ojeleye.
There was hope that Ojeleye would become a 3&D wing, with some ability to attack the rim off the dribble. That never really materialized, so his role sort of changed to being a small-ball four who could space the floor. That hasn’t fully worked out either.
Four years in and Ojeleye remains kind of an unknown quantity. Or maybe we know exactly what he is, and that’s not great for him. Ojeleye is a solid perimeter defender, but struggles to stay with the quicker wings. He’s strong enough to bang with any big, but doesn’t have the length or vertical leap to impact shots at the rim. Essentially, Ojeleye is useful on defense against ballhandling bigs like Antetokounmpo or Julius Randle and that’s about it.
Now, those are good players and if Ojeleye had some offensive value, it would be worth keeping him around. Unfortunately, his offensive game has never developed beyond that first Summer League.
For his career, Ojeleye has taken 65.4% of his shots from behind the arc. The last two seasons have seen him hit at 37.8% and 36.7%, which are decent marks. But those percentages aren’t really good enough to vault Ojeleye into the 3&D conversation.
If Ojeleye’s driving game had developed at all to complement that sort of three-point shooting, he’d be on to something. Regrettably, that hasn’t come to fruition. The player who regularly put his head down and powered his way to the rim at SMU has been nowhere to be seen in the NBA.
Ojeleye has taken just 16.1% of his shots at the basket. When he is at the cup, he generally does alright, as he finishes at a 61% clip on layups and dunks. The challenge is Ojeleye needs someone to set him up. A whopping 67.7% of his two-point field goals are assisted. Stretch that out to behind the arc and it jumps to 96% of his three-pointers coming off a pass.
This leaves Ojeleye in a bit of a weird spot. He’s not really a 3&D wing, because he doesn’t defend the best wings well enough. He’s not a stretch big, because he can be taken advantage of in the paint. He’s sort of a standstill shooter that can defend one certain type of player, and that player isn’t really all that common of an opponent.
For the Celtics, Ojeleye’s time has probably come and gone. On the wing, Romeo Langford and Aaron Nesmith need the minutes more than Ojeleye, if only to find out how good they can be. Up front, Boston seems to be transitioning to playing one big at a time, and Grant Williams can provide a reasonable facsimile of Ojeleye’s defense on big ballhandlers.
What’s really working against Ojeleye is Boston’s lack of roster spots. There are only two open spots on the roster right now. If the team re-signs Fournier, it’s likely the second spot goes to a ballhandler. Maybe Jabari Parker or Moses Brown gets waived, or the Celtics ship Carsen Edwards out of town to open up a spot. Even then, it’s likely the Celtics will have other needs beyond bringing back the Ojeleye Factory.
If the Celtics don’t have room for Semi Ojeleye, who they’ve spent four years developing, it’s really hard to see how there will be room for Luke Kornet. Boston acquired Luke Kornet at the trade deadline, as part of the Daniel Theis tax-avoidance maneuvering. While Moritz Wagner lasted for only a few weeks, Kornet hung in with the Celtics for the rest of the season.
While in Boston, Kornet actually put together some of the best basketball of his four-year career. In his previous stops in New York and Chicago, Kornet was used solely as a pick-and-pop stretch big. The Celtics used him more as a roll-man and found a decent level of success unlocking that part of Kornet’s game.
While the three-pointer remained a big part of Kornet’s game (48.6% of his attempts were threes), he took more shots at the rim with the Celtics than with anyone else. Kornet took 36.5% of his total shots at the basket. In 18 regular season games with the Celtics, the Vanderbilt product had 12 dunks. That topped his first two years in the league and was at a better rate than his 23 dunks in 36 games with the Bulls in 2019-20.
In addition, Kornet provided the Celtics with some level of rim protection up front. He blocked 1.1 shots per game, which translated to a career-best rate of 3.5 blocks per-36 minutes. No one is going to put Kornet on the All-Defense team, but he can hold his own in the paint against most opposing centers.
Like Ojeleye, the challenge for Kornet remaining in Boston is tied to roster spots. Right now, he’s behind Al Horford, Tristan Thompson, Robert Williams, Grant Williams and likely Moses Brown the big man rotation. Given the Celtics seem to be lining up to play lineups featuring one big, there is no way they’ll carry six bigs on the roster.
What could work for Kornet to remain in green (and to keep the incredible Green Kornet moniker), is if Brad Stevens moves a big or two via trade. It’s likely Kornet wouldn’t fetch more than the veteran minimum, and that’s a solid value for his skillset.
If another team comes with an offer of more money or a bigger role, Kornet would be crazy to pass it up. If the first few waves of free agency are over, and Boston has an offer for him, Kornet would do well to take his chances with the Celtics.