It’s 1:45 pm Italian time. Semi Ojeleye has just finished up a difficult training session with his new team, Virtus Bologna. Sitting in the team’s media room speaking via Zoom, the former Celtic seems excited for the challenge ahead.
“It’s been a good experience so far,” Ojeleye tells CelticsBlog.
Despite it being early days into his new adventure, the former 37th pick in the NBA Draft is taking the change of scenery in his stride. The language barrier is something he’s still learning to navigate. “Sometimes, I go into a store and I’m like, ‘bonjourno,’ then after that I don’t understand much else. Just kind of figuring it out and learning.”
Luckily, Bologna’s roster has multiple bilingual players who are helping their new teammate to settle in, which of course, is incredibly useful during training sessions where the instructions and drills are all discussed in Italian. There’s also no escaping the differences in the style of basketball and in turn, the different roles you’re expected to fill.
“I think here, we try to play with the pass as much as we can. I think the NBA’s kind of predicated on the high ball screen and then ISO. If you see a bad matchup, you attack it. And here, we’re trying to move the ball, share it, trying to get everybody to touch it.”
During his time with the Celtics, Ojeleye was predominantly used as a floor-spacing forward on the offensive end, with his primary form of offense coming from catch-and-shoot opportunities around the perimeter. As such, Ojeleye’s offensive role in the NBA was rather stationary.
Now that he’s in Europe, his coaches are asking him to move off the ball more. “I’m learning how to move off the ball a lot better. Here, cutting is important, attacking transition is important and we play on the block a lot more.”
Ojeleye still cuts a hulking figure, but it would seem that some of his legendary workouts are a thing of the past. “Those crazy workouts were kind of the reason I had two calf injuries last year. Injuries like that are most of the time overuse.” Ojeleye is trying to work on training smarter not harder moving forwards.
“I kind of don’t know how to turn it off. I mean, it’s a good thing, cuz it has gotten me to where I am, and that work ethic is what helped me push through all types of challenges. But for me, I’m trying to balance getting in my work and going home and getting my rest. So that’s the one thing I’ve learned and you know, having that work ethic’s been great, but also learn you know when it’s done, go get your rest so you can come back the next day.”
Although Ojeleye might have learned a tough lesson about when to call it quits in the gym, there’s no denying that his presence in the locker room helped build a mentality in Boston, one that sees the Celtics celebrate every victory with a post-game gym session to this day.
We’ve all seen the video footage of some fans asking Grant Williams who the strongest in the locker room is, only for him to reply that it’s him. Or the Snapchat footage Jayson Tatum sometimes shares, where he’s claiming to be the alpha dog in the weight room.
“Now, you go put me against Grant and JT? I’m gonna answer without answering, trying to be smooth on this one, but Grant — that’s a strong dude right there. Don’t let him fool you. That’s a monster. And JT, it’s funny, cuz like JT came to the league and guys are like, ‘oh, like this skinny kid that’s like super skilled.’
And like I’ve watched him from when we were in Summer League together to now - really being like a physical force out there, like it’s been incredible to see his growth. So, both those guys, they put an incredible effort in the weight room, so you know, they have to duke it out, have a little bench off something, little tests.”
Ojeleye is in a unique spot when it comes to Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, as he was with the star duo to begin their careers and has seen their development firsthand, both as a teammate and as an opponent. When it comes to the developmental leap both Tatum and Brown have taken, Ojeleye credits their willingness to work and their professional approach to the game.
“You could always tell that they have a vision of where they want to end up and how good they want to be. And you see this throughout their career, especially, you know, coming in with, JT and watching JB grow, even though he was in the league when I was. Like seeing their game grow, you can see that it’s part of their mentality and that’s both in how they approach the game physically and how they approach the game mentally.”
Interestingly, Ojeleye isn’t the only former Celtics player to make the switch from America to Europe this offseason. Both Carsen Edwards and Tremont Waters have also taken their talents overseas. While Ojeleye hasn’t been in direct contact with his former teammates, he’s excited to see them continue developing. “When we were with the Celtics, we talked about how our careers would take off at the right time. So, I’m happy to see those guys make the move. And I know they’re gonna do great. They’re great players. I always loved playing with them.”
Luckily, all three of Boston’s former players had the chance to share a locker room with Brad Wanamaker and Daniel Theis, two players who made the NBA after successful spells throughout Europe. “When Brad came over, he was saying to always make sure you take care of your body. Like, that was Brad’s thing. Once you get to the pro level, there are a ton of games and a ton of practices. And I think over here, we practice even more than we do in the NBA. So, it’s important to take care of your body, make sure you’re always fresh and available.”
Virtus Bologna will participate in the LBA this season, as well as test their skills against the best teams Europe has to offer in the EuroLeague. If you want to stay up to date with Ojeleye’s development, you can watch games via the EuroLeague League Pass, both live and on demand. And hopefully, Ojeleye can continue to develop his game, experience some amazing cultures, and eventually find his way back to the NBA.
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