PHILADELPHIA -- As Brad Stevens watched his team squander away two massive leads over the past couple of games, one of his best defenders could only watch the carnage from the bench. Stevens did not call the name of Semi Ojeleye once in the midst of the two embarrassing defeats, which raised the total of DNP-CD on the season for the 24-year-old to 17. The Celtics are just 6-11 in those games.
From afar, it’s understandable why Ojeleye’s minutes have declined (15.8 to 10.2) since his rookie year. The Celtics have been a far healthier team on the whole compared to last year, particularly at the 3 and 4 where most of Ojeleye’s minutes come from. With Gordon Hayward, Marcus Morris, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown locked in for 20-plus minutes, only crumbs and garbage time have fallen down to Ojeleye most nights.
Ojeleye is averaging just 10.5 minutes per game over 39 contests and his individual numbers have been rather underwhelming during that stretch. After an offseason in which Ojeleye worked steadily to improve a subpar 3-point shot, his accuracy has gotten worse in 2018-19, clocking in at 29.2 percent (13th on team) despite an uptick in attempts. At 6-foot-7, he still rebounds like a shooting guard, which leaves the C’s vulnerable on the glass when he’s defending a big. All of these are reasons Ojeleye has spent the majority of the year watching from the sidelines.
Still, it’s hard to separate the fact that Stevens has trended away from Ojeleye, even when situations call for him. Case in point: Losing Aron Baynes to injury last week. Boston’s defense has sprung leaks all year when the big man is not in the rotation, as evidenced by the two losses against the Lakers and Clippers last week.
From a personnel standpoint, the Celtics' defense is not close to what it was last season. Al Horford is a step slow in defending the pick-and-roll at times. Morris and Hayward are vulnerable when defending quicker wings. The same goes for Tatum. Brown and Rozier can have their moments on defense but are also capable of huge gaffes. All of this has led to constant defensive scrambling against high-powered offenses and easy looks for the opposition.
Ojeleye is not the answer to all of these problems, but the team’s success when he’s on the court indicates that he should be an option that Stevens is turning to more to shore up the defense. The Celtics have 95.4 defensive rating in the 410 minutes he’s been on the floor this year, easily the best mark on the roster and seven points higher than the team’s mark.
Against a high-powered offense like the 76ers, Ojeleye should be a valuable weapon for Stevens to dispatch. He can defend 1-on-1 against big bodies like Tobias Harris and Ben Simmons while also displaying the versatility to hold his own in switches against smaller or bigger players. His ability to play with all different sorts of players in the frontcourt is evidenced by his success playing with all different members of the frontcourt. Ojeleye shows up in the top-10 of net rating four times among Celtics two man-units that have played 50 minutes or more together.