Celtics

Is Semi Ojeleye turning into a consistent 3-and-D piece?

(Omar Rawlings/Getty Images)

It only took two weeks of Semi Ojeleye’s Celtic career for him to carve out a meaningful role on the 15-man roster: Giannis Antetokounmpo defender. The second-round pick showed off his strength and defensive instincts against the Greek Freak back in October 2017 and has been an ace in the back pocket for Brad Stevens on that front for much of the past two years.

Finding a consistent role outside of defending Giannis on this C’s team against 28 other franchises around the league for the past two seasons has not been easy for Ojeleye however. Consistent playing time was hard to come by last year due to a loaded depth chart and Ojeleye wasn’t exactly playing his way onto the floor either with his minuscule production (7.8 points and 5.6 rebounds per 36 minutes) along with a career mark of 32 percent from 3-point range. For all of Ojeleye’s defensive strengths, he was still a major liability on the offensive end most nights, failing to live up to the 3 in the ‘3-and-D’ label the C’s had hoped he could develop into consistently as an undersized big.

The 25-year-old Ojeleye started his third NBA season with another defensive savvy power forward (Grant Williams) looking like a strong threat to take his bench minutes even after last year’s veteran logjam was cleared out at the power forward spot. This happened in the opening 10 games as Ojeleye wasn’t showing much improvement on the offensive end and Williams’ had a better all-around offensive skillset (passing, screening, etc.) that made him look like a more versatile weapon at times for this group.

However, Gordon Hayward’s broken hand opened the door for more playing time for the bench group in the past month. Opportunity knocked again for Ojeleye as the C’s rookies started to flounder, with Williams in particular unable to knock down a 3-point shot.

Slowly but surely, Ojeleye has pushed his way back into the rotation as evidenced by the 24 straight minutes (+21 in plus/minus) he played against the Heat on Wednesday night in the second and third quarters. He’s finally making it tough for Brad Stevens to take him out of games.

“He plays with good physicality and he got a number of deflections in the paint just by being in the right position,” Stevens said Wednesday night of Ojeleye’s performance. “He was really good. I don’t think it was a coincidence that those 24 minutes were our best 24 minutes defensively tonight.”

As Stevens continues to tinker with his bench over the first two months of the NBA season to figure out what exactly he has to work with, one thing is becoming demonstrably clear over the past few weeks: Ojeleye is one player that he should be counting on more.

For the first time all season, Ojeleye is getting some consistent playing time, having seen the floor for 10-plus minutes in seven of his last nine games, including five straight overall. It has taken Stevens awhile to get to Ojeleye in some of these games due to the number of potential alternatives but it’s hard to argue with the team results when he is on the floor. Boston’s last two game-changing runs (wins over Knicks and Heat) have come with Ojeleye serving as a stellar defensive influence and the defensive numbers with him in the game over the past few weeks are staggering.

Ojeleye off/on defensive numbers last 9 games

On court (174 minutes): 95.2 points allowed/per 100 possessions (2nd on team)
Off Court (263 minutes): 105.2 points allowed per 100 (worst on team)

The impact goes beyond the numbers according to Ojeleye’s teammates.

“He was really loud, talking behind the defense, making sure everyone was in the right spots and that's who Semi