Last July, Celtics coach Brad Stevens was giving evaluations of some of the team’s summer league players in Las Vegas when he offered somewhat startlingly high praise for the rookie second-round draft pick Semi Ojeleye.
“I think he will compete,” Stevens said, “and be one of our better defenders right out of the gate.”
Ojeleye hadn’t even played two weeks of summer league yet, and he had slid through the first round of the draft the previous month without anyone selecting him. And here was Stevens instantly placing him in a high tier on a gritty defensive team that at the time included Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, and Jae Crowder.
But Stevens is not prone to hyperbole, and just three weeks into the regular season, the rest of the NBA is now seeing what he envisioned in July. Ojeleye, a chiseled 6-foot-7-inch, 235-pound forward whose teammates call him the Incredible Hulk, has already been called into action in key moments to defend some of the league’s superior offensive players, from Giannis Antetokounmpo to Carmelo Anthony to Paul George.
And his worth extends far beyond those important individual matchups. Ojeleye is the rare player who is capable of defending all five positions on the court, and he is being asked to do exactly that, constantly switching on screens while staying in lockstep with his teammates.
“Right now he’s still young in the league, but he can do things really well,” Stevens said after Ojeleye played 16 minutes in the Celtics’ 110-107 win over the Hawks Monday in Atlanta, their ninth in a row. “He can catch and shoot and he can guard five positions, so that’s pretty unique, the five-position part.
“I think he’s going to find himself in the game a lot when we need stops or things aren’t going our way defensively, and he’s done a good job so far.”
Ojeleye said that Stevens made it clear this summer that his defense could help him establish a role as a rookie. And he takes these assignments very seriously.
He is thorough in film study and he tries to carry that knowledge into the morning shootaround, where he can take a more hands-on approach. When the game begins, Ojeleye spends his idle moments on the bench saying prayers to help himself stay calm. Then he uses brief teaching moments to immerse himself in the action before his number is called.
“During timeouts, I watch what Coach is drawing up and try to envision myself out there with what guys are doing,” he said. “I’m trying to imagine that I’m them, doing what they’re doing. So when I get out there it’s like I’ve been playing already.”
Southern Methodist had a strong defense during Ojeleye’s senior year there, but given the more cluttered nature of the college game, Ojeleye found he was most often just one cog, with help nearby whenever he needed it.
“But the spacing of the NBA game makes it so that you kind of have to guard on your own sometimes,” Ojeleye said. “So I think just mentally knowing that, you have to be ready. I have to keep my mind sharp.”
While defense will be Ojeleye’s greatest strength, he is also a capable 3-point shooter. He struggled a bit at the start of the season, making just 2 of 10 shots from beyond the arc. But he has found a rhythm over the last four games, going 7 for 11.
He said that the longer NBA 3-pointer required a slight mental adjustment, and he realized he needed to stay more relaxed on offense. He is comfortable taking 3-pointers in practices and warmups, so he just had to tell himself that it really would not be that much different during games.
“You get the reps, and it becomes second nature,” Ojeleye said. “Seeing the ball go through is big-time for me. It’s great for my confidence.”