When it came time to picking a college to continue his education and basketball career, there was little doubt where Semi Ojeleye would end up. The son of a doctor and a nurse had grown up in a family that stressed academics, and Ojeleye was as gifted in the classroom as he was on the court. But this choice was a no brainer.
Ojeleye signed with Duke, a bastion of academics and the closest thing to a college hoops dynasty since the Wizard was still working the sidelines at Westwood.
In the fall of 2013, the 6-foot-7, 235-pound combo forward joined Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski’s program, along with Jabari Parker, a future one-and-done lottery pick, and Matt Jones, who stayed four seasons and started 68 times in his final two.
Things didn’t go quite so well for Ojeleye, who admits he wasn’t prepared, as he put it, for “the intensity of Duke basketball.” That led to limited playing time, and a short sojourn in Durham, N.C. After the first semester of his sophomore season, Ojeleye knew he had to leave.
“I wasn’t prepared, mentally or physically,” Ojeleye said. “So I don’t think I ever performed at my best. Being a young kid, I could never get over that hump. I tried the best I could.”
There was no shortage of suitors for Ojeleye’s services when he announced his intention to transfer, but his former AAU coach, a friend as well as a mentor, had a suggestion. Rodney Perry, now an assistant coach at Oral Roberts, had built a relationship with former SMU coach Larry Brown.
“I’d known coach Brown because he recruited Shake Milton, another one of my players,” Perry said. “SMU was a great fit for Shake. And I’d built a great relationship with coach Brown. Knowing what Semi’s goals where, I called coach Brown and set up a meeting. I thought it would be the best situation for Semi.”
Ojeleye works on his game as he waits
Ojeleye showed up at SMU in January 2015 and knew he’d have to sit out the rest of that season and the start of the next. But what he ultimately decided to do showed that the maturity he thought he lacked while at Duke had caught up with him.
Perry, and SMU’s coaching staff, thought it would be in Ojeleye’s best interests if he redshirted the entire 2015-16 season. But that meant Ojeleye would have basically been sidelined for the better part of three years. He played just 19 games as a Duke freshman, and six in his abbreviated sophomore season.
“I thought it was pretty sound reasoning,” said SMU coach Tim Jankovich, a former assistant on Brown’s staff who ascended to the top job after Brown abruptly left last July. “Semi bought into the reasoning. He’s a bright guy, and I think he saw the positives far outweighed the negatives.”
One of the most glaring negatives: SMU was ineligible for postseason play in 2015-16.
“He really wanted to play last year,” Perry said. “But SMU was on probation. We said it would be a deal where he was just out there playing games, with no goal of playing in a postseason tournament. We convinced him to go ahead and wait.”
Ojeleye made the most of his time on the sidelines, honing what was already an accurate 3-point stroke into a deadly one.
“He came here a good shooter, and in the time he spent redshirting, he became a great one,” Jankovich said. “To have his body, and the kind of shooting ability he has … it certainly doesn’t match that body type, normally. You don’t find many guys that have that soft a touch with that strong a body.”
Move to SMU benefits both parties
Jankovich used Ojeleye the same way Perry used him in AAU competition, and the same way he was used at Ottawa (Kan.) High School, where he racked up state records for points in a career (2,763) and a season (952). For most of his career, Ojeley has been a match-up nightmare, able to post up smaller players or force big men to venture out past the 3-point line to try and guard him.
“We played him at the four spot,” Jankovich said. “But he was good with some space. He could penetrate. We picked and popped him a lot. And he also posted pretty well. Put all those things together, and you’ve got a scorer, not just a shooter.”
Ojeleye racked up impressive statics in his junior season, finishing third in the American Athletic Conference in scoring (19.0 ppg), 11th in rebounding (6.9 rpg), eighth in field-goal percentage (.487), third in 3-point percentage (.424) and ninth in free throw percentage (.785). He took home a trophy room full of awards, including AAC Player of the Year, Scholar-Athlete of the year, and tournament Most Outstanding Player.
More important to Ojeleye, he helped lead the Mustangs to a 30-5 record (17-1 in the AAC and 18-0 at home) and a trip to the NCAA tournament.
“It was a great year,” Ojeleye said. “I had to get comfortable playing live again, but after a while, you see plays happen over and over again. You start to know what happens before it happens. And you know not to take the first shot that comes along. You can get a 3-pointer, but maybe a 15-footer, or get to the rim, or hit a teammate with a pass. Once I got the reps, I realized you might have better options on every play.”
Since the season ended, Ojeleye has been exploring his NBA Draft options and working with trainer Drew Hanlen, who thinks Ojeleye can play a wing position in the NBA.
“We’re working on Semi to get downhill and finish through contact,” Hanlen said. “There are a lot of guys who can score with five or six bounces. Not many guys can do it with one or two bounces. Semi possesses that ability, along with his ability to shoot the ball at his size and strength. And we’ve spent a ton of time on defense. He can move his feet [with NBA wing players].”
It’s taken Ojeleye a bit longer to get where he wanted to be than he ever thought. But he doesn’t regret a second of the journey.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better place to end up than SMU, or a better coach to take over when coach Brown left than coach Jankovich,” Ojeleye said. “But before that, the overall experience at Duke was great. If I could do it over again, I’d still go there. It was a great opportunity playing for Coach K. It definitely made me the person I am today.”
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