Ojeleye-Knox Highlights Juicy Tourney Matchup Between C's, Knicks

Marc D'Amico
Team Reporter and Analyst

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LAS VEGAS – Very rarely does a Summer League matchup reach “juicy” territory. Thursday’s looming showdown between the Celtics and the Knicks, however, is as juicy as an In-N-Out burger off The Strip.

There’s the Atlantic Division history between the two organizations. There’s the fact that the Knicks are trying to build toward where the Celtics already are. There’s the win-to-move-on aspect of tournament play.

But the key ingredient to the juiciness of this impending game is the matchup between Boston’s defensive specialist, Semi Ojeleye, and New York’s high-scoring wing, Kevin Knox.

Ojeleye, whom the Celtics drafted 37th overall during the second round of the 2017 NBA Draft, is coming off of a rookie season during which he was an important contributor to a team that reached Game 7 of the Eastern Finals. He averaged 15.8 minutes per game during 73 regular-season appearances and even started three playoff games.

The role he was asked to fill during his rookie season was to alter the game with his defensive versatility, and to make open shots. He did the former at a very high level.

Ojeleye is regarded by many, including Brad Stevens, as a player who can reach elite status at the defensive end of the floor. As Stevens said Monday evening of Ojeleye, “His ability defensively to keep the ball in front of him is excellent – it’s highest-level.” Still, there is room for growth.

“Now it’s being able to get into people’s air-space and do that,” Stevens said.

In that respect, Thursday’s matchup against Knox, the ninth overall pick in this year’s Draft, will provide a challenge to Ojeleye that he has yet to see during this year’s Summer League.

Knox entered Wednesday, an off day for both teams, as the league’s third-leading scorer with an average of 23.3 points per game. He’s coming off of a 29-point performance against the top seed in the tournament, the Los Angeles Lakers.

Knox’s game has opened many eyes, including those of Celtics Summer League head coach Jay Larranaga, who is already well into prep mode for Thursday’s matchup against New York.

“He’s what the future of the NBA is,” Larranaga said of Knox. “A very long, athletic, skilled player that can play multiple positions. Can shoot the ball, can drive it, he’s getting to the foul line a ton. So being able to show our hands and not foul him on his driving situations will be really important.”

That last part is the challenge of which Ojeleye will be facing. The 6-foot-7 forward wants to stay in front of Knox by using the skills that he showcased this past season, but he also wants to pressure the ball in the manner Stevens will be seeking next season.

From Ojeleye’s perspective, that is a tightrope he will learn to balance as he faces off with Knox Thursday afternoon for the very first time.

“You have to feel it out,” said Ojeleye, who is well aware of Knox’s offensive aggressiveness that has led to an average of 7.3 free throws per game in Vegas. “Sometimes too much pressure is bad, but then backing off makes him too comfortable. So you have to feel it out during the game.”

Ojeleye went on to explain his overarching goal as he heads into the premier matchup.

“I think at the end of the day, you just want to make him take tough shots,” he said. “Guys are going to make tough shots, and if you can force him to take contested ones, that’s all you can do.”

That’s what Ojeleye and the Celtics hope to do Thursday afternoon, but attempting to do so will unquestionably be their toughest challenge to this point during Summer League play.

Knox has arguably been the most impressive player in the league thus far. The Celtics, meanwhile, led by the defensive prowess of Ojeleye, have been one of the best defensive teams in the league thus far.

That’s, folks, has the makings of a juicy matchup – one we all get to take a bite out of at 4:30 p.m. ET Thursday afternoon.