Semi Seeks Longevity As 3-and-D Specialist

ATLANTA – What does "3-and-D" mean to you?

To Semi Ojeleye, it means a long career.

Ojeleye is a 6-foot-7, 240-pound bruiser who looks more like Incredible Hulk than a basketball player. Not many know his name, and even fewer know how to pronounce it. (Sunday night in Orlando, the Magic’s public address announcer pronounced his name as “OH-jelly” instead of “OH-gel-ay”.)

The Celtics selected him with the 37th overall pick during the second of the 2017 NBA Draft. He was joining a team that was expected to compete for a conference title, and he knew minutes would be hard to come by, if not impossible to find.

So what did Ojeleye do? He searched for a niche that would earn him a role on the team, and what he found was an opportunity to slide into a valuable position that had been empty in Boston for quite some time: the 3-and-D position.

Now, just weeks into his professional career, he is earning substantial playing time for the best team in the NBA thanks to his ability to excel in that role.

“I think it’s a simple way to play the game,” Ojeleye said Monday night of the 3-and-D mantra, following a 110-107 win over the Hawks during which the forward scored six points during 16 minutes of action. “It’s a simple way to play the game.”

The description of the role is simple – make 3-pointers and defend at a high level – but executing the role is a hefty challenge… for anyone, let alone for a rookie.

Yet there Ojeleye was Monday night in Atlanta, 11 games into Boston’s 9-2 season, seeing more than seven minutes of action during the fourth quarter of a one-possession game. Even he had to chuckle in amazement when those facts were outlined to him after the win.

His play, however, was no laughing matter.

During the final period of the contest, Ojeleye canned two big 3-pointers, all while providing strong defense against everyone from speedy Hawks point guard Dennis Schroder to center Dewayne Dedmon.

Read that previous sentence once more.

Ojeleye defended the Hawks from point guard to center, and he’s legitimately capable of doing so against any team in the NBA. He is essentially Draymond Green when it comes to defensive versatility, and that’s saying a lot. Green has been considered a Defensive Player of the Year candidate for nearly a half-decade.

Brad Stevens phrased it as “pretty unique, the (defending) five-position part.”

Stevens has raved about Ojeleye’s rare defensive abilities since the team drafted him back in June. Just the other day, the coach detailed how impressive Ojeleye’s agility is for his size, which translates perfectly to the defensive end of the court. At this point, there is no question that defensive impact is what will spur Stevens to call the rookie’s name.

“He’s going to find himself in the game a lot when we need stops, or when things aren’t going our way defensively,” Stevens said, “and he’s done a good job thus far.”

Still, no one is as aware as Ojeleye that defense and defense alone won’t earn him consistent playing time. He needs to provide space for Boston’s top players to operate inside, and he needs to shoot the ball from the perimeter with consistency.

Thus far, Ojeleye hasn’t only been good from long range; he has been great. Ojeleye has connected on 42.9 percent of his 3s, including a 2-for-3 performance Monday night, and that rate trails only Jayson Tatum (52.9 percent) and Al Horford (47.4 percent) on the C’s.

Ojeleye knows what his offensive role is, and that’s why he has parked his rear behind the 3-point line. Twenty-one of his 24 shots on the season have been released from beyond the 3-point arc, and two of the remaining three were layup or dunk attempts.

He knows that he is not expected to initiate offensive sets or play isolation basketball. His offensive role is to shoot it from long distance, and he has done so at an incredibly high rate.

That type of shooting, combined with his defensive ability, is the definition of 3-and-D. It took players such as Shane Battier and Bruce Bowen years to perfect the craft of 3-and-D play, yet Ojeleye, as a second-round rookie on the league’s best team, is already excelling in the role less than a month into his NBA career.

That’s not normal, as Ojeleye's teammates are well aware of.

“He’s a rookie,” Horford said Monday night, with a big grin on his face, “but he doesn’t play like a rookie.”

And if he keeps playing like this, he’s going to be around for a long, long time.

Which leads back to the original question: What does "3-and-D" mean to you?

With a confident smile, Semi Ojeleye answered, “Longevity in this league.”