Summer league is a bit of a paradox.
For teams, the goals of summer league include introducing young draft picks to their offensive and defensive systems while getting young second- and third-year players a chance to expand their games against live competition.
The league, though, has created a tournament setting where a champion is crowned and broadcast partners call games as if the end results are important. That setup creates an expectation among fans that doesn’t entirely jive with what the team and some of its players are trying to do.
Don’t get me wrong, the summer league Venn diagram does include an overlapping area where putting lessons together to win a game has value, but it’s very easy for a team to accomplish its goals in Las Vegas while going 0-5.
The Celtics came into the Las Vegas summer league with a few goals in mind. They wanted to audition young players for one or both of their two-way slots, they wanted to see if Jabari Bird or Kadeem Allen were worthy of either two-way or guaranteed deals, and they wanted Guerschon Yabusele and Semi Ojeleye to hone certain skills for the upcoming season.
Allen is now a former Celtic. Bird is a restricted free agent who showed enough potential to warrant at least consideration for a full-time NBA contract. Yabusele started slow but gained steam. Ojeleye, though, had a bit of a mysterious summer.
Ojeleye averaged 12.4 points on 43 percent shooting over five games — four points behind Bird — and almost a half point behind Yabusele. His 4.2 rebounds per game were good for sixth on the summer Celtics. His unremarkable numbers might have some thinking he had a subpar summer league. A closer look, though, shows a couple of factors at play here.
First, he was playing with teammates who had other goals in mind. Ojeleye is not a ball handler, so he has to rely on others to bring the ball up. The problem is Allen, Pierria Henry, and the rest of the perimeter ball-handlers are auditioning for scouts and playing for contracts. There were countless instances of Ojeleye standing somewhere waiting for passes that didn’t come.
“Sometimes that’s a little more difficult when you’re not playing with some of the guys that get attention like our guys do on the Celtics team in the winter,” coach Brad Stevens said of Ojeleye’s performance.”I think he’s doing a good job. I’m a big Semi guy.”
Secondly, Ojeleye came into summer league with goals for improving his game.
“We talked to Semi about just being more versatile defensively,” explained Stevens. “His ability defensively to keep the ball in front of him is excellent. It’s the highest level. Now it’s about getting into people’s airspace and do that. Then on the other end of the floor, it’s just continuing to be most comfortable playing off of people and knowing when to attack.”
“I think defensively just being more impactful, that’s what coach said,” Ojeleye said. “Trying to pressure the ball and make big plays and communicate on defense.
“Offensively just be more of a threat,” he added. “I think last season I just focused on defense and offensively I just kinda stood in the corner. I think this year if I can take the right shots, be aggressive, hopefully make the right passes and just the right decisions that will help me out.”
With that in mind, let’s look at a few examples of what Ojeleye was working on with those goals in mind:
“Trying to pressure the ball and make big plays and communicate on defense”
The communication was on display here. Communication is key because the Celtics are not only switching during the regular season, they’re often re-switching (or “scram” switching) to avoid mismatches. If there’s any breakdown, two players will go one way, leaving the other man wide open.
The communication in this play is great because the Celtics actually don’t switch on the first pick. With both players talking, Ojeleye slides over with his man and then communicates with his teammate to switch on the second pick. He maintains decent positioning that helps Justin Bibbs hold a bigger player further away than he’d like to be, forcing a missed shot.
“Now it’s about getting into people’s airspace and do that.”
There’s more communication on display on this play as Ojeleye first stays in front of his man then switches with Jabari Bird. He does an excellent job staying in front of a guard before switching back onto his man after the ball swings around.
He follows his man into the corner, getting into his airspace and challenging the shot, which hits the side of the backboard.
Ojeleye is a high-level defender, but even the best have lapses.
We all have to be able to laugh at ourselves, so I hope Ojeleye finds the humor in literally waving at a player blowing by him. It seems here that Ojeleye is too focused on his teaching point of challenging people.
Furkan Korkmaz was in the process of torching the summer Celtics in that game, and Ojeleye’s overreaction to what he clearly thought was going to be a pull up three in transition helped out a little on this play.
It just goes to show nobody’s perfect, and even a good defender like Ojeleye can lose some discipline when he’s caught out of position. This needed to be a more disciplined closeout that forced a right-handed shooter to his left and towards the middle of the floor where there is more help on the drive.
When “getting into people’s airspace” is on someone’s mind, the basic defensive principles can be overlooked. This is part of the learning process and why a place like summer league is a great place to learn these lessons. The live play puts reactions to test, and an overplay like this is a teaching moment that Ojeleye can take into his August and September.
“Continuing to be most comfortable playing off of people and knowing when to attack.”
Ojeleye mentioned standing in the corner, where he’s supposed to be a floor-spacing threat to catch and shoot when someone like Kyrie Irving or Jayson Tatum drives to the basket.
In Vegas, Ojeleye tried to find opportunities to get out of the corners and attack from the top. Granted, those opportunities didn’t come as often as everyone would have liked, but they still came often enough to gather the information Ojeleye needs to expand his game this summer.
In this play against Philadelphia, Ojeleye does a nice job rocking left just enough to get his defender slightly off balance. The shoulder shake gives him a slight opening to drive right. The best thing he does in this move is avoid the second defender by bringing the ball high while also dipping his shoulder into his own defender to (a) create contact and draw the foul and (b) create space to get a shot off.
The shot going in was pure luck, but luck is the product of hard work and playing the right way. Ojeleye set up his defender, attacked with authority, and left himself room to put the ball up towards the rim.
I’d suggest Ojeleye study Isaiah Thomas game film from his Celtics days. Ojeleye will be driving against bigger guys, and he can use some of Thomas’s tricks for getting separation on drives to his advantage.
Thomas is a master at using a lower center of gravity and his underrated strength to get a defender’s momentum going the opposite way and clearing room for a shot to get off the backboard. Ojeleye can use his obvious strength to a similar advantage if he can learn some of the same techniques on drives.
“Be aggressive, hopefully make the right passes”
Ojeleye does the same thing here but to the opposite side. He catches the ball going to his right but changes direction and gets by his defender. He’s forced a little further left but as he’s driving he noticed Bird on a great back cut. The result is maybe one of the highlights of Boston’s run in Vegas.
The path he took to the basket wasn’t the best, but Ojeleye’s recognition of the cut and the fluid bounce pass kept Bird in stride for a highlight dunk.
Decisions have to be made quickly so opportunities aren’t missed. Often, a player will have something in mind when he starts a play and he has to recognize and adjust in an instant. He could have easily missed Bird’s cut if his head was down and he was focused simply on getting a shot off, but he kept his head up and saw an opportunity to feed his teammate for an easy basket.
However, sometimes that recognition comes a tick late.
Ojeleye gets a little excited and throws the pass a little too hard here. That’s not unusual for a player not used to making those plays in those instances. When you’ve got cannons for arms, you have to be a little more careful with those bullet passes.
What Ojeleye really needs in this play is better court recognition. He’s not used to being in this spot, so he doesn’t feel the game well enough to make the right decision.
A more seasoned player like Al Horford, who does catch the ball in this position often, would quickly make a series of recognitions:
– I just set a pick and both guys followed the ball handler
– There is a man in the corner with a defender
– I just spun into the lane, there’s a defender on me, and another to my left
Ojeleye spots Bird cutting backdoor again and tries to rifle a pass, despite all five defenders, but only three teammates, being involved in the play. A more seasoned guy, which Ojeleye is trying to become so he can “make the right passes,” would know there’s a fourth, un-defended teammate on the play.
The right pass is to Guerschon Yabusele for a three. The pass to Bird is a good idea too, but it’s tough to get that past those defenders. He could have tried lofting an alley-oop or a leading bounce pass for a reverse layup, but dropping it off to Yabusele is the best option here.
Summer league is officially over, and Ojeleye has a full slate of objectives to achieve over the next few months if he wants to become a regular contributor to the Celtics. These few things are a good start to his progression, and it gives him a clear set of goals to achieve over the next two months.
If he can become better off the dribble, he will become a more dangerous offensive player. If he can become a more versatile defender, he could find himself in closing lineups if the Celtics end up losing Marcus Smart at some point. For Boston, getting that kind of production from a player making less than $2 million for the next three seasons would be a godsend. Championship teams almost always have role players who outplay their contracts. If Ojeleye can build on the lessons he learned at summer league, he could become that type of player for the Celtics.