BOSTON — The sound of a bouncing ball was curious to Danny Ainge.
The Boston Celtics, fresh off a west coast road trip that saw the team play four games in six nights, all while logging 6,200 air miles, were flying back from Utah late last month and Ainge didn’t anticipate any of his players would visit the practice facility after landing back in the area.
But when Ainge peered out his office window that afternoon, he saw Semi Ojeleye getting up shots.
"It was just Semi by himself,” said Ainge. “Shot after shot after shot. Just working on his 3-pointer, his mid-range. That’s Semi — no one works harder. That’s why it's fun to see him be rewarded.”
Ojeleye scored a career-high 22 points on 8-of-11 shooting and connected on five 3-pointers while helping the shorthanded Celtics to a much-needed win in Cleveland on Wednesday night. It was a glimpse of Ojeleye’s potential and he’s certain that shooting sessions like the one after flying back to Boston put him in position to break through.
"Can’t miss a day to put in work, man. We didn’t have practice that day and, for me, it’s always a chance to just get a little bit better,” said Ojeleye, who said he shot for maybe 45 minutes that day.
"Form shooting and just keeping the ball high, trying to get some arc on the shot. I feel like, for me, that’s the first thing that goes. Shot starts to get flat. I just wanted to get in and kinda remind myself, try to shoot the ball the right way and get some reps in.”
Ojeleye had played sparingly on that west coast trip, logging only 22 total minutes over four games, which left him all the more eager to get back in the gym. Ojeleye’s relentless work ethic is well-documented — including his wall-rattling postgame workouts that became the stuff of legends last year — and Boston’s decision-makers rave about how he’s always ready when called upon.
To get rewarded for all that effort by seeing shots finally fall meant a lot to Ojeleye.
"Feels great, man. That was like a relief,” said Ojeleye. "It’s a great feeling. I’m just thankful for it. But just gotta keep working.”
The 25-year-old Ojeleye, now in his third season since being chosen 37th overall in the 2017 draft, entered Friday’s game against the Jazz averaging only 3.1 points and 1.9 rebounds over 14.4 minutes per game in 58 appearances. Playing time can vary, but Boston’s perpetual health woes have created opportunities. Ojeleye has had just one DNP since Jan. 4, a rare instance where Boston had its top 7 healthy and leaned on what was essentially a nine-man rotation in Oklahoma City.
During the 28-game span since that DNP, Ojeleye’s stat line hasn’t popped but he’s shooting 38.6 percent beyond the 3-point arc, which at least makes him a threat to knock down open looks. Celtics coach Brad Stevens noted that Boston has an obvious need for shooting.
"I just think [Ojeleye is] a good player. He’ll do whatever you ask,” said Stevens. "He’s improved his shooting over the last three years and that’s — as people are blitzing [Jayson] Tatum and blitzing Kemba [Walker], we need shooters. We need guys that can make shots on the floor; Semi’s been very consistent with that all year.”
Some players like Kemba Walker come to the gym and challenge themselves to make 500 3-pointers the night before a game. Ojeleye’s goals are more modest — consecutive makes at various spots all over the court, and a focus on form.
"Shooting the ball higher and, mechanics-wise, getting my hand under it,” said Ojeleye. "But really just every day when I come in to shoot, mentally locking in, and trying to make every shot. Whether we’re shooting for 10 minutes or 15 minutes, trying to focus. Opportunities in the game, you don’t know when they come. It’s important to be at your best every day in practice and hopefully it transfers.”
And that, ultimately, is why Ojeleye ventured into the gym last month.
"Just knowing that, if I put in the work, then I’ll keep getting better. And I know if I keep getting better then, when the opportunity does come, I’ll be ready,” said Ojeleye. "I can’t really control how much I play and who’s in, who’s out. But I can control me.”
Boston's team performance with Ojeleye on the court hasn't been great this season. Entering Friday’s game, the Celtics had a negative net rating (minus-0.1) in Ojeleye’s 833 minutes of court time. Only rookies Vincent Poirier and Carsen Edwards were also in the negative. Boston’s net rating in Ojeleye’s 2,120 minutes on the bench spikes to a team-best plus-9.0. Working in Ojeleye’s favor: Boston’s defensive rating is 1.3 points better per 100 possessions, but the offense simply lags.
It’s Ojeleye’s defense that typically gives Stevens confidence to put him on the floor. There’s two players in the league that Ojeleye has guarded more often than others this season and we quizzed him to see if he could identify them.
“Oh, man. Giannis [Antetokounmpo] and … I’m not sure,” answered Ojeleye.
He was right on Antetokounmpo. The other: Ben Simmons. Yes, an All-Star and an MVP. We asked if Ojeleye ever wanted to ask Stevens for maybe a …
“Lighter matchup?” Ojeleye said with a laugh while finishing the thought. “No, those are good challenges to want to take. I think it just shows a great deal of respect; I’m the guy they choose to guard those guys. So try to be ready and know that those guys are always working and they have gifts that nobody else has so you have to prepare.”
Ojeleye also sees it as a positive sign that the Celtics haven’t made any moves to alter their bench, a group that has been routinely criticized for its struggles to put up points, at least when Boston has navigated health woes that force Marcus Smart up to the starting group.
Ojeleye’s defensive potential could make him one of the guys who Stevens calls on during the postseason, especially given the potential matchups and Boston’s need for defensive size and versatility. He has to prove he can more consistnetly knock down those open 3-point looks for Stevens to really lean on him.
Still, Ojeleye’s teammates are excited to see his hard work pay off like it did in Cleveland.
"I was really happy for Semi. I was screaming at the TV, man,” said Jaylen Brown, who missed Wednesday’s game with a hamstring strain. "Semi, he comes in every single day, he works. I mean, all of those guys played well, but I was extremely happy for Semi.
"I think he’s talented, he works really hard. He might not always get to show it because of the role or the situation he’s in. But he’s more than capable, so that was really big for his confidence. I was really happy for him.”
Ojeleye didn’t just knock down 3s in Cleveland. He muscled home a floater through contact in transition and showcased a little one-dribble step-back jumper from 18 feet.
Just like the type he had been practicing on that offday.
"I’ve seen Semi work since he’s been here, every single day. So it's not so much of a surprise that he did what he did,” said Brown. "I was more happy that it just got applause and everybody got to see it for a game. I think he’s more than capable of doing things like that in this league more often.
"And he will. He will."
Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Jazz, which begins Friday at 7 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, followed by tip-off at 8 p.m. You can also stream on the MyTeams App.