SMU basketball’s Semi Ojeleye prepared for return after two-year hiatus
Semi Ojeleye is one of the most talented players in college basketball today, but few remember him.
It is no wonder why – Ojeleye has not played a game of basketball in 23 months.
Ojeleye transferred to SMU from Duke University in the middle of the 2014-2015 season. He enrolled at SMU in January and sat out the rest of the season due to NCAA transfer rules.
Ojeleye became eligible to play for the Mustangs in the spring semester, but the program decided to redshirt him for the remainder of last season, thereby preserving two full years of his eligibility. With SMU banned from postseason play, Larry Brown thought it best to save Ojeleye’s services for a season in which the Mustangs were allowed to play for a championship. Ojeleye’s wait to play basketball again was extended another 11 months.
Even when he was an active member of the Blue Devils’ roster, Ojeleye’s career resembled a waiting game of its own. In a season and a half at Duke, he played in just 23 games and accumulated only 143 minutes.
“Duke was a great opportunity, a great place. It’s still a great school,” Ojeleye said before practice Friday. “While I was there, I wasn’t becoming the player I thought I could be. I felt like I wasn’t in their plans for the future.”
Ojeleye decided to transfer away from Durham four months before Duke would go on to win the national championship. Some would call that bad timing, but Ojeleye had realized he needed a change.
“I was a part of the team, but I feel like they didn’t maybe have me at the front of their minds at the time being,” Ojeleye said. “I felt like I had to move on and try to go somewhere I could develop a little more quickly.”
That somewhere was SMU. Many schools pursued Ojeleye, but Coach Brown’s relationship with his former AAU coach helped get the 6-8 forward to The Hilltop.
“When this transfer process started, SMU was one of the first schools to really contact me,” Ojeleye said. “Coach Brown came to my house right away and showed me a lot of interest.”
Brown’s reason for interest was obvious – Ojeleye was among the most highly recruited prospects from the class of 2013.
As a four-year starter, Ojeleye helped Ottawa High School (Ottawa, Kansas) to four 4A state championship game appearances and a 94-10 record. In his senior season, he averaged a state record 38.1 points per game en route to a state title. Ojeleye was named Gatorade Kansas Boys Basketball Player of the Year and Parade Magazine National Player of the Year in 2013. By the end of his time in high school, Ojeleye had set Kansas records for points scored in a career (2763) and points scored in a season (952).
Ojeleye received offers Duke, Indiana, Oregon and Stanford before ultimately deciding to play for the Blue Devils. He was ranked No. 40 in ESPN Recruiting Nation’s 2013 list of top basketball prospects.
Ojeleye’s broad skill set makes him a valuable player in almost every facet of the game. He played small forward in high school, but has grown two inches since then and will be able to play power forward at the collegiate level.
The first thing one notices about Ojeleye is his physique – a muscular, highly athletic frame that looks as if it was chiseled out of stone. Ojeleye could fool some for a football player with his build and intimidating physical presence.
With the ability to score from everywhere on the floor, Ojeleye’s value is found in his capacity to stretch defenses and open holes for his teammates and himself. The precision of his shooting and his ability to finish around the rim seems almost supernatural. His athletic ability allows him to maneuver past larger defenders in the post and get to the hoop. Ojeleye can also throw down some thunderous, rafter-shaking dunks off the lob.
His domination of the paint is supplemented by great three-point shooting. Ojeleye’s accuracy from beyond the arc was one of the major reasons why Duke was interested in him. According to MaxPreps, Ojeleye shot 38 percent from deep during his junior season in high school.
The diversity and effectiveness of Ojeleye’s offensive weapons is a rare find at any level. He brings the touch of Michelangelo and the power of a freight train.
Which is why it is so shocking that Ojeleye has been sitting in basketball purgatory for so long.
Ojeleye was forced to sit out SMU’s conference championship run in 2015 and the Mustangs’ 18-0 start to the 2015-16 season. He has bided his time trying to get better.
“I think the biggest thing I’ve gained during this time out is just confidence,” Ojeleye said. “I don’t know how good I’ll be as far as stats goes, but I know that when I step out there, I’ll be comfortable, I’ll be ready, and hopefully I can make the best of it.”
It might be easy for someone with his talent to feel entitled and superior – but not Ojeleye. His humility and willingness to put his teammates first might be his most valuable asset.
“I felt like I had to figure out a way to help the team however I could,” Ojeleye said. “Just in practice, trying to go as hard as I could and knowing that it would get my teammates better, get me better at the same time. Knowing that my time would come.”
Following such a long hiatus, does Ojeleye feel like he has something to prove?
“Just proving that I think I made the right decision in coming to SMU,” Ojeleye said.
Borrowed talent has been the bread and butter of SMU’s basketball renaissance. Nic Moore, Markus Kennedy, Jordan Tolbert – all transfers. Ojeleye is next in line.
Ojeleye has not played in a game since Nov. 30, 2014. His wait is almost over. He not only has a chance to become one of the best players in the American Athletic Conference, but one of the best in all of college basketball. We’ll have to wait and see.