From Duke to SMU, Semi Ojeleye's long, crooked journey is finally paying off
- Once one of the nation's top recruits, Semi Ojeleye had to transfer from Duke and wait two years before realizing his true potential at SMU.
For SMU’s first road trip of the season, a 200-mile hop to scrimmage in secrecy against Texas, Tim Jankovich aimed to keep things simple. The Mustangs coach told his team there would be no traditional opponent scouting. Just go out there, play and see what happens, he advised. The goal was merely to improve. For an event so off-the-record that NCAA rules forbid Jankovich from discussing it to this day, it seemed a reasonable approach.
A 6’ 8” junior forward named Jesusemilore Talodabijesu Ojeleye, however, deemed this practicality a joke. Due to a mid-year transfer from Duke followed by a strategic redshirt semester, he had not competed against anyone other than teammates for nearly two calendar years. The player known as Semi was not inclined to deploy half-measures. This is the first time I’ve suited up with a jersey, Ojeyele recalls thinking. I’m treating it like a game.
Details of the proceedings aren’t readily available, but Ojeleye also remembers this: Listening to up-tempo Christian hip-hop beforehand, praying for strength and then mentally reviewing defensive rotations and spots to hit on offense. Predictably, energy was not an issue. Rhythm came early and easily against the Longhorns. Then the scrimmage’s unofficial intermission arrived. “I remember my teammates looking up at halftime, like, man, what’s going on up there?” Ojeleye says. “I look up and I’ve scored a bunch. I’m so into the game I didn’t even realize it.”
Recognition is no longer an issue. After a one-year absence from the postseason prompted by NCAA sanctions, the 14th-ranked Mustangs (25–4) have won 11 in a row and ascended to national relevance again, led by a forward who is intimately familiar with taking off on a delayed flight. Ojeleye has gone from consensus top-40 recruit to afterthought in Durham to one of the nation’s most important performers, averaging 18.2 points and 6.6 rebounds and compiling 6.1 Win Shares overall—a figure that tied for third nationally to start the week, trailing only Villanova’s Josh Hart and Gonzaga’s Nigel Williams-Goss, a pair of surefire All-Americans. SMU thrives with a rotation featuring experienced, interchangeable parts. But a first-time starter may be the indispensible cog in pursuit of a first NCAA tournament victory since 1988.
Ojeleye (pronounced OH-juh-lay) did not log a single second of floor time between Nov. 30, 2014 and Nov. 11, 2016, and now he does everything to make up for lost time. “We have a lot of guys that want to hang out in the gym—that sounds like no big deal, but it is a big deal—and he’s the leader of that,” Jankovich says. “It rubs off on everyone else. On the court, he’s helping us in every single area. Everyone looks at his scoring, but he’s an outstanding rebounder, and nobody’s even mentioned how he defends -- he might be as good on defense as he is on offense. Maybe better.”
Still, Ojeleye required a little more time to grasp the circumstances that conspired toward this late arrival with SMU. He was the No. 32 prospect in the Class of 2013, per the Recruiting Services Consensus Index, after setting the Kansas high school career scoring record with 2,763 points at Ottawa High School. He joined a three-person Duke recruiting class headlined by Jabari Parker and also featuring Matt Jones, who would go on to be a four-year cornerstone for the Blue Devils. “I planned for things in college to go differently, to go more smoothly, to be at Duke,” Ojeleye says. “That was my plan. But plans change.”
A lack of maturity stalled him; as Ojeleye puts it, he never learned a skill as small as taking the two or three minutes after class to clear his mind for the day’s work. “Not knowing how to bring my best every day, not knowing how to prepare myself mentally, to get myself to a point where you can play at the highest level,” Ojeleye says. “I did not handle that.” He says he grew anxious about what was ahead on a daily basis. He couldn’t find the “peace about everything” that has come naturally with age. And he wouldn’t stick around long enough to find it in Durham, where he amassed 143 minutes and 46 points in barely more than one season.
“We always felt, and it’s proven to be true, that he’s an outstanding young man,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski says. “He came from a real small environment basketball-wise. There was going to be a process of adjustment, and he was making that progress. And obviously he’s made it. We’re happy for him.”
Jankovich and SMU associate head coach K.T. Turner—both then-lieutenants to Larry Brown who paid rapt attention to high school hoops in their home state of Kansas—were fully aware of Ojeleye’s exploits in Ottawa. They knew the particulars of the departure with Duke. It made for a good match, but the NCAA would intervene and put the consummation of the marriage on hold. On Sept. 29, 2016, SMU received the one-year postseason ban for recruiting violations under Brown. Ojeleye would have been clear to contribute mid-year. But two weeks before a return from exile, his AAU coach called with a suggestion that was really more of a directive: Sit out yet another semester. Preserve a full year of eligibility instead of starting the clock again during a season going nowhere.
I’ll think about it, was Ojeleye’s reply. But common sense soon overrode his denial. “I knew it was the right thing to do,” he says. “I don’t think I understood what sitting out that much longer would mean.” It meant extending the psychological toll of performing without purpose that every transfer experiences. And that meant finding refuge in workouts outside of practice, in trying to make 300 shots a day at game speed during the offseason. Ojeleye considered himself a decent three-point shooter through high school, but there is a fairly simple explanation for why he transformed into a volume producer from the perimeter this season, firing at 41.1% on an average of five attempts from three-point range per night. “I’ve had a lot of time sitting out,” Ojeleye says, “so there’s really nothing else to do but go to the gym and shoot.”
“Every single day that you come here, he’s in there,” Jankovich says. “I mean, he’s like a machine. Sometimes we try to get him out of there because we’d rather have him resting. But he’s so passionate that you can set your clock on him.”
The scrimmage with Texas answered any lingering questions from SMU teammates about how much Ojeleye could contribute to the cause. “He was making all the right plays,” SMU forward Ben Moore says. That counted for something, surely, but not anything substantial in the grand scheme. Ojeleye would have to wait until Nov. 11 season opener against Gardner-Webb for that. Nerves did not besiege him the night before that outing; they’d been working him over for a week, in fact. Paying attention in class was a hopeless endeavor. All Ojeleye envisioned was being on the court, jogging out as a starter, taking the jump ball at center court. The season felt like it would never come, and when it did, the wait was replaced by worry. “I was wondering: Would I be a better player than I was?” Ojeleye says.
He would benefit from a coach who gave him the benefit of the doubt, because Jankovich could relate. Long ago, in 1979, SMU’s coach himself debuted as a transfer guard for Kansas State, having played one season at Washington State before a homecoming of sorts. He remembered enough about his uneven return to resign himself to the fact that Ojeleye was probably not going to be very good for the first half of the Gardner-Webb game. And Ojeleye was not very good for the first half of the Gardner-Webb game. He missed four of five shots from the floor and committed five turnovers in 17 minutes. “I turned the ball over like it was my job,” Ojeleye says now. He subsequently amassed 18 points and nine rebounds in the second half alone, the first of 28 double-figure scoring efforts in 29 outings. And after a seven-turnover debut, Ojeleye has recorded just 34 miscues in the 28 games that followed, including zero in his last four.
“Honestly, the entire team and coaching staff felt like he would be somebody that was going to be a very, very significant contributor,” Jankovich says. “The only question mark was going to be, in games, was he comfortable? It wasn’t in any way, is he ready to play skill-wise or physically or anything like that. What is going to be his confidence level? Turns out it was really high.”
Critically, Ojeleye has figured out how to fit in without upending the dynamics of an SMU rotation in which he is the only newcomer of note. (Freshman Dashawn McDowell has played in 25 games but averages just 7.8 minutes.) Ojeleye’s usage (25.6%) leads the Mustangs, but his efficiency justifies the level of involvement. His effective field goal percentage of 55.1% is tied for third among SMU regulars, and he averages 1.086 points per possession in half court settings, per Synergy Sports.
Ojeleye is by no means a distributor (44 assists all season) and his passing out of post-up double-teams isn’t great. But he is a willing mover of the ball on the rare occasion opponents send a second defender at him on the wing, for example; on those 11 total possessions, SMU has scored 11 points, which rates in the 78th percentile nationally. “Something he doesn’t get enough credit for: He knows what spots to be in or what plays to make on offense when they’re trying to take him away,” Moore says.
Despite Ojeleye’s pedigree as a once-sought-after recruit, he does not blame people who are somewhat astonished by his emergence. He is, after all, one of those people.
“For sure, I think surprise is the right word,” Ojeleye says. “Having the team trust me to take shots and make plays, a team that is unselfish as we are, is something that surprised me. Everyone on this team got here before I did, except for a few freshmen. They definitely, in my mind, had a right for it to be their team. They’ve really embraced me and allowed me to take a bigger role than I expected to have.”
As a result, the disappointment at Duke has been thrust the rearview, though not entirely out of sight. It is, actually, the basis for something else Ojeleye feels he owes SMU now.
He was a seldom-used freshman watching from the sideline as the Blue Devils suffered one of the program’s most stunning NCAA tournament failures: A 78–71 loss to 14th-seeded Mercer in 2014. It was no doubt a shock. But all year, Ojeleye felt older players on the roster struggled to communicate with the younger classes. He promised himself he would keep all lines open at all times when he was a veteran. This has allowed Jankovich to revel in what he calls the “complete camaraderie” of his group, traced to one of the lineup’s relative newcomers: Moore, for one, considers Ojeleye perhaps the most influential communicator on a team unafraid to talk big about championships. “It was weird,” Ojeleye says of that Mercer defeat years ago. “You’re just watching a team that you know should probably be playing better, [and losing] is something that sticks in my mind. The things that hurt us that year—like communication, just overall team chemistry—are something I try to make sure doesn’t happen to our team now.”
No such hazards threaten SMU. The program appears positioned for a postseason breakthrough almost 30 years in the making, thanks in large part to this season’s—wait for it—Semi-charmed life.