It’s no secret that the Milwaukee Bucks are banking on 6-foot-6 forward Semi Ojeleye to replace defensive hound PJ Tucker. News that Ojeleye was signed on came almost immediately after Tucker’s move to South Beach made headlines.
Despite their age difference, the similarities between the two are not scant in any way. Giannis Antetokounmpo has referred to him as “the Giannis stopper” owing to his defensive performance against the MVP in the past. At first glance, the two have remarkably comparable builds. On the court, they’ve played the same 3&D roles for their respective basketball clubs, albeit to varying degrees of success.
Given his relative youth and inexperience, though, can Ojeleye actually take on the PJ Tucker role for this contending Bucks team? Here’s what his performances so far say.
Can Ojeleye score like Tucker?
It’s probably not fair to start any comparison to PJ Tucker with a discussion on offense. But as of late, that’s been the most glaring part of Ojeleye’s game. The answer is yes: Ojeleye can score like Tucker.
Unfortunately, this is not in a good way when you consider Tucker’s own production with the team last year. The most staunch detractors of Ojeleye’s offensive ability conveniently forget that Tucker only scored 4.3 points per game for Milwaukee in the playoffs. He did this shooting 32.2 percent from behind the three-point line.
For someone touted as a floor-spacing wing, Ojeleye started his tenure as a Buck shooting a putrid 0-12 from three-point land. They were all sorry misses that clanked off the rim despite decently open looks at the basket.
But when it rained, it poured. After a poor shooting start, Ojeleye is now 6/9 (66.7%) on threes for the month of November. His numbers were always bound to come back closer to his average, and it’s clear they’ve finally stabilized, at least for now.
Ojeleye can score the three-ball like Tucker, but his strength and mobility also give him more options on offense.
Where Tucker was relegated to a spot-up shooter in the corners, Ojeleye is clearly able to come off screens and handoff actions to drain threes from the top of the key. These are likely plays that will be reserved for shooters like Khris Middleton and Grayson Allen, but it’s a huge bonus to have a defensive player adding this kind of versatility on offense.
He also drained a fadeaway off one leg with the shot clock running down, though for the time being, this Hail Mary was more an outlier than anything else.
Can Ojeleye make plays?
While the scoring is slowly picking up, it’s his passing and playmaking that could use some work. In the first play here, he misses an off-ball cut by Connaughton that would have been a guaranteed dunk.
He has the tendency to throw passes with a bit too much juice, as seen in his outlet pass and potential assist to George Hill in the succeeding clips. Later on, he misses a good cut by Thanasis as he drives toward the rim. He could have also gone up strong to take the layup but he settles for a kickout to Hill.
It’s clear the pass is a bit too strong and hardly hits Hill’s shot pocket. He’s instead forced to catch it with his off-hand. Sometimes that can make all the difference in the end result as seen in Hill’s airball.
While he won’t put up too much production on offense, that was simply never the role he was expected to play.
Ojeleye’s role is in hustling
What he does do well is hustle for the ball. Here, his energy on the glass gets the Bucks two extra possessions against the Washington Wizards. In that game, he was able to showcase nearly the same offensive rebounding that won the Bucks a championship just a few short months ago.
He does the same thing twice in a row in their game against Boston days later. His activity generates two more extra possessions for Milwaukee. Even Marcus Smart can’t help but express his consternation with the physicality of his former teammate.
Even when he’s boxed out for the rebound (by Dennis Schröder no less) he reaches in for a near-steal on the fastbreak, forcing Smart to give it up. It’s a risky play, but also one that’s potentially rewarding.
Per Cleaning the Glass, the rate at which Milwaukee rebounds its misses rises by three percent when Ojeleye steps on the floor. He’s in the 73rd percentile in this statistic among players in his position.
Offensive boards mean second chances to score, which Ojeleye understands well. He’s able to turn these rebounds into opportunities for the Bucks’ litany of shooters.
In these clips, he shows decent playmaking and quick thinking off offensive rebounds. Not all of them result in points, but the understanding of his role within the game and presence of mind is there. Having his hustle and quick tipping in the dunker area will guarantee more attempts for Milwaukee’s floor-spacers similar to these.
For all his brawn and hustle, though, Ojeleye also seems scared of contact when driving hard to the rim. He’s a clumsy slasher and an even clumsier dribbler; he just doesn’t have the tightest handle in the league right now. Take these clips for example.
His shot profile on CtG betrays his willingness to use his 240-pound frame in the paint. So far, 64% of his shot attempts are threes, while only 7% are shots at the rim. It’s for this reason that he tends to turn down opportunities to drive strong to the rim, often kicking the ball out to his teammates instead.
As it stands, he’s just very limited offensively in nearly every facet of scoring besides his floor-spacing. Per 36 minutes, Ojeleye is averaging just 6.8 points per game, which is dead last on the Bucks. At the same time, his 3.7 offensive rebounds per 36 are good for second on his team.
To be frank, there isn’t much offense to go around when you start next to Milwaukee’s three best players. This is why Brook Lopez, a center, spotted up on almost 30 percent of his offensive possessions as the team’s fourth starter.
The Bucks can expect Ojeleye to have a similar shot diet, especially when their more dominant offensive players are nursed back to health.
After everything, though, it’s important to temper expectations given the size of the offensive void Tucker left. Simply put, there isn’t actually much production to replace by way of scoring when you compare the two.
Can Ojeleye defend like Tucker?
The answer is yes.
Defense is hardly ever about the steals and blocks you tally, or even the shots you contest into misses for that matter. Most times, it’s how much you affect basic actions even before the opposition takes their shots.
Ojeleye thus far has shown an extremely competent understanding of this, along with the defensive coverages this team will need him to throw at scorers.
In the first clip below, he sees Harrell slipping the screen with the defenders focused on Raul Neto. He correctly comes over from the weak side to prevent the easy dunk. His coaches acknowledge him for this read, as heard in the clip: “Great job, Semi!”
He’s all over the floor in the second clip but is just able to contest the shot into a miss. It’s the same scenario: Portis and Holiday trap the surging Rose, and Semi sees the easy slip to the basket for Noel. He tags Nerlens just long enough for Portis to get back into position, then comes flying on the closeout to contest Fournier’s three-pointer.
Later on, Ojeleye hedges the screen here to stop McLaughlin’s momentum and is still able to decently close out to McDaniels. He slides his feet well and stays in front of him to force the pass to Reid.
Bad reads still show themselves from time to time
Still, his youth and inexperience cast a stark contrast to Tucker’s veteran leadership on the defensive end. In the clips below, Ojeleye whiffs a few defensive possessions with a few bad reads.
First, he falls for Obi Toppin’s “ghost” screen for Alec Burks. Ojeleye prepares to hedge the fake screen a bit too early. It takes hardly any effort for Toppin to sky for the alley-oop from Quickley.
It’s his team defense in transition that leaves much to be desired in the second clip. As the Knicks work the ball down the floor, he focuses too much on covering his man in the corner that he fails to help on the successful drive by Barrett. If you watch closely, you can see him hesitate as he looks back and forth between the corner man and the ball. His indecision freezes him in place, and Barrett gets an easy layup.
Considering the Knicks offense scores a seventh-ranked 1.14 points per possession on transition plays, these slip-ups are certainly ones you’d rather avoid. None of these are unfixable and can surely be addressed as Ojeleye acclimatizes to the team’s schemes further.
Though these can be chalked up to experience within his new team’s system moving forward, staying locked in on the defensive end can spell the difference between a solid defense and an elite one.
Ojeleye’s active hands make him a solid defender for the Bucks
Reads aside, though, it’s Semi’s effort that has really shined. For all the well-deserved praise Tucker received for his dogged approach to ball-stopping, it’s clear Ojeleye’s brand of blue-collar defense at the very least comes close.
It’s not just hustling on the glass but on defense, too. It’s clear Ojeleye knows how to use his hands to make things difficult for opponents. Discomfort has always been an immeasurable intangible in basketball, and in the clips below, it’s clear Ojeleye’s presence causes the opposition to think twice about routine kickouts.
In one-on-one situations, it’s clear that Ojeleye is just as adept at sliding his feet to stay in front of his man. He uses his strength to stay in between Barrett and the basket here, and quick swipes in succession force the former to give the ball up to Fournier. He’s obviously a fan of digging at the ball. In the second clip, it yields a steal for the Bucks after he dives after the loose ball.
On the other hand, he may not be as switchable against guards as Tucker was. Against the Knicks, Semi found himself backpedaling or on skates care of a few quick-hitting dribble moves. New York’s wily guards caught Semi with his hands down quite a bit, but despite the end result, it’s clear he managed to get in decent contests each time.
Below, the smaller Derrick Rose gets the smallest bit of space and gets up for the lay-in. Ojeleye however, is able to use his length and bounce to get the block. This turns into a fastbreak and eventually, a foul on Antetokounmpo.
At the same time, and much like his predecessor in Tucker, Semi is still rather foul-prone. Good defenders can stay in front of their man, but great ones know to keep their hands up while doing so to avoid cheap fouls.
Regardless, it’s encouraging to see him take on matchups like Randle and Rose and hold his own. He’s able to stay in front of them for the most part, but it’s his eagerness to swipe at the ball that leads to fouls. If the Bucks coaching staff is able to get him to focus solely on stopping penetration instead of forcing turnovers, he could genuinely be a force on defense.
The same post defense that earned him the title of the league’s premiere “Giannis Stopper” just a few years ago was on full display against Julius Randle. In this clip, he gets low to meet Randle in the post. By bringing down his center of gravity, he gets a stronger base.
Despite Randle’s significant size advantage, Ojeleye is able to stay strong and withstand the pushes and bumps of the power forward as a result.
Are the lingering questions valid?
So can Semi Ojeleye replace PJ Tucker on a contending Milwaukee Bucks team? Sure. The early returns say yes: Ojeleye is absolutely able to play the role that Tucker did just a few months ago. Despite the lapses, he’s still a mobile, physical wing capable of taking on most matchups for just a few possessions at a time.
Doing it well is another question, but as far as his capabilities go, you could certainly do a lot worse. Will he be defending Jimmy Butler and Kevin Durant as well as Tucker did? Probably not as well. But he’ll definitely make them work just as hard every possession.
Only time will tell if he will get there, especially on the defensive end. So far, though, he’s already had impressive showings against Jayson Tatum and Julius Randle, whom he’s held to 4/10 (including two blocks) and 3/10, respectively, per NBA.com‘s matchup data. He’s held forwards to 15/39 (38.5%) and guards to 13/30 (43.3%) so far.
Offense is where Ojeleye will have problems. If he’s on the floor next to the Bucks big three, there should be no problems. But as it stands, he’s just a black hole next to scorers like Jordan Nwora and Grayson Allen. No doubt Ojeleye will need to shoulder some of the offensive load as well.
At this point, it looks like it may just be a matter of getting his reps in as the season wears on. Given his abilities, he’s more than just a PJ Tucker Lite to replace the former Bucks top dog. It’s time everyone take notice.