High School Sports

High School Sports

A Devil, you say: Ottawa standout Semi Ojeleye says Duke best fit

Ottawa High School senior Semi Ojeleye has the possibility to break the Kansas high school state record for scoring in a career. The small forward has committed to play basketball for Duke University.

Ottawa High School senior Semi Ojeleye has the possibility to break the Kansas high school state record for scoring in a career. The small forward has committed to play basketball for Duke University.

January 11, 2013


Ottawa High School senior Semi Ojeleye has the possibility to break the Kansas high school state record for scoring in a career. The small forward has committed to play basketball for Duke University.

Ottawa High School senior Semi Ojeleye has the possibility to break the Kansas high school state record for scoring in a career. The small forward has committed to play basketball for Duke University.

— When he walks into a gymnasium, heads turn, eyes inevitably gravitating in his direction.

Quiet by nature and serious in his demeanor, it is nothing more than Semi Ojeleye’s physical presence that draws the gazes of onlookers when Ottawa High’s boys basketball team takes the court.

At 6-foot-7, 225 pounds, the mammoth senior forward is Thor with a hi-top fade. A teenage superhero in Nike Hyperdunks. And that’s before he even gets his colossal mitts on a basketball. When he does, good luck stopping him.

Ranked the class of 2013’s No. 33 recruit in the nation by Rivals.com, the Duke University signee has helped the Cyclones (9-0) destroy most of their competition this season, averaging 40.6 points and 7.3 rebounds in the process. Accustomed to elevating and shooting over defenders on the perimeter (43-for-97 from three-point range this year) and going into beast mode to overpower them in the paint (77-for-126 inside the arc), Ojeleye scored a career-high 58 points in December against Wray, Colo. His career scoring total at OHS stands at 2,176 points, and he’s on pace to break the Sunflower State’s record — 2,554, set by Brewster’s Josh Reid, class of 1996.

Ojeleye’s talent and the exposure that comes with signing to play at Duke have drawn national attention to Ottawa’s living legend. Staff from USA Today and Sports Illustrated, not to mention Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski, have flown halfway across the country to attend Cyclones practices this season. Amid all of this, somehow, the hoopla hasn’t gone to Ojeleye’s head.

“It’s humbling,” the soft-spoken superstar said. “I just want to help my teammates out and have a good year.”

Modest monster

Actually, humble is the word people around Ojeleye use most to describe him. Senior classmate Dallas Natt, Ottawa’s starting point guard, remembers when Ojeleye first began receiving letters of interest from the top basketball programs in the nation.

“He’d try to hide ’em,” Natt said. “He’s not the kind of guy who would be like, ‘Oh, look what I got!’ He’s the quiet guy, and that’s why we like him so much. He doesn’t showboat.”

The state’s best player doesn’t gloat on the court, either. Natt said Ojeleye simply plays the game. And dominates.

“Whenever he gets the ball on the block, it’s a hassle,” Natt said, adding that Ojeleye has an un-blockable three-point shot, too. “He’s too explosive, too fast. He has the guard talent, but the post body. It’s just insane.”

Ojeleye’s modest disposition impacts everything he does, according to Ottawa coach Jon McKowen. Sure, he has the skill set and physical ability to attract interest from national college powers such as Duke, Arizona, Indiana, Kansas, UCLA and others. McKowen sees much more in his elite senior.

“You top it all off with his work ethic,” the OHS coach said. “It’s unmatched. He works like he has absolutely no skill at all.”

One can usually find Ojeleye getting in an hour of aerobic work before school. He lifts weights after school at least three days a week. When Ottawa practice ends, he’ll goof around with other stragglers in the gym, then end his day with another full-blown, drenched-in-sweat individual basketball workout.

“It’s every day with him,” McKowen said of Ojeleye’s dedication. “You can see it when he plays and when he practices.”

It all has been a means to an end for Ojeleye. He said those long hours secured him a spot at Duke, currently undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the nation.

“That’s what you work for,” he said.

A Blue Devil in Kansas

Of course, as a Kansas resident, when Ojeleye gets approached by people who want to discuss his college choice, it’s rarely to ask him about playing with fellow incoming Duke freshman Jabari Parker, of Chicago, Rivals’ No. 2 recruit in the country. It’s more like: Why didn’t you pick Kansas or Kansas State?

“You have to live with your own decision at the end of the day,” Ojeleye said, adding he did what was best for him.

His older brother, Victor, walked on at K-State, and KU is the national powerhouse over which basketball fans in this part of the country fawn and fret. The state’s two Big 12 programs were on Ojeleye’s radar before last summer, when he pared down his list to Duke, Indiana, Stanford and UCLA.

Former KU assistant coach Danny Manning had been Ojeleye’s contact at KU. When Manning left to become Tulsa’s head coach this past spring, Ojeleye said his communication with Kansas tapered off. He said KU showed renewed interest in him later, in the summer, and wanted him to take an unofficial visit to Lawrence. But by then he already had an idea of the programs best suited for him, and Ojeleye let Kansas know it wasn’t on the short list.

Eventually, Krzyzewski and Duke beat out the rest of his suitors.

“I was thinking, ‘What team’s the best, and what coaching staff has my best interest in mind?’” Ojeleye said. “And I thought Coach K and his coaching staff really meshed with me. That’s what it came down to.”

It certainly didn’t hurt that Krzyzewski came to Ottawa for an in-home visit in September, to meet with the Ojeleye family.

“That sent me a message that I was important to them,” said Ojeleye, who committed to Duke during that meeting. “From there, just whenever we talked, we talked about me off the court as well as on the court.”

McKowen considers Duke the perfect fit for Ojeleye, a 4.0 student who wants a great college education.

“Duke might have been the only place he could’ve chose to go that nobody could complain about,” McKowen said. “If he would’ve went to KU or K-State, he would’ve made half the people mad and half the people happy.”

Returning to ‘game 26’

The four seasons Ojeleye has worn Ottawa red and white have been bliss for Cyclones fans. OHS has gone 77-10 since his arrival and advanced to the Class 4A state title game three straight years. Ottawa lost to Kansas City, Kan., Sumner Academy in 2010 (66-45) and 2011 (66-60) before Ojeleye’s junior season ended in 2012 with a 56-52 loss to Basehor-Linwood.

The program’s only state championship came in 1971, as a 3A school. On slow practice days, McKowen might dangle a 2013 title in front of the players as motivation. They need to prepare with speed and tempo then “for game 26,” he’ll remind them. But, in general, the top-ranked 4A team doesn’t have to talk about its chase for a title. As McKowen pointed out, Ojeleye isn’t the only OHS senior. Natt, Austin Blaue, Dillon Boeh, Taylor Graf, Alex Hasty, Jordan Markley, Wyatt Peters and Kaden Shaffer are experienced, too.

“All of them have been through it,” their coach said of the previous three seasons. “If they weren’t on the (varsity) team, they were in the program, so they’ve been through the emotional roller coaster, and every one of them was on the team last year.”

The group’s collective mettle even surprises McKowen at times. He wasn’t at all satisfied with how the Cyclones, who hadn’t played a game in more than two weeks, practiced the day before their January opener. But Ottawa beat Paola, 77-30, the following night behind Ojeleye’s 56 points.

So far this season, Ottawa has averaged 71.7 points a game, winning by an average margin of 32.1.

“I have to be everywhere,” he said of his approach. “That’s inside, outside. As the game starts to flow, if the guys are going, I just need to step up defensively. If they’re not, then I need to carry the scoring load that much more. I just kind of have to read the game and react to it.”

The Cyclones, who play host to Eudora tonight and will travel next week to the Basehor-Linwood Invitational, will spend January and February building toward a fourth straight state-tournament berth. If along the way Ojeleye seems detached or businesslike after throwing down an alley-oop as easily as most people tie their shoes, don’t think for a second he isn’t reveling in his team’s success.

“We want to enjoy the moment,” he said, “have some fun, and whatever happens, happens.”


Joghawk11 5 years, 4 months ago

I'm sure he just beasts all that small competition

Joghawk11 5 years, 4 months ago

And he should, he shows he's the best player every night scoring 40 points a game

Tim Quest 5 years, 4 months ago

Hardly the same comparison, but when I was choosing colleges I really wanted to get out of my hometown area/state and try somewhere new (so I ended up in Lawrence, 600 miles from home). As great as it would be to have him as a Jayhawk, I don't blame the young man for wanting to get out of his own backyard.

Besides, he's probably just following Prince Akeem to Duke.

jonas_opines 5 years, 4 months ago

If I lived in Kansas I'd want to move to North Carolina too!

That's why I did! hahahaha.

65 degrees and sunny here.

Have still watched every minute of every game this year, though. RCJH

rtwngr 5 years, 4 months ago

I would be willing to bet that he wanted to get the heck out of Dodge. Lawrence was probably just too close to Ottawa for him. Congratulations on getting an offer to one of the top 5 programs in the country. Coach K is first rate from everything I've heard and read. You deserve your success. Enjoy.

Leo Hawkins 5 years, 4 months ago

Duke is a great decision. My brother played football there in the 90's. As a KU alumnus, I would have to say that Duke has much more to offer a student than KU. It is a tremendous academic school with great resources -- one of the most prestigious universities in the country. For a kid from Ottawa, KS to have the opportunity to go there, and to play basketball too, is an absolute no-brainer decision. Good luck Semi!

Matthew Herbert 5 years, 4 months ago

you must know more about recruiting top notch players than Coach Self. Please, tell us more.

Matthew Herbert 5 years, 4 months ago

From 1980 - 2010, Duke won 77.1% of their games, compared to KU's 77.4%

"kinda smokes" might be an exaggeration. 19 conference titles in that 30 year period can't be overlooked.

Side note, Neil Paine wrote an article for sports-reference.com analyzing the top 5 college basketball programs of the last 30 years. In it, KU and Duke are of course mentioned, but he mentions Illinois as #5. When you've driven the bus for 40% of the top 5 list no one "smokes" you. Ever.

Armen Kurdian 5 years, 4 months ago

What strikes me is that this guy may have a really interesting back story. Was he even born in the U.S.? Would be curious to know if he immigrated here from out of the country. Stories like that are vital to our nation's youth. Or maybe he comes from a family of millionaires. Either way, would have liked to have known a little bit more about his history.

Chuck Woodling 5 years, 4 months ago

The family is from Nigeria, as noted in a more comprehensive story in the KC Star on Dec. 14.

the_realest_mccoy 5 years, 4 months ago

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garyr 5 years, 4 months ago

McCoy, I agree. If he was coming to KU, I would want to hear about it, and it would be news worthy. But, since he's going to play for Coach Kchalkdsfjdski, I could care less. Good riddance!!! Don't let the Jayhawk tail hit you on the way out!! Rock Chalk!!!

Hammertoe 5 years, 4 months ago

The kid is a great student. Who wouldn't choose Duke over KU? Duke is a top 10 University. The value of a Duke Education is $43,000 per year in-state or out of state tuition. KU $9600. A degree from Duke will open many more doors than a degree from a state school in Kansas.

the_realest_mccoy 5 years, 4 months ago

This comment was removed by the site staff for violation of the usage agreement.

garyr 5 years, 4 months ago

6'7", and 225lbs. Going to be a Point Guard. And, if he has no experience being a PG, he going to have some troubles. Not to sure he's actually going to be "playing" for Duke and Coach Kchkjdfsdfkski.

Michael Bennett 5 years, 4 months ago

He's as big as KU's power forwards (Ellis, Traylor, and bigger than Young). You really have no idea what you're talking about

greenworld 5 years, 4 months ago

His brother went to Kstate a few years ago but didnt play a whole lot. Being he is going to duke I must think he is way better than his brother was. Its not that uncommon for brothers not to attend and play at the same school. That only happens at Kstate...ha As we see the Releford brothers are playing at different schools. If he averages 50 some points a game that is great but what can he do for the team is the real question. I heard from somebody that one of his 50 point games his team only scored 67 points total so that means the team only netted 17. Thats not going to go very far if you find somebody to guard him or put two players around him. I dont want to burst his bubble but Sherron Collins from Chicago in high school had tons of 40 point games and came to Ku and didnt have one. Also current player Perry Ellis took his team in high school to the state game in Wichita and won it but so far is struggling trying to figure out how to play D1 ball. All I got to say watch out if you go to Duke as if unless your a superstar you may not see the court and since Ku isnt a real b-ball school-(really) hope we dont play you guys in the tournament cuz you may regret your decicion on where the real players go play b-ball as in Ks. ROCK CHALK JAYHAWK!!!!!!

Hammertoe 5 years, 4 months ago

Maybe he has some brains and wants to get a real education and play basketball at the highest level. There is no comparison between a degree from a state school in kansas vs Duke. Get real. Great decision for a 4.0 student!

BadLlama 5 years, 4 months ago

I'm an Ottawa resident, a KU alum and a huge basketball fan, but that doesn't stop me from being happy for this young man. He's earned a great opportunity to attend Duke! You can't fault the kid for choosing Duke--it's an elite program and the academics are awesome. KU wasn't right for him, end of story. Don't rag on the kid because he didn't want to play here, he had to choose the place that was the best fit, and that happened to be somewhere other KU. I'm glad LJW did a story on Semi, he's a local kid with a bright future ahead of him. Best of luck!

riverdrifter 5 years, 4 months ago

Well said. Things just don't always work out like we'd like them to. Move on.

Robert Rauktis 5 years, 4 months ago

The best part is the sour "fans", most of whom never went to KU, are the most indignant that a kid might chose a alternative basketball school based on academics.

Or maybe to get away from them.

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