Duke signee Semi Ojeleye—the No. 36 overall player in the class, according to ESPN—is nearing the end of his senior season. Recently having broken the all-time career scoring record in Kansas, the 6-foot-6 wing is averaging more than 40 points per game. His team, Ottawa High School (Ottawa, Kan.), is undefeated and the No. 1 ranked team in the 4A classification. With the state playoffs now underway, Ottawa head coach John McKowen spoke with The Chronicle’s Brady Buck about Ojeleye.
The Chronicle: Coach, first off, I want to start with the all-time Kansas-career scoring record that Ojeleye broke last week. What does the record mean to Ojeleye, and what does it say about it him as a player?
John McKowen: It says he has a tireless work ethic. It’s an amazing feat. You’ve got to come in as a freshman and be pretty productive. He scored about 13 points per game as a freshman. He was in the low-20s [points per game] as sophomore and the low-30s as junior and then this year he’s in the low-40s. You can just tell how much better he has gotten as a basketball player, and physically his body has gotten so much better too. He’s a well-rounded basketball player. What it says about the team is that he has great teammates. For four years, his teammates have been very unselfish and always found him on the floor—just the flat-out consistency to score that many points is amazing.
TC: What was Ojeleye’s reaction after he broke the all-time Kansas career scoring record?
JM: It was a relief because so many people were talking about the record. He didn’t want to make it bigger than the team, but people outside of the team were obviously making it much bigger than the team, as a 13-year old record. And everybody wanted to talk to him about it, and he didn’t want to talk to anybody about it. He was just happy to get it over with more than anything, so he can focus on winning a state championship.
TC: How has Ojeleye performed relative to your expectations of him coming into the year?
JM: Above and beyond. It goes a lot deeper than the scoring. Leading our team in rebounding from the guard position is not easy to do. He’s been up around four-five assists per game. Recently, his assists have went way up, and that’s due to other team’s not wanting him to get the scoring record against them. Two games in a row he has faced triangle-and-two [defenses] with two people guarding him. He was in the 20s for a couple games, and he was okay with it. He was at 14-15 shots per game and that was down from about 25 shots per game because that’s what they were giving our team. And he understands that the most important thing is for the team to win…He’s just an amazing teammate and leader. The stats happen because of his work ethic and athletic ability, but that’s just something that happens. It’s win first all the time with him.
TC: I imagine that as a Duke signee—a rarity in the Sunflower state—Ojeleye is treated like a rock star in a smaller Kansas town. Can you talk about all of the hype that has followed Ojeleye and the team this season?
JM: You know it really started after he committed to Duke, such a high-profile program. Last year, he would get two, three, or four kids after games wanting to talk to him and get autographs. Now, it’s 20, 30, 40 or 50 people waiting for him at the locker room. We can’t take him into Subway without people stopping him and wanting to talk to him. But you know a 6-foot-8 kid walking around with high school kids kind of stands out, and people figure out who he is pretty fast. He handles it great. He understands it’s a podium for him to reach numerous people and share his morals and his values. Even if, of the hundreds of kids that talk to him, he can help just one kid pursue his dream, it’s well worth every one. He handles it well—not just the autographs, it’s sitting down looking to them eye-to-eye, smiling in the pictures, talking to every single one of them. For the Midwest, it’s just amazing how many Duke T-shirts come out of the crowd both home and away. There’s a lot of closet-Duke fans around here, and they are definitely out in full-force right now to watch him.
TC: Despite the remarkable season, Ojeleye did not get invited to play in the McDonald’s All-American game or the Jordan Brand Classic. What’s your reaction to that and what’s Ojeleye’s reaction to that?
JM: I’m disappointed in it. I feel like he’s one of the best players in the nation and he deserves to be there. [Ojeleye] did not talk about being disappointed. He said it’s a fuel to make him better. It’s just another thing that people are questioning that he can’t do. For those days that he thinks about not going to the gym, it gets him there longer. Everything that faces him, all the adversity, makes him better. He never feels sorry for himself. He understands that he’s blessed to do the things he can do. In the long run, it does not matter what all-star games you play in. And after high school, he gets to go play for Coach K and Duke, so that’s truly what matters to him.
TC: Looking to next year, it will be quite a transition from Ottawa to Durham. He’ll be going against high-caliber wing players like Rodney Hood, Jabari Parker and Alex Murphy everyday. How do you think Ojeleye is going to handle the jump in competition?
JM: First of all, he plays against kids like that every single day in the summer. So, it’s not like 20 years ago when you just showed up from small town, Kansas and you’ve never seen anyone over 6-foot-4 guarding you. He has seen [quality competition] in the summer, and he put up great numbers. On the other hand, he won’t have two-three people guarding him, and he won’t be everyone’s game plan. That’s the reason he chose Duke, though. He wanted the competition. He wanted to get the most out of his body. He could have went to another school and been the man like he is in high school, but he chose Duke to go against great competition in practice every day. And that’s going to make him a better player.