With hindsight at our disposal, it was almost too easy to predict the All-Star ascension of Victor Oladipo this past season—the eye test always came back with a green check mark after watching a tape or two of his. What was improbable, however, was the removal of his shackles, and how two (potentially) demoralizing trades turned out to be a godsend for his career. Who knew how quickly he’d hold the reins of his own team after starting his career on a Magic team with an abundance of young players, or one day being able to sample the nectarous usage rates of Russell Westbrook as he played alongside him on the Thunder. Much like other shooting guards in the league (specifically, Donovan Mitchell’s freedom in Utah, and James Harden leaving the uber-Ginobili role in Oklahoma City to become a number one option in Houston), for that position more than any, fit, freedom, and usage play a critical part in raising their respective NBA ceilings.
Now at 26 years old and entering his prime in the maize fields of Indiana, a place where he stomped around with pride during his college days, Oladipo is finally set up for success—but it wasn’t always like that.
As Oladipo prepared for the pro leap after a blazing junior year at Indiana, the internet became littered with good press involving his name—short anecdotes from former coach Tom Crean, or personal interviews given to the media about his worn out IU gym cards, shooting until the wee hours of the morning where the only comfort was his own shadow and the echo of a bouncing ball. The DeMatha product entered the 2013 NBA Draft with a distinct buzz and a skyrocketing stock in a (presumed) weak draft class. (Funnily enough, that class ended up producing Giannis, Gobert, Oladipo, McCollum, Porter, and Adams.).
The Magic cashed in on that buzz with the second pick, and he landed in Orlando with guns blazing, exuding an aura of bravado and confidence which was much needed for a low-profile, star-barren franchise. Little did he know that in time, that roster would harbor eight other youngsters—Tobias Harris, Mo Harkless, Elfrid Payton, Aaron Gordon, Nik Vucevic, Evan Fournier, Kyle O’Quinn, and Andrew Nicholson, all who were vying for minutes and trust from the coaches. As far as NBA camaraderie goes, that entire team was an extremely tight knit group. But when there’s a public tryout for the captaincy, with all of them not quite yet knowing how to steer the ship away from the ever-looming iceberg, things get a little tricky. On the Woj podcast, Oladipo had this to say about the difficulties of too many young players needing minutes at the same time: “It was almost like we were in battle against each other when we played instead of trying to work together to try to get a win. It was tough.”
And to be fair, Oladipo won his fair share of small battles during his time with Orlando, but those battles weren’t big enough to anoint him as the future star of the team just yet. As the de facto leader of one of the youngest rebuilding teams in the league, the slog to get out of the Southeast doldrums began to weigh on Oladipo after a few years, as it would any player, with the winning and losing varying as much as his play did. For as much good as he did on the court, the hustling, the defense, the unrelenting driving and scoring outbursts he would often have, he also had a streaky outside shot, iffy decision making, and a one-speed, roadrunner like pace that made him a predictable cover, especially during crunch-time moments. Sometimes he was like a tuna, other times he would transform into a giant great white shark devouring the bait off of the string, hook and all—a fitting magical transformation.
A quick snapshot of Oladipo during his Orlando career would provide you with a picture of a player best described as having the posture of a Leandro Barbosa, the size and body-type of a Dwyane Wade, and the quickness of a John Wall. Oladipo flashed his All-Star potential sparingly, but enough so that you never lost hope for long. A 30/14/9 game at the Garden (in overtime), a 45-point game against Cleveland, you knew he had the juice—you didn’t know if he would ever be put in a position to squeeze the orange for a full glass.
To make matters more complicated, a stew of coaches were taste-tested and spit out before his eyes. Jacque Vaughn, Scott Skiles, James Borrego—even Frank Vogel who gushed about the prospect of being able to coach Oladipo before losing him a month later in a trade for Serge Ibaka, would lose his own spot in due time.
With that trade, Orlando lost its lightning.
Oladipo on the other hand gained his Thunder. Russell Westbrook immediately provided an up close and personal look at the day-to-day dealings of what sort of upkeep it took to make it, and continue as a star in the league. Oladipo played a quasi-Robin role to Russell’s Batman (whom he called an “amazing” teammate and credits him with his new obsession for winning) during his single season in OKC, and learned first hand what it was like to carry the burden and responsibility of being the number one option. And before he even had a chance to digest those lessons, he was traded. Again. This this time to a familiar landing spot in Indiana, where he was forced to instantly apply those important teachings he learned while playing for the Thunder. Not before getting his body right, however. Oladipo admittedly slacked a bit on his oil changes in Orlando, stepped it up a smidge in OKC, and knocked it out of the park during the offseason before his Pacers debut. He looked leaner, healthier, and more athletic than ever as he donned the navy blue and gold for the first time.
The Pacers deserve massive credit for exacting a move (and holding steadfast in their belief of the quality of their return) that was initially denounced in the media as an underwhelming haul on paper. But as we all know, in the NBA, paper is for tigers and printers. The duo that the Pacers received for PG-13 has been one of the better star-for-package deals in the last decade, and keep in mind, this is only after one year of results from Oladipo and Sabonis. Eghck.
If we’re to pump the breaks just a little bit on Oladipo’s future, there are a few hitches and kinks in his game that prevent him from becoming a “natural” scorer, which is perfectly fine—he’s busy getting his hands dirty in other areas of the game too. And even with those hitches, comparing his previous season’s stats, and especially his playoff and advanced stats, it shows him outperforming last year’s incarnation of himself, and his former master Russell Westbrook in the playoffs while enjoying a 12 PPG increase, despite only playing one more minute per game. It’s always a bit enlightening what self-improvement and a new role could open up for players.
At the end of the day (an oft-used Oladipoism), Kevin Pritchard and company did their homework. After finding out that their perennial star wanted to leave their franchise, they honed in on a young, hungry, local kid itching for a premier role, and at first sight of excelling in that role, gave him the keys to the offense. Not every team has the nerve to make it that simple for a player. Of course, not every player is up to the task either, and some will fail wildly in the process. It takes a bit of luck. And for many younger players that have been bounced around and traded because of their perceived stagnation or a lack of belief in their upside, Oladipo serves as a modern day example of staying the course and improving day by day, even if it’s barely noticeable baby steps to the general public.
That Pacers trust ultimately culminated in his hype finally being realized during his inaugural season with them, and the scary thing is, this might just be the beginning of his terror. NBA trainer David Alexander speculated that Oladipo is going to look eerily like a mini LeBron next season with further advancements in his explosiveness. We can hold our horses on that one, but it’ll be fun to speculate what sort of strides he could make this upcoming season after we witnessed his MIP campaign and the feathery carcasses he left behind in his wake.