It’s not inexplicable. Everything is the result of process and circumstance. Victor Oladipo was, not so long ago the number two overall pick the draft, so the talent—the overwhelming breadth of it, finally fully splayed last season—has always been there. He got in spectacular shape. He polished his jumper. He got to run his own team (unlike during his year with the Thunder), and that team (unlike the Magic) wasn’t half-bad. If you were there in the gym with him last summer, and you watched every Pacers game, you could probably chart his sudden rise in a way that demystifies it, or at least renders it sufficiently legible to boil down into the copy of a Jordan commercial. There’s arithmetic to this, surely: work put it in and improvement realized, a system in Indiana that suits him well, perhaps some turning point in his understanding of the NBA game. “He absorbs everything that you tell him. I’ve had more film sessions with him than I’ve had really with any player,” Nate McMillan says. That too, has to be part of it.
But this detective work is boring and sort of beside the point, like those scientific studies that pour months of research into figuring out why people like certain kinds of music. And nobody ever arrives at solid conclusions anyway. Google “how Victor Oladipo” and you’ll find a bunch of pieces with generic, SEO-optimized headlines that try to get to the bottom of things—occasionally with some pretty good reporting—and inevitably can’t because unless Oladipo started doping after the Paul George trade, there’s not any one thing you can point to and say that’s what’s done it.
My theory: he transformed himself through sheer ebullience. A player as beamingly lively as he is has to deliver eventually. Of course that’s wrong. It’s still a nice thing to think about. And it seems plausible, when you’re caught up in the swirl of a great Oladipo performance. Maybe this has been true all along, and it’s only now apparent because his statlines match his aesthetics, but he has a beautiful game. On his step-back dribble, the springiness of his gait mirrors the energy of the bouncing ball, so that when he gathers and fires, it’s like two immensely elastic bodies becoming one. He’s the hardest-dunking guard in the league, and apt to pull out a windmill or 360 slam on a breakaway for the hell of it. He’s strong and can bounce off bigger players in the paint, but he’s also somehow able to do that rat-through-a-tiny-crack maneuver that’s typically employed by slighter players.
If Oladipo’s arrival at this vertiginous new level isn’t miraculous, then this marriage of style and success is. The players we talk about most are the ones who get things done—score efficiently, dominate the boards, play smothering defense—because, obviously, they make the biggest contributions towards winning. But the peculiar way they do these things goes underdiscussed. There are Steph Curry’s marvelous long-range shooting numbers, and then there are the mechanics of his jump shot itself: this quick, casual flicking motion. It’s like he’s not even taking the time to have the beginning of a thought, like he’s grabbing keys off the kitchen counter. And he uses it to toss the ball through the hoop from 27 feet away. It’s absurd, and it is, more than anything else, his special thing. It expresses some elemental aspect of his playerhood.
You can’t really own stats. Records are breakable, achievements eclipsable. But style is timeless and unique. Somebody might come along one day and equal or better Steph’s percentages. Nobody will ever perfectly emulate that jumper.
The same principle applies to players who aren’t all-time greats. Monta Ellis’s slashing menace comes to mind, as does Jason Williams’s showy playmaking. But it means something extra when one of the very best players in the league has panache, because they’re doing something extra on top of dominating the game. They’ve got the requisite skill not just to do things well but to do them handsomely. LeBron James ending an era of the Toronto Raptors with a series of increasingly preposterous fadeaways. Larry Bird messing around and scoring 47 points left-handed. There’s a level higher than winning.
And Oladipo has the tools and the temperament to find it. He likes to hunt for improbable long-range shots at the end of games. He did so against the Bulls, Spurs, and Cavs last year: stupid-difficult, victory-sealing threes. Oladipo’s massive improvement is the primary thing about him that’s exciting, but once you get past that, it’s the overconfidence he frequently justifies, the luxurious energy of his game, that makes him stand out on top of standing out. We call every really good player a star, and that’s maybe being a little bit loose with the term. Victor Oladipo is a star because he’s inordinately effective—a terrifyingly athletic two-way dynamo who plays above the rim and beyond the arc—but also because you can just watch him play for a few minutes and understand that he’s different. A star is defined its radiance, and Oladipo is as bright as they come.
More 2018 Futures: Kevin Love, Manu Ginobili, Marcus Smart, John Wall, Devin Booker, Paul George, Blake Griffin, Trae Young, Kenneth Faried, Joakim Noah, Mike Conley, Ben McLemore, Kawhi Leonard, Aaron Gordon, Danilo Gallinari, Wayne Ellington, Frank Kaminsky, Donovan Mitchell, Chris Paul, Jrue Holiday, Paul Millsap, Kris Dunn, Jimmy Butler, Joel Embiid, Victor Oladipo, Kevin Durant, C.J. McCollum, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic