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The List: What we can learn from Victor Oladipo’s emergence

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The rise of the Indiana Pacers’ breakout star reveals lessons about NBA success — and patience.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Indiana Pacers Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Victor Oladipo is averaging 24.5 points with career highs in rebounds and steals while shooting better than 44 percent from behind the arc. Calling this is a career season implies that these levels of production were thought to be remotely plausible for the fifth-year pro. This isn’t a career year, it’s a career redefinition.

With Oladipo playing like an All-Star, the Pacers have put themselves in prime contention for a playoff spot. Neither of those things seemed possible when the season began, but here we are.

While we rightfully praise Oladipo during his breakthrough campaign, we should reexamine the circumstances that makes this feel like such a surprise. We might just learn a few things.

Players develop at their own pace: Through the first four years of his career, Oladipo’s career arc wavered between mildly disappointing and reasonably decent. There were enough offensive tools mixed with superior defensive potential to assure us that Dipo would be a player in this league. But what kind of player?

From the beginning, finding his role proved elusive. He wasn’t a point guard. For a time he was a sixth-man, but that didn’t really stick. After three uneven years in Orlando, he spent an unsatisfying season in Oklahoma City playing next to, and in the shadow of, Russell Westbrook. (More on that below.)

Four years into his career, Oladipo seemed a lot like the player he was when he came out of college. There would be flashes of brilliance, but consistency was always just out of reach.

We are conditioned to consider the third-year leap as a predictive benchmark of NBA success. When we don’t get it on schedule, we tend to write players off early. Perhaps we should reconsider that stance.

DeMar DeRozan didn’t become an All-Star until year five. Bradley Beal also experienced his breakthrough season in his fifth year. Yet, both DeRozan and Beal became the best versions of themselves while playing for the team that drafted and invested the most time in their careers.

Oladipo didn’t have that luxury. His rise may be singular in the respect that he’s playing for his third franchise in five years, but it’s in line with their respective timelines.

Context matters: Oladipo was the second overall pick in a weak draft where the real talents — Giannis Antetokounmpo and Rudy Gobert — were found lurking in the latter portions of the first round.

The selection was entirely defensible. Given his defensive ability and offensive potential, Oladipo figured to have a long career from the moment he was selected. In a draft of unsure things, he was pretty much guaranteed to be a solid player. Still, solid is not what you want from the second pick and expectations jumped ahead of his development curve.

2013 NBA Draft

As a rookie, Oladipo was handed an enormous amount of offensive responsibility on a bad Orlando Magic team. He spent more than half his minutes at the point, which proved conclusively that he wasn’t a point guard. The experiment itself was fine. Rebuilding teams need to find out what they have with their young players, and force-feeding minutes in uncomfortable situations is part of the learning process.

The problem for Oladipo was that he didn’t really fit the mold of the modern off-guard, either. His long-range shooting was simply too inconsistent to space the floor properly. It didn’t help that the Magic had an even bigger issue at point guard where Elfrid Payton struggled with his shooting. Oladipo was a slasher without a lot of room to maneuver, and that role was becoming an anachronism.

After three years of minimal progress with the Magic, Oladipo began to fall out of favor amid a constantly changing young core. He was traded to Oklahoma City for Serge Ibaka as Orlando made a desperate, and shortsighted, gambit to contend.

The fit in OKC wasn’t ideal either. Oladipo seemed redundant playing next to Westbrook, and his production continued to stagnate. After he was traded to the Pacers, his third team in as many seasons, Oladipo was drifting toward journeyman status.

In Indy, the environment is entirely different. The Pacers’ up-tempo attack plays to his strengths. Veteran point guards Darren Collison and Cory Joseph are both ball-movers, and even Lance Stephenson is a passer at heart. There’s ample shooting around him to space the floor, and Oladipo is the clear-cut No. 1 option. If ever there was a situation for him to succeed, it’s this one.

This isn’t really about Russ: Much is being made of Oladipo’s success in light of the Thunder’s troubles and in particular that of his old backcourt mate Russell Westbrook. While Dipo’s star rises for the surprising Pacers, Westbrook’s dims for the disappointing Thunder.

This development has rekindled the backlash to Russ’ all-consuming game. That dynamic was mostly muted during Westbrook’s MVP tour-de-force. Indeed, much of the narrative that surrounded Westbrook’s candidacy was that he had so little offensive support to lessen his burden.

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Oklahoma City Thunder Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

If this level of play was always within Oladipo’s grasp, why couldn’t Westbrook bring it out of him? Perhaps because they were essentially the same player. With Westbrook dominating the ball and posting absurd numbers every night, there was little opportunity for Oladipo to do his thing.

That’s not to absolve Westbrook of criticism. It’s certainly a fair question to ask of Russ given his circumstances today. Paul George should be a much better fit as a co-star. Even Carmelo Anthony should be able to prosper playing off the ball given the attention that Westbrook commands.

If the Thunder continue to struggle then Westbrook will suffer the brunt of the blame. That Oladipo is thriving says more about his opportunity with the Pacers than it does Westbrook and OKC. There is, after all, only one ball.

We really don’t know how trades will work out: When the Pacers traded Paul George for Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, I was among the incredulous masses. Really, that’s it? In retrospect, it doesn’t look quite so lopsided and not just because Oladipo is thriving.

Trade value isn’t a fixed rate. It fluctuates with every offseason, and we’re often late to appreciate the market corrections that vary each summer.

The Bulls, who were also savaged for their dealmaking, got two young players for Jimmy Butler and moved up in the draft to take Lauri Markkanen. The Cavs got a statistically equivalent, albeit injured, star in Isaiah Thomas for Kyrie Irving, as well as a veteran starter in Jae Crowder and a prized draft asset.

Two players seems to have been the going rate for disgruntled superstars, and the lack of a draft asset had more to do with uncertainty over PG’s future. Both Butler and Irving had additional years on their contract and were not considered flight risks like George.

Some of the criticism for the deal centered around the fact that Oladipo was a former college star in Bloomington. It just seemed so incredibly Pacers to bring in a former Hoosier hero. Well, yeah. It still does.

Maybe going home really was the thing to jump-start Oladipo’s career. Or, maybe everything kicked into gear at just the right moment, and sometimes we’re rewarded with stories that seem like they’re too good to be true.

About that last part ...

Oladipo works his ass off: All players work on their games. We’ve heard that said many times, and over the years I’ve found it to be mostly true. It’s tough to be lazy and survive for very long in the NBA. But some players work harder than others. For whatever reason, they’re more focused in their workouts and more driven in developing good habits.

Dipo has always had a rep as a hard worker. Seth Cooper, who worked with him in college, told me several years ago that Oladipo stayed on campus during breaks and developed a consistent routine that was rare for a young player. It’s also worth remembering just how far Oladipo had to progress from an undersized high school four to a dominant college wing. His whole career has been one long development project.

Oladipo’s approach stayed constant in the pros, even when he was struggling to find consistency with his shot. His former coach, and noted hard-ass, Scott Skiles was impressed, telling reporters, “He really, really works hard at it and when somebody works like that, eventually it’s going to pay off.”

NBA Global Games Rio 2015 - Practice Day Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images

His current coach, Nate McMillan, has said that Oladipo is a film maven, constantly going over clips. This past summer Oladipo got serious about his diet, shedding weight and packing on lean muscle. All that hard work is finally paying off and now Oladipo will face his most arduous challenge: maintaining a level of consistency that has eluded him throughout his career.

None of this was expected. It wasn’t even close to predictable. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t there just waiting to be unleashed.


Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis are fueling Indiana's rise