Sports

Victor Oladipo is About to be Thrown into the Fire

Now on his third team in five years, the former second-overall pick provides more questions than answers as he tries to become the new face of the Indiana Pacers.
Photo by Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Victor Oladipo's career is in a precarious place.

The 25-year-old is now a member of the Indiana Pacers, his third team since being selected with the second overall pick in the 2013 NBA draft. Oladipo isn't Derrick Williams or Hasheem Thabeet, two others picked in that slot who never sniffed their potential, but he also hasn't displayed All-Star-calibler production, or even carved out a clear, constructive role on a good team.

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Still, Oladipo shouldn't be judged for his contract—a weighty four-year, $84 million deal—or Indiana's unfashionable faith in his pedigree. Instead, context matters. Oladipo should be viewed as an intriguing, growing competitor who—despite stagnant overall numbers—has displayed enough optimistic flashes to suggest that the second half of his career, in a relatively stable environment, will be better than the first.

"I think more than anything, we want him to come in and get comfortable with our system," Pacers assistant coach Popeye Jones told VICE Sports. "Because we understand that he's been in a lot of systems already, and he's still young, and had a lot of different coaches."

Oladipo had four head coaches in four years (Jacque Vaughn, James Borrego, Scott Skiles, and Billy Donovan), in atmospheres that ranged from cataclysmic to a carnival ride.

He didn't appear in the playoffs until last season, and it didn't go well. Oladipo attempted six free throws in 181 minutes, and never topped 15 points in any of the Oklahoma City Thunder's five games. But being pigeonholed as Russell Westbrook's Robin is a tricky environment for anybody to navigate through. The reigning scoring champ and MVP had the highest usage percentage in NBA history and was a black hole with unprecedented leverage who took every shot, grabbed every rebound, and made every decision.

All was not terrible, though. Oladipo's three-point percentage increased for the fourth straight season (up to a tolerable 36.1) and he averaged 16.8 points with the highest True Shooting percentage of his career before a sprained right wrist took him out of the lineup for a few weeks in December.

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But instead of thriving as the lead ball-handler when Westbrook wasn't on the court, Oladipo struggled to balance his playmaking and scoring responsibilities. His assist-to-turnover ratio and effective field goal percentage both fell when he was by himself, and Oklahoma City's offensive rating went from an above-average 107.0 points per 100 possessions to a tragic 96.2.

Life with Westbrook was a funhouse mirror. For everyone else wearing a Thunder jersey, the opportunity to play meaningful minutes with the ball in their hands were few and far between, and "letting Westbrook be great" felt more like the ultimate objective than "winning games."

Oladipo spent 61 minutes without another point guard on the court all year long, according to NBA Wowy, and his touches, time of possession, and average dribbles and seconds per touch sunk to lower depths than he'd previously ever experienced.

"[Victor] was on the wing and more of a supporting role, more playing off the ball," Jones said. "What we want to do is put him in pick-and-rolls and put the ball in his hands."

Oladipo now has the keys to drive a franchise that just swapped him for Paul George, arguably the greatest player they've ever had. It's likely his best chance to soar as a high-volume option and most advantageous opportunity to prove he can be more than an all-around average player.

But before we look ahead, evaluating Oladipo's first stop is a must. The Orlando Magic never won more than 35 games in his three years with the team. They bungled draft picks and failed to make life easy for one of their tentpole prospects. Oladipo had a new coach every year and was asked to assume several different roles at a couple different positions.

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His rookie season was, to be polite, a discouraging mess. Oladipo was deployed as a two guard in lineups that provided absolutely no space. We're talking Glen Davis, Jason Maxiel, Kyle O'Quinn, Andrew Nicholson, and Nikola Vucevic's non-existent gravity in the frontcourt, with Arron Afflalo, Tobias Harris, and Mo Harkless floundering on the wing.

Oladipo's assist rate doubled when he didn't share the floor with Jameer Nelson, but pick-and-rolls (of which Oladipo constantly ran) were executed in tar, creating a frustrating collection of pull-up jumpers—freebies the defense was willing to concede against the rookie.

Channing Frye alleviated some pressure in Oladipo's second season, but Elfrid Payton's inability to shoot didn't make life easier for anyone. Once Aaron Gordon came aboard, the Magic played Harris at the four in more modern lineups that allowed its backcourt to breath a little bit.

Then Frye and Harris were both dealt the following year and Orlando continued to experiment with smaller lineups, but that isn't always a good thing. The likes of Evan Fournier, Brandon Jennings, and Payton needed the ball in their hands, while Gordon still couldn't shoot. Orlando's defense imploded on a nightly basis, and Oladipo wasn't in a situation capable of fostering his development.

Life in Indiana will be a little different. For better or worse, Oladipo will be thrown into the fire as a primary option, surrounded by pieces who should better complement his game. If his numbers don't improve, there won't be any more excuses. There's no reason why he can't solidify himself as one of the top defenders at his position, and an MVP showing at the NBA's Africa Game last month could serve as the confidence boost he desperately needs.

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For next year, Pacers center Myles Turner sits atop the list of reasons why Oladipo could flourish.

"We think it'll be a great pairing," Jones said. "What do you do? Do you switch the pick-and-roll? Do you rotate to those guys to open up other shooters? So with Victor with that ball and Myles setting screens, again, popping and rolling, we feel that that's going to be a lethal combination for us."

Turner made 38 out of 100 above-the-break threes as a 20-year-old last season, and according to Synergy Sports only Karl-Anthony Towns, Dirk Nowitzki, and Marc Gasol were more efficient pick-and-pop scorers (minimum 150 possessions). On paper, he should be able to provide enough space for most guards to get a step on their man, but whether Oladipo can finish at the rim in such situations is another question.

Elsewhere, Bojan Bogdanovic made 39 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes last season while Darren Collison, for all his faults, might be one of the most underrated outside threats in the league. Thaddeus Young isn't exactly a stretch four, but did convert 38.1 percent of his 118 threes last year, while Glenn Robinson III showed he can be a knockdown shooter.

There will be situations where Oladipo is off the ball—particularly when Lance Stephenson decides to hold the game hostage or Cory Joseph is out there running the show—but his overall situation is night and day from where it was in Oklahoma City. His teammates have more experience, intelligence, and skill than they did in Orlando, too.

The Pacers won't be good, but in a tattered conference that's set up to enable mediocrity, a playoff spot isn't out of the question. And if the Pacers do in fact make it, Oladipo finally breaking out and having the best year of his career will be the biggest reason why.