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Victor Oladipo: Indiana’s Hidden Gem

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When the Indiana Pacers traded Paul George to the Thunder this past offseason, the initial reaction for most of us was to scratch our heads. Is this the best deal Pacers’ GM Kevin Pritchard could get? How is that possible? A Celtics’ package including one of the Nets’ future picks would have surely been better than this, right?

In return for their superstar, the Pacers got Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. Despite averaging over 15 points per game and increasing his field goal percentage each of the past three seasons, somehow Oladipo had come to be viewed as a “bust” in the league. And thus, the opinion that this trade had been a blunder for Indiana. When, in reality, the Pacers’ made a damn good trade – and people are starting to see that.

 

Oladipo Struggled in Oklahoma City, but with a Silver Lining

When the Thunder acquired Oladipo, he was meant to be an athletic tandem guard with Westbrook and the third option behind both Russ and KD. Obviously, Durant didn’t stick around long enough to allow this plan to come to fruition. And Oladipo was instead thrust into the role of Russ’s sidekick. At just 24 years old, and coming off a season where he had averaged 16 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 3.9 assists per game in Orlando, many were expecting a breakout season from Oladipo in Oklahoma City.

In reality, nobody other than Westbrook had a breakout season last year in OKC; besides maaaybe Steven Adams. This was by design. The Thunder gave virtually all playmaking duties to Russ, in addition to going out of their way to allow him to score at will and grab every rebound possible. And given what Russ did with this opportunity, who could blame them? The result was a historic season, and a well-warranted MVP.

In this power dynamic, Oladipo’s stats dipped in most areas. He saw only a modest increase in field goal percentage – from 43.8 to 44.2. The most notable improvement he made in OKC was as a 3-pt shooter. His previous year in Orlando, Oladipo attempted 3.9 three pointers per game and converted at 34.8%. Last season, this rose to 5.3 attempts per game at 36.1%. This may seem mild, but it accounts for about 1.5 points per game added to his scoring average – just from beyond the arc.

Many of Oladipo’s 3’s came off open looks generated simply by the sheer gravity Westbrook commanded, as seen here:

In OKC, Oladipo appeared in the Thunder’s top six 5-man lineups in minutes played, and was also a part of their best lineup by net rating. Sure Westbrook garners the most credit for these lineups being successful, but the fact that Billy Donovan had that much trust in Vic is worth noting, as well. He didn’t break out last season, as many had hoped, but the table was still set for him to be able to take that leap; and Indiana was smart to bet on him.

 

Back to his Roots in Indiana

Since the trade, Oladipo has been approaching the game with a renewed motivation. Being back in the state where he played his college ball has a lot to do with that. When he was introduced as a Pacer, he had this to say, “I feel like I have an opportunity to do a little more than I have in my first four years. There’s nothing like playing for your hometown team. I’m looking forward to it.” Needless to say, he has made the most of this opportunity, so far.

As a Hoosier, Oladipo played some of his best basketball.  He was an All-American at Indiana University, alongside fellow lottery-pick Cody Zeller.  The Pacers’ have a history of bringing in players native to or who had collegiate success in the state of Indiana and revitalizing their careers, most recently with George Hill and Jeff Teague.

 

Contractually Valuable

Not only is Oladipo entering his prime, right now, he is also signed to a relatively friendly contract given what he’s capable of. OKC signed him to a four-year, $85 million contract extension prior to last season. He’s due a flat $21 million annually, and will play all four years of this extension as a Pacer.

Comparing this against other top shooting guards is favorable for Oladipo, and Indiana. CJ McCollum is guaranteed over $26 million per year in his new deal, and Bradley Beal will make over $25 million per season. Oladipo is close to each of these guys in age, and is arguably playing just as well as them in his new role. Per 36 minutes, Oladipo is scoring more than either of those two on comparable shooting splits.

 

The Beginnings of a Star

Through 26 games in Indiana, Oladipo is averaging a career-high 24.5 points per game on career-high shooting of 48.5% FG and 44.4% 3pt . He’s attempting, and making, more shots from the field, from 3pt, and from the free throw line than he ever has before in his career. Not surprisingly, his 30.9% USG rate is also the highest it’s been; up from 21.6% last year.

Much of his scoring is still done inside the arc.  He’s gotten dramatically better at finishing around the rim, and has been more aggressive as well.  Two years ago, Oladipo shot 57% at the rim; and increased that to 60% last season.  So far this year, he’s converting 64% of his attempts within three feet of the rim.  He’s on pace to take over 100 more shots at the rim than last year.

Finishing moves like this, which weren’t on display in previous seasons, are a big reason why:

Predictably, Oladipo is posting career bests in several advanced stats as well. One that sticks out is Player Efficiency Rating (PER) which is up to 23.5 so far, from his sub-par 13.6 last season. The league average for PER is 15. So perhaps it was fair to be critical of Oladipo’s performance in OKC, but encouraging to see him improve that in Indiana. His 23.5 PER is better than both Paul George (17.5) and Carmelo Anthony (15.0) so far this year.  Oladipo’s 56% eFG also tops PG’s 50.4% and Melo’s 46.7%.

Victor Oladipo has already made two game winning shots for the Pacers, more than Paul George made during his entire career in Indiana.  Dipo has also hit key shots to put away Indiana’s last two opponents, Cleveland and Denver, and has been playing some of his best ball in clutch situations.

 

More Than Just a Scorer

Victor Oladipo entered this season with supreme confidence after the body transformation he made this summer.  Last offseason, fresh off a playoff loss to Houston, he devoted to making a change. “I wasn’t fat per se, but I was stocky,” Oladipo told NBA.com in October. “I’m leaner than I’ve ever been in my entire life, so I feel great. I just locked in and got better. I just feel good. I feel in shape. I don’t get tired as fast as I used to. I don’t know how else to explain it.”

His transformation is paying dividends.  Both offensively and defensively, he is able to move faster and cover more court over the course of his minutes.  Oladipo has been on the court for 803 minutes, roughly 67% of the 26 games he’s appeared in.  In the 397 minutes he’s been off the floor, Indiana’s net rating is -12.6.  The Pacers shoot a lower percentage as a team and allow their opponents to shoot better overall when Vic is on the bench.

Oladipo’s improved fitness and endurance, and the direct benefits of this, were on full display during last night’s overtime win against Denver.  The Pacers held the Nuggets scoreless for 7:41 over the last three minutes of regulation and almost the entire overtime.  During this stretch, Oladipo scored 12 points, grabbed a couple rebounds, and played terrific defense to spearhead the come from behind victory.

 

Tempered Expectations, but Cause for Excitement

Oladipo’s breakthrough has been a huge factor in the Pacers’ emergence as one of the most explosive offensive teams in the league. Indiana ranks 6th in offensive rating and 10th in pace. Both numbers started higher before Myles Turner’s injury created a few bumps in the road for them. Turner is back healthy, but still trying to find his groove. Indiana has the potential to be one of the best offenses in the East (they currently trail only Toronto and Cleveland).

The season is still young, we’re just over a quarter of the way through, but the emergence of Victor Oladipo looks sustainable to me. Time will tell, for sure. His improvement as a shooter has been progressive, and is at least two years in the making. A commitment to skill development is evident, and this is the root cause of Oladipo’s taking advantage of the opportunities available to him as the leader of the Pacers. Indiana found a hidden gem in the Paul George trade, and the future looks bright.

 

Up Next 

The Pacers (16-11) have won four straight and seven out of their last ten. They play host to the Thunder (12-13) on Wednesday in Paul George’s return to Indiana.

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About Preston Dubey

Lifelong basketball fanatic and Bucks' supporter I coach basketball; but I eat, sleep, and breathe the game.

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