It’s a cliche because it’s true: The NBA is an opportunity league. And nobody personifies that statement like the Indiana Pacers’ Victor Oladipo, who languished in a rebuilding situation in Orlando before languishing in Russell Westbrook’s shadow for a season in Oklahoma City.
It can now be said without controversy that the Magic’s trade of Oladipo, a potential All-Star, 378-game starter Ersan Ilyasova and former first-round pick Domantas Sabonis for a 56-game rental of Serge Ibaka was one of the worst trades in recent NBA history. After the Pacers lost by a point at home Monday to the Celtics, the East’s best team, Boston coach Brad Stevens gushed about Oladipo’s complete offensive package.
“He’s so good,” said Stevens. “We didn’t do a great job on him. I thought we went under too much. But he’s a hard guy to guard because he gets going downhill. He’s playing at an unbelievable level.”
How did the Magic fail to see what it had? Oladipo came out of college with a reputation as a two-way wing, one of the NBA’s most valuable commodities. His three-point shooting in his first three seasons hovered just below league average, which showed potential. But during his time with the Magic, Oladipo played out of position at point guard at times and was paired with Elfrid Payton, who struggled terribly as a long-range shooter in his first three seasons.
Payton’s inability to stretch the floor allowed opposing teams to sag in the lane to cut off driving lanes Oladipo has since been able to exploit. And that’s how Oladipo’s opportunity came to fruition. In Orlando, the Magic organization failed to surround him with complementary talent to help him reach his potential. In OKC, Oladipo was an afterthought behind Westbrook. In Indy, Oladipo has the right mix around him for his complete package of talents to shine through. As he stated recently, confidence was never the problem.
“My confidence is always the same,” said Oladipo after scoring 26 in a win Sunday in Brooklyn. “No matter what is going on — lose, win — my confidence is always high. It doesn’t waver. I stay even-keeled the entire time.”
Confidence hasn’t been an issue and the mix of talent on the Pacers’ roster has allowed Oladipo to emerge as a focal point. His steadying influence has been observed and appreciated by his teammates.
“I think he’s playing amazing,” said shooting guard Lance Stephenson. “He’s living up to the high expectations. He’s here early at practice, being a leader and showing it on and off the court. He’s playing awesome and I feel like, when I’m on the court with him, we’ve got great chemistry.”
There was no guarantee that chemistry with Stephenson would emerge since Oladipo plays the same position. The Magic made a valuable addition in Evan Fournier during Oladipo’s time in Orlando. But Oladipo’s struggle to convert to point guard — the NBA’s toughest position — limited his effectiveness while sharing the court with Fournier. Opportunity is everything, and the Pacers — by sheer luck or underrated genius — were able to bring Oladipo into the exact right dynamic for a breakout season.
One player who has been able to observe Oladipo’s progression over the last two seasons is Sabonis, who accompanied Oladipo to Indianapolis in the trade that sent franchise centerpiece Paul George to the Thunder.
“I think this year his confidence is on another level,” said Sabonis. “He’s shooting the ball great. He’s making the right decision, passing, rebounding. He’s doing a bit of everything — steals, blocks — so that’s just helping us in a major way.”
The signs were there if you know what to look for. The NBA’s elite wings are hyper-athletic, able to get stops and make opponents work on the defensive end, and have versatile games on the offensive end. Because Oladipo was asked to play out of position early in his career and was surrounded by talent that was either redundant or not complimentary, his true potential remained hidden.
In Oklahoma City, Oladipo’s pairing with Westbrook produced the most efficient offensive season of his career. With Westbrook as the primary ball handler, Oladipo shot career-bests of 36 percent from three and 44 percent from the floor. But now, with an expanded role in Indy and surrounded by complimentary pieces, Oladipo has been ridiculous. He’s currently shooting nearly 43 percent from three and over 48 percent from the floor. His field goal shooting is four percent higher than any previous season.
Despite his current success, Oladipo doesn’t disparage opportunities he had with previous teams and recognizes that he needed to grow to get to where he is now.
“My first couple of years was a little roller coaster but everything happens for a reason,” Oladipo told NBA TV after his career-high 47 points in an overtime win over the Nuggets. “I learned a lot in Orlando and I learned a lot in OKC that I’m applying to my game even now.”
But there’s no question that the Pacers presented the right mix of role, surrounding talent and budding chemistry to make his breakout possible.
“I think the chemistry right now is unbelievable,” said Oladipo. “We have great men and great personalities and people who genuinely care about each other. And when you have a group of guys who do that, the chemistry kind of comes pretty fast. We’ve only been together for three, four, five months, if that. I feel like our chemistry is growing every day.”
The Pacers are currently fifth in the East, and within range of home court advantage despite a youthful roster and the loss of franchise cornerstone George. Surrounded by the right personalities and talent, Olidipo has become a textbook example of how opportunity is everything in the NBA.
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