One of the biggest surprises that occurred around last June’s NBA draft had more to do with a certain trade than with certain players being drafted. The Oklahoma City Thunder managed to pull off a trade of one of their key players, Serge Ibaka, for Orlando Magic’s Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova and rights to Domantas Sabonis, who was selected with the 11th pick in the draft.
The acquisition of 24-year-old Oladipo, the Magic’s second overall pick in the 2013 NBA draft, suddenly had fans excited about a new power backcourt duo with the athletic guard playing alongside starting point guard extraordinaire, Russell Westbrook.
“The number one thing with Victor is his make-up,” said Thunder Executive Vice President and General Manager following the draft. “This is a guy we’ve looked at for a long time. He’s tough-minded, he’s competitive, he’s selfless.”
Oladipo experienced significant ups and downs in Orlando while never seeming to find sure footing on the court. During his three seasons there, he averaged 15.9 points, 4.0 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 1.1 in three-pointers. He was very good, but not great as expected.
Since he was acquired by a team with so many new players to acclimate into the system – and, later, no Kevin Durant – nobody was quite sure what to expect from him in Oklahoma City. Over the first 14 games of the 2016-17 season in the starting lineup with the Thunder, he has averaged 16.9 points, 2.4 assists, and 4.1 rebounds. His breakthrough performance came last week in a hotly-contested win against the Houston Rockets. Oladipo’s versatility was on full display, and he logged 29 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and two steals, going 12-of-15 in field goals and 5-of 7 in three-point shots.
“I can do a little bit of everything,” said Oladipo afterwards. “When I try to limit myself is when I’m not very successful on the court, so I just go out there and do everything I can to help my team win the game.
“I’m doing a good job of getting open, just because Russ demands so much attention,” he added. “When he kicks it, he’s got like five guys guarding him in the paint so when he kicks it, I’m pretty much open. I’m just shooting good shots. My teammates make the extra play, the extra pass. They go out of their way to do that. It makes that shot that much easier, so credit them.
Oladipo has taken heat for missing shots during his career, and provides a candid response on the subject.
“Percentages are great and everything like that, but you either make it or you miss it. I think what I’ve gotten better at is my shot selection. Sometimes I would come down and shoot unnecessary threes, but now I’ve kind of limited those and just shoot the good ones. If they go in, they go in. If they don’t, they don’t. But I’m going to keep shooting them with confidence, and eventually they’ll go in at a high rate.”
After the win over the Rockets, the Thunder beat the Brooklyn Nets on November 18th and Oladipo kept people talking by scoring 26 points. Unfortunately, backup point guard Semaj Christon suffered a facial fracture in the third quarter of that game and is now sidelined, undergoing the NBA’s concussion protocol. Since the Thunder’s remaining backup point guard, Cameron Payne, is out indefinitely with a foot fracture, Oladipo assumed backup point guard duties to close out that game and in the most recent game Sunday night, which was an overtime loss against the Indiana Pacers.
“Obviously we have to do that,” shared Thunder coach Billy Donovan. “Victor, I’m very comfortable with, just because he’s played some point in Orlando, and he’s done it a little bit here, so I’m fine with that.”
Following that loss to the Pacers, Oladipo talked about his return to playing the point guard position.
“Just be smart. Pick my spots on when to be aggressive and when not to be. It’s kind of a little different when you move to the one. It’s a learning process for me. I played the one a little bit a few years ago, so I’m a little used to it. Still some tweaks I need to get better at, but Semaj will be back soon, and it’s still something I need to figure out on my own.
“I just try to lead the group,” Oladipo said about running the point. “Do a good job of getting guys to where they need to be, making the game easier for them, getting them shots and trying to create for them.”
Playing with a consistently aggressive style is something Oladipo tends to struggle with in games. Westbrook, whom Oladipo clearly respects, pointed out in training camp that Oladipo thrives when he’s not afraid to be aggressive and not thinking too much.
“That’s when I’m at my best,” Oladipo said. “When I just go out there and play off my instincts, and let the game come to me. But most of all, just going out there and having fun. I’m going to affect the game in a positive way. If I continue to do that, I can help this team a lot.”
One can’t help but wonder why the athletic Oladipo would fear aggressiveness at all.
“I know, right? You would think, right? If I go out there and make a mistake being aggressive, I’m not trying to make the mistake, so I can live with those,” Oladipo said.
It appears the Thunder have been pleased with Oladipo’s performance so far and what he brings to the team, as he was given a four-year extension at the deadline last month. He is part of the Thunder’s new core going forward. With Westbrook as his mentor, he’s set up to succeed.
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