If you told an Oklahoma City Thunder fan this past June that Indiana Pacers guard Victor Oladipo would become the 2018 Kia Most Improved Player of the Year, they would’ve laughed in your face.
Heck, if you told an Orlando Magic fan you thought he’d be on the 2018 Eastern Conference All-Star roster when they traded him to the Thunder in Jun. 2016, they would’ve given you a Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson-esque eyebrow raise before yelling at you “it doesn’t matter what you think!”
Lastly, if you told a Pacers fan Oladipo would become the best player on the team and lead them to a playoff berth, they would’ve burst out with exhilaration before nudging you away for toying with their emotions.
The skepticism would’ve been warranted. Through his first four seasons in the NBA, Oladipo didn’t consistently produce at a level higher than a slightly above average. The 2013 NBA Draft no. 2 pick who was heavily compared to three-time NBA champion and former scoring champion Cleveland Cavaliers guard Dwyane Wade wasn’t living up to his perceived potential.
The fifth-year guard out of Indiana University has revitalized his career to the tune of 23.4 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists with shooting percentages of 47.9 percent from the field, 17.7 attempts per game, and 43.3 percent from beyond the arc, 5.5 attempts per game through the first 22 games of the season. If the season ended today, these numbers, except the assists, would be his career-highs numbers.
Houston Rockets guard James Harden, Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James and Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant and are the only other players who are recording at least 23 points per game, four rebounds and four assists per game while shooting at least 45 percent from the field and 40 percent from three this season. Consider Oladipo’s defensive production, 1.9 steals and 1.1 blocks per game, and he would join LeBron as the only player to achieve the previously mentioned statistical benchmarks along with at least one block and one steal per game, according to Basketball Reference.
What makes this feat even more impressive for Oladipo, outside of the MVP-candidate company he’s among, is not many people expected this to happen.
A lot of fans sold their stock on him after he failed to live up to the expectations as Thunder guard Russell Westbrook’s sidekick. Instead of being the guy who played off Russ when he was in the game and ran the offense when he was out, Oladipo was mostly regulated to being a glorified spot-up shooter. He served as a small cog in what turned into the Westbrook triple-double season tour.
Those days are over now. The Pacers have revamped their offense system to take advantage of one of Oladipo’s strengths, speed. The Pacers are ninth in possessions per 48 minutes with 99.2 possessions (they’re finally playing with pace, Larry Bird!), according to Basketball Reference. Instead of being the guy waiting, watching and following someone else’s lead, he and his career-high 30.3 usage rate, ninth highest in the league, are the ones creating the action and dictating what happens on offense.
It doesn’t appear as if he minds getting up and down the court. By the looks of things, he probably learned a lesson or two from Westbrook about how to be the lead man in a fast break.
“By making this move, management is saying they’re going to build around you,” Pacers Head Coach Nate McMillan told Oladipo, according to a Nov. 29 Bleacher Report. “But I don’t want you to put any added pressure on yourself. So, do your thing, play freely, and we’ll figure out how you begin leading this organization.”
Oladipo is clearly a good listener. He took the advice to heart and has followed through with tremendous, well-rounded play.
He’s become more aggressive as a ball-handler. He’s nearly doubled the amount of field goal attempts per game he takes off drives to the basket, 2.7 during the 2016-17 season and 4.4 during the 2017-18 season, according to the NBA’s official website. He scores twice as many points per game off drives this year, five, than he did last year with OKC, 2.5.
He’s even learned how to utilize changing speeds to get to the basket, as he does here against Orlando Magic guard and former teammate Elfrid Payton.
Since he’s being more aggressive and makes a concentrated effort to get to the basket more, Oladipo has experienced a career-high free-throw attempts per game, 5.1. This is nearly twice as many attempts per game than last year, 2.6. Through 22 games he’s already shot 112 free throws. In 67 games with OKC, he only took 154.
He’s averaging 62.3 touches per game and 3.52 seconds per touch, which is up from his numbers last year of 46.7 and 2.93 second per touch, according to the NBA’s official website. Now that he has the ball in his hands more, his comfort on the court is evident. This comfort has him knocking down jumpers with supreme confidence, especially pull-up jumpers in mid-range or from three.
Oladipo’s development from a solid player to an All-Star level talent isn’t the classic case of “good numbers on a bad team” either. The Pacers have a net rating of 1.2 points per 100 possessions. Oladipo has a net rating of 4.1, according to the NBA’s official website. The Pacers have a 12-11 record and are half a game behind the eight-seeded New York Knicks.
Despite trading away All-Star forward Paul George to the Thunder, the Pacers’ offense is doing just fine. In fact, behind the sensational play of Oladipo, the Pacers are scoring 109.3 points per 100 possessions, sixth in the league, according to Cleaning the Glass. This is slightly better than 109 points per 100 possessions, 15th in the league, they scored last season when they had George.
Not even the most optimistic Pacers’ fan could’ve envisioned this level of play from their team this deep into the season. We’ve moved on from small sample sizes. This is who the Pacers are: a fast, fun, competitive team with an underrated supporting cast, future All-Star in center Myles Turner and should-be current All-Star in Oladipo who’s finally living up to his potential.
“Coming back to Indiana, I’m comfortable,” said Oladipo, according to a Nov. 26 Orlando Sentinel article. “I really didn’t have to learn too much of where I was going when I got there. Everything looked familiar. So, it was pretty good. It was pretty cool. I’m just glad to be a Pacer. I feel like I’m home.”
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