Oladipo Exceeding Expectations, Realizing 'Dwyane Wade' Potential

Photo courtesy of https://www.instagram.com/nba/

Photo courtesy of https://www.instagram.com/nba/

By: Ryan Aceman

As a top-5 NBA draft pick, lofty expectations are unavoidable. Take Lonzo Ball, 2017’s 2nd overall pick, who’s constantly berated by fans and media alike for sub-par shooting, despite putting up elite numbers in the assist, rebounding, and steal columns as a rookie.

In 2013, a class that saw the 10th (C.J. McCollum), 15th (Giannis Antetokounmpo) and 27th (Rudy Gobert) picks blossom into the best players, the draft is widely considered one of the worst in recent memory.

Several 2013 top-5 picks – including the 1st overall pick Anthony Bennett – are irrelevant now, and while Otto Porter Jr. is a great shooter for the Wizards, he hasn't had the impact of a traditional 3rd overall selection. Similarly, big men Cody Zeller and Alex Len have failed to live up to the hype of being top-5 picks. Enter the only remaining unnamed top-5 selection from 2013: Pacers’ guard Victor Oladipo.

When Oladipo was drafted, the comparisons to Dwyane Wade were certainly in play – the former Indiana Hoosiers’ size (6'4 215), defensive tenacity, and ability to collapse defences to make plays were all reminiscent of the former Miami star. College coach Tom Crean, who coached both Wade at Marquette and Oladipo at Indiana, knows this better than anyone:

Wade and Oladipo are the only players [I’ve] coached to average more than 12 deflections in a game for a season. Oladipo also set a school record with 78 steals and was the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. It vaulted him up the draft charts.
— Tom Crean, NBA.com

If anything, Oladipo’s lack of offensive aggression was most unlike Wade, but the base set of tools has always been there. Creen weighed in on the matter when Oladipo after drafted:

Dwyane came in with much more of a scorer’s mindset than Victor.... Victor didn’t come with a scorer’s mindset; he came in with energy, a get-to-the-rim, defensive mindset, and he became so much more of a scorer.
— Tom Creen

Now mid-way through his 5th season, Oladipo has broken into the NBA’s upper echelon of elite players, piecing together elite skill, athleticism, motor, and court awareness that reminded so many of Wade. In doing so, he’s made a nearly inarguable case for NBA’s Most Improved Player, and was selected to his first All-Star Game.

But the four previous years were much more precarious for Oladipo, who spent time in both Orlando and Oklahoma City. Neither destination brought the best out of the shooting guard, despite flashes of undeniable brilliance.

The Magic finished Oladipo's rookie season with the NBA's 3rd worst record, at 23-59. Oladipo had an impressive individual campaign, averaging 13.8 points, 4.1 rebounds, 4.1 assists, and 1.6 steals per game on 42% shooting, but team-wide stagnation plagued the franchise in the following years. Over the next two seasons, Oladipo averaged 16.9 points, 4.5 rebounds and 4 assists, while the Magic sputtered around the NBA's basement (60-104), failing to build a winning roster.

Oladipo with the Magic in 2015. Photo courtesy of Basketball Within Borders.

Oladipo with the Magic in 2015. Photo courtesy of Basketball Within Borders.

Despite the less-than-ideal circumstances, people around the league remained high on Oladipo’s potential. Oladipo’s mentor and fellow NBA star Kevin Durant was vocal about his love for Oladipo’s game in a 2015 interview, alluding to Wade:

I know this may sound maybe a little too early, but he reminds me a lot of Dwyane Wade in his body, his athleticism and how he gets to the basket. I’m not saying he’s Dwyane Wade, but he reminds me a lot of him. He’s definitely looking forward to taking on that role.
— Kevin Durant

After the short-lived stint with Orlando, and what's turned out to be an egregious lack of patience, Oladipo and his limitless ceiling were traded to Oklahoma City in exchange for rim-protector stretch-5 Serge Ibaka. Playing alongside the highest-usage player in NBA history and a high-volume shooter in Russell Westbrook was yet again not a great fit. While his scoring and rebounding numbers maintained, Oladipo registered career lows in assists (2.6) and steals (1.2) in 2016-2017. And although they made the playoffs in the West as the 6th seed, Houston promptly eliminated OKC in the first round.

Oladipo and OKC teammate Russell Westbrook. Photo courtesy of Clutch Points.

Oladipo and OKC teammate Russell Westbrook. Photo courtesy of Clutch Points.

Following the disappointing season in OKC, Oladipo was moved again, packaged alongside centre Domantas Sabonis to the Pacers in exchange for Paul George. At the time, Thunder GM Sam Presti was praised for acquiring George without relinquishing key assets, in what was universally seen as a steal for the Thunder.

Fast forward to Early 2018. There were zero expectations for the Pacers this year after losing their star player; but things aren’t as clear-cut as they were this past summer. In fact, the Pacers may have won that trade, and Paul George may not even have been the best player involved. While the sample size is admittedly small, and George has a history of playing at an elite level across multiple seasons, I don’t think there’s any denying that Oladipo has been slightly more effective in 2017-2018.

Oladipo's coming out party has been amazing to watch. As someone who has been a fan of his game since his college days, it’s impressive to see him put it all together in what seemed like just one offseason. But I would argue that this potential has been there from the get go. Indiana was just the first destination where he's been entrusted as the offensive, defensive, and spiritual leader of a team. Consequently, he's blossomed into one of the best two-way players in the NBA and the Dwyane Wade comparisons have never been more apparent.

Watch Oladipo go to work against the NBA's best defense. This should have been a win for Indiana because of Oladipo, but a shocking turnover late from a teammate prevented the W. 

Oladipo’s ability finish at the rim at an elite level and find open looks for teammates are reminiscent of Wade’s best qualities. He’s an ultra-efficient scorer from everywhere on the court (48% from the field and 40% from 3-point range, both career highs) despite shooting three more times per game than any other season in his career. Oladipo’s 71.5% field goal success rate from inside 10 feet is a testament to him being one of the league’s best finishers in the painted area.

But that’s merely one side of the game. Oladipo is also leading the charge defensively, regularly matching up across from the opponent’s #1 scoring option while accruing a career-best-tying 1.9 steals per game. His overall numbers this year are All-NBA-esque: 24.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.9 steals, and 0.8 blocks per game, across roughly 34 minutes per night. 

Aside from his individual progression, Oladipo is leading the Pacers to a more successful season than many anticipated. Oladipo's defensive prowess and high-energy play on both ends have kept the Pacers securely in the playoff hunt. Indiana is on pace (27-23, 7th in the East) to replicate their standing from last season (42-40, 7th in the East). They are just three games behind the Cleveland Cavaliers, who sit 3rd in the East, and 1.5 games back of the Miami Heat, in 4th place.

Oladipo skies in for a dunk. Photo courtesy of HoopsHype.

Oladipo skies in for a dunk. Photo courtesy of HoopsHype.

While this may not seem like a huge accomplishment, it is reassuring for a team that many thought would be amongst the league’s bottom dwellers in 2017-2018. Oladipo is leading the Pacers to an expectation-shattering season alongside a decent team surrounding him. Coach Nate McMillan deserves his credit too for stabilizing the Pacers despite the offseason turnover.

The Pacers' roster is comprised of journey-men Lance Stephenson, Darren Collision, and Thaddeus Young, plus a few promising young pieces in Domantis Sabonis and the aforementioned Turner. The fact that they’ve managed to be in the heart of the playoff mix is a signal of Oladipo’s tremendous progress as a leader.

Whether Oladipo can carry Indiana deep into the playoffs remains to be seen, however the 6'4 guard has become a dominant force, and a player who opponents must game-plan for on a nightly basis.

Check out Oladipo's career-high performance from earlier this year!

Not to mention, Oladipo is only 25 years old, suggesting room for even more improvement as he enters his physical prime, and gains more experience as the de facto #1 option. He's in the first year of a four year/$85 Million deal – a contract that many thought was overpriced has turned into a huge bargain, given his production and durability. Oladipo currently makes less than JJ Reddick and Nicolas Batum. FYI, Oladipo leads all shooting guards in PER (23.74). The four-year term means he’s locked in through the onset of his prime at a reasonable price. 

I think it's fair to conclude that perception and reality are not always in agreement. The Pacers obviously saw something in Oladipo that Orlando and OKC failed to identify, and this happens all the time in sports.

Franchises, fans, and the media become impatient with young prospects, who fail to live up to their potential in the first few years of their career. Of course, the fact that these are 20-year old kids whose bodies, minds, and emotional intelligence aren't fully developed gets swept under the rug. 

As it becomes more common for players to make the jump to the NBA after minimal time in college or overseas, there needs to be an evolution in how NBA franchises treat young players. NBA teams should understand that patience can be a tremendous virtue, especially when constructing the blueprint for a team's future.

And while it is tempting for management to adopt a "win-now or nothing" mentality with Superteams being the norm across the league, cases like Oladipo in Indiana prove that it is possible to remain exciting and relevant while simultaneously rebuilding. 

In Oladipo, the Pacers struck gold, moving Paul George who they would have lost for nothing and acquiring an All-NBA talent in return. Oladipo is a budding elite player who is extremely versatile, and a building block that many franchises would sell the farm for. 

Never before has Victor Oladipo resembled the great Dwyane Wade quite as much as he has this season. I know that Pacers fans are ecstatic to have the young star, and hope he can achieve even a few of the things Wade did throughout his illustrious career. For now, let's all just sit back and enjoy, because Victor Oladipo has officially arrived, and it's stunning to watch. 

Ryan Aceman