Published On: Mon, Apr 30th, 2018

Oladipo's triumphant breakout season serves as reminder to never give up

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Victor Oladipo arrived in Indiana in July 2017 as less of an impact NBA player than a punch line.

The Oklahoma City Thunder had just lavished a four-year, $84-million extension on Oladipo in October 2016, but would never actually see the deal come to fruition, passing the potential albatross on to the Indiana Pacers as part of the Paul George blockbuster before the extension kicked in. Not only were the Thunder able to acquire an All-Star, they seemingly found the only team willing to be conned into taking on Oladipo’s future salary commitment.

As the dust has settled on his whirlwind 2017-18 campaign, it appears that Oladipo and the Pacers – his Pacers – are having the last laugh.

Here’s a snapshot of how Oladipo’s per-game stats improved between his first four years in the NBA (three with the Orlando Magic, one with the Thunder) and 2017-18 with the Pacers:

Per Game 2013-17 2017-18
Pts 15.9 23.1
Reb 4.4 5.2
Ast 3.7 4.3
Stl 1.5 2.4
Blk 0.5 0.8
FG% 43.3 47.7
3P% 34.6 37.1

Crucially, the expansion of Oladipo’s statistical output across the board wasn’t the result of a significant boost in playing time or putting up big numbers on a lottery-bound team – common catalysts to increased production. His efficiency has improved remarkably.

Individually, Oladipo garnered his first All-Star selection in February and is a virtual lock to take home Most Improved Player honor at the 2018 NBA Awards on June 25. Selections to the All-NBA and All-Defensive teams are likely to follow as well. By any measure, Oladipo has arrived as a fully fledged superstar, one of the best two-way guards in the league and someone who is more than capable of leading a successful team.

And as a collective, the Oladipo-led Pacers skyrocketed past expectations, finishing with 48 wins and the fifth seed in a competitive Eastern Conference. Oladipo went toe to toe with LeBron James in a seven-game playoff series and didn’t look hesitant, nervous, or out of place in the postseason spotlight.

Even in defeat, Oladipo never sulked or sought to place blame. Instead, he seemingly took immense pride in the Pacers’ performance, while vowing to come back stronger than ever.

“If y’all don’t respect the Indiana Pacers now, I have no respect for you,” Oladipo told the media after Game 7.

There are several factors that spurred Oladipo’s dramatic ascendance at age 26. For one, it seems that Oladipo inherited the tireless work ethic of a certain former teammate.

Though Russell Westbrook‘s quest to average a triple-double last season took center stage in Oklahoma City, the reigning MVP’s intensity rubbed off on Oladipo in their brief time playing together.

“One thing I learned from him is he’s on 110 (percent) every day,” Oladipo told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnaroski in December. “The thing about me is that he’s on 110, I’m trying to get to 115. That’s something he kinda instilled in me without doing anything.”

“(Westbrook is) a future Hall of Famer, no question,” Oladipo added. “And in order to get that, I’m going to have to put in the work and put in another level that I’ve never worked before.”

He wasn’t kidding. Oladipo overhauled his approach last summer in an effort to reshape his body, focusing particularly on biomechanics and cutting junk out of his diet. Better alignment allowed for more dynamic movement, opening up Oladipo’s game in all phases.

“I knew I needed to change a lot about my body and my mind,” Oladipo told Fansided’s Wes Goldberg in March.

Given his success this past year, it’s no surprise to see Oladipo double down on the things that fueled his breakout year. Within minutes of the Pacers’ Game 7 loss to the Cavaliers, he had already reached out to his trainer, David Alexander, with a simple message: “When do we start? I’m ready to take it to another level.”

It took four seasons, but Oladipo has finally delivered on the promise which led the Magic to draft him second overall in 2013. And at just $21 million per year through 2021, Oladipo’s salary has gone from cautionary tale to one of the best values in the league.

With Oladipo more than living up to his end of the deal, it’s now time for the Pacers’ front office to assemble a team capable of accentuating and enabling his best attributes. That means general manager Kevin Pritchard will have to get a little creative this summer.

Reserves Trevor Booker and Glenn Robinson III are unrestricted free agents, Thaddeus Young and Cory Joseph have player options for $13.7 and $7.9 million, respectively, and the Pacers have a team option for another year of Lance Stephenson at just $4.4 million. Everyone else is under contract through at least 2019.

But the Pacers do have lightly used 2017 No. 18 draftee T.J. Leaf at their disposal, as well as both of their picks in this June’s entry draft. The contracts for Darren Collison, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Al Jefferson, each with a cap hold between $10 and $10.5 million all expire after next season and could serve as ballast for an impact trade, but both Collison and Bogdanovic provide important contributions and would be tough to replace.

It’s not inconceivable to think the Pacers could be in play for another roster-altering trade this summer, but the chance of unearthing a reclamation project with Oladipo’s upside is truly expecting lightning to strike twice. The best bet might be continuing to foster the Oladipo-Domantas SabonisMyles Turner core and seeing if more chemistry lifts the team to new heights.

Even if the Pacers’ brass enters a holding pattern this summer, the old narrative surrounding Oladipo has clearly buckled under the weight of his persistent focus on self-improvement and his wealth of experiences, both positive and negative.

Where the Magic and Thunder saw an ill-fitting, expensive investment, the Pacers are primed to continue to reap the benefits of Oladipo’s drive for greatness for the foreseeable future. His breakout season in Year 5 serves as a great reminder to slow bloomers and impatient front offices alike that not all that is seemingly broken is beyond repair.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

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