The promise of Victor Oladipo goes far beyond this weekend's Dunk Contest.
Victor Oladipo occupies a relatively safe space in the world of NBA prospecting. At the high end of his career range is stardom – if not as his team's primary creator, then near enough to be a critical piece all the same. At the low end is a floor of reliable contribution – even if not to the degree Oladipo would like. This track of mid-variance doesn't have the highest stakes. To watch Oladipo is to see a player set to stay in the league for a long while, unlikely to hit either the incredible highs or terrible lows most often associated with NBA youth.
There's a certain security in that. Not every talented, skilled player needs to be backdropped by infinite possibility, especially when – as in Oladipo's case – the prospect in question is already quite good in spite of his immediate context. Oladipo has dabbled in multiple positions, played through a variety of approaches (all under the unpredictable mandate of the since-fired Jacque Vaughn), and shared the court with players who don't quite form a cohesive whole. That he plays and produces as well as he does regardless of those specifics bodes well for his trajectory.
Oladipo, for his part, sees no such silver lining. When asked to grade his performance this season by Jessica Camerato of Basketball Insiders, Oladipo used a scale that would have lined up panicked undergrads 20-deep outside his office.
“‘A’ being the best, [I’d grade myself] maybe a ‘D’ or a ‘C,’” Oladipo said. “You’ve got to win. That’s a big thing. I just feel like if I continue to keep getting better, sky’s the limit. I can get to an ‘A+.’ I think the big involvement in that is winning and being a huge part of that. I think when I do that, I’ll get to the ‘A+’ that I’m looking for.”
From a team standpoint, there is no use in arguing the Magic's season to date as even a mild success. This roster is better – if also weirder – than it lets on. There's really no reason why it couldn't be positioned similarly to the short-handed Celtics on the playoff cusp. Instead, Orlando is eight games behind Boston in the loss column without much systemic continuity to speak of. There is obvious value in young players logging minutes and feeling their way through their on-court situation. But for all of the materials the Magic have, there isn't yet a sense that the team has actually built something.
For Oladipo to then hold himself personally accountable for the team's struggles is, while noble, a bit specious. Orlando's troubles have run deeper and wider than its prized guard, and for that Vaughn no longer occupies the post as the Magic's head coach. Whoever succeeds him will need to better and should – there's a lot to work with in Orlando, provided the tactician involved can see the talent involved for what it is rather than what it isn't.
In Oladipo's case, those credentials begin with the tools for terrific individual defense. Put the ball in front of Oladipo and he'll leave little doubt as to his potential in controlling perimeter matchups. Tenacious is the watch word. Oladipo plays up, he plays strong for his size and he plays his man in a way that minimizes the need for much help. No 22-year-old is perfect on that end of the floor, but Oladipo has such a clear knack for checking opposing ball handlers that he holds isolation scorers to 32.3% shooting from the field, per Synergy Sports.
Things get shakier when the ball moves away. When his man is in control, Oladipo locks in to control space and angles. When the offense moves to some other part of the floor, however, Oladipo tends to wander indiscriminately:
Oladipo strays from his man enough that it almost has to be by design – perhaps as a response to the team's pick-and-roll issues. This doesn't at all excuse Oladipo's inattention, as executing that kind of strategy relies on defenders being able to track their marks and not get spun around. In that regard he's come far short. He plays like a defender who isn't quite sure what to do without some immediate defensive focus, which makes sense considering that Orlando seemed to have less schematic consistency than almost any team in the league. Young players don't only need experience to find their way in the league – they need consistent messaging.
That much could give Oladipo a way forward under a new coach, provided they find a structure that works. Orlando has the means to apply pressure on the ball through Oladipo and rookie Elfrid Payton. They have size in the interior, if not sufficient mobility. There may have to be changes in personnel to hit the league average in points allowed per possession, but the skeleton of something workable exists and will only grow stronger as a variety of prospects age. There's a lot to figure out but fair reason to see improvement.
Offense is, in some ways, a trickier proposition for Oladipo and the Magic. Only a handful of teams have scored fewer points per possession thus far – company that includes the Knicks, Hornets, Timberwolves, and Sixers. There are plenty of big-picture reasons why this is so, but the simplest is spacing. When opposing defenses see no reason to honor the jumper of either Oladipo or Payton, his backcourt mate, they're free to wall off the paint in conservative style. Oladipo isn't forcing it. He makes an honest effort to work his way to the basket, though at this stage he has some clear problems as a finisher:
Considering that Oladipo is shooting just 34% outside the paint, his inability to finish at a high level is an issue. It's just not terribly concerning when the second-year guard is still sly enough to shoot 44.3% overall by finding opportunity in the high paint and working hard off of cuts:
As is the case with many young players, Oladipo just isn't all that efficient yet when it comes to programmable offense. His playmaking and jumper aren't threatening enough to make him a particularly varied pick-and-roll player. His off-the-dribble game is useful, though it doesn't have quite enough shake to spring him free against squared one-on-one defenders. It's limitations like these that make Oladipo something of a stylistic tweener: Not so effective with the ball that he can rightly demand high usage, but too skilled to go without flexing his pick-and-roll game.
Payton helps balance that issue in some respects, even if his struggles with his shot create new ones. These are the tradeoffs implicit to a young team. Any roster so dependent on players early in their developmental process will run aground with certain deficits of skill or awareness. Orlando's great hurdle will come in making defenses respect their backcourt's shooting to the point of at least playing them honestly. Oladipo's shot – which is better with his feet set and solid from the corners – is a work in progress. Payton's jumper is an ordeal.
Adding a few more reputable shooters on the roster couldn't hurt. Channing Frye and Tobias Harris (who some defenses still don't treat as a shooter) can only do so much to clear the lane. Regardless, Oladipo will have to continue to find ways to maneuver through tight quarters and punish those defenders who choose to sag off of him. Doing so will eventually lead to an important threshold – a breaking point at which defenses have to choose which opportunities to concede. Oladipo needs only to improve his jumper to that point to make a leap, as forcing the defense to more carefully consider multiple scoring avenues will open up his complete game.
Oladipo is hardly the first guard set on that path, though his early, incremental improvement as a shooter offers him more promise than most. He'll get there eventually. In the meantime comes the hard, awkward work of finding a means of best fit – provided that the amorphous Magic finally settle.