Inside Victor Oladipo's Journey to Return to Form

Victor Oladipo isn't all the way back to what he was, but the Pacers are optimistic about him leading them far.
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Among players, heading into this season Victor Oladipo was one of the NBA’s most important and unpredictable variables. Most of the past two seasons were spent trying to rediscover the player he was before a ruptured right quadriceps derailed his career back in January 2019.

It wasn’t pretty. Before the 2020–21 season kicked off, Oladipo hardly resembled the scintillating blur whose dynamism, range and defensive intensity was rewarded with an All-NBA nod in 2018. Doubt began to sow itself into the two-time All-Star’s value, potential and ability to impact winning basketball at the high bar he’d previously set.

Today, Oladipo isn’t all the way back to what he was, but the Pacers finally have reason to be cautiously optimistic about him eventually getting there. In eight games, Oladipo is averaging 19.9 points, 6.0 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game, with the lowest turnover rate of his career. His relationship with the three-point line has hit a high in volume and accuracy, and he’s drawing fouls at a solid rate while regularly assuming Indy’s most arduous individual defensive assignments.

Stats can only tell some of the story, though. Visual bursts of Oladipo’s raw athleticism, powerful dunks and roaring statements in the open floor are an increasingly frequent sight. In a legitimately stunning comeback win over the Pelicans last week, Oladipo was nothing short of a two-way superstar, almost single-handedly wiping out a 10-point deficit in the final two minutes, throwing the game into a blender like very few can.

“I think the biggest thing that I see, and I’ve told him this many times over the last two weeks: He looks so much more calm and at peace and under control than he did,” Pacers general manager Chad Buchanan says. “I felt like in the bubble he was trying so hard to be so good instantaneously. And I think that caused him to play a little out of character. It just seems like there’s this weight off his shoulders, and it’s just allowing him to relax and breathe and just play.”

The team uses wearable devices that gauge athletic markers, and according to Buchanan there’s physical evidence that’s trending in the right direction. “I think all the data would tell you he’s doing very, very well. I’ll just leave it at that,” he says. “I don’t want to get too specific, but the metrics are very encouraging.”

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New Pacers coach Nate Bjorkgren cuts me off when I start to ask if Oladipo can get back to the pre-injury level on a more consistent basis as early as this season. “He is an extremely elite, high-level player,” he says. “He’s coachable, and he plays both sides of the floor. Like, I’m telling you, I don’t know what he’s better at, offense or defense. ... So absolutely he is in that All-NBA, elite-level category.”

Oladipo reasserting himself on a team that made the playoffs two years in a row essentially without him is a big deal for multiple reasons, some of which are in direct conflict with each other. First, the obvious: Combined with two exceptional All-Star-caliber pieces in Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis, an improving Myles Turner and a versatile, mature bench, Oladipo can help lead this team much deeper than preseason projections suggested they’d go. Throw in their fresh embrace of a less rigidly antiquated brand of basketball, one that won’t be their own worst enemy come playoff time, and competing to be an inevitable punching bag for some of the conference’s more talented teams (Brooklyn, Boston, Milwaukee, Philadelphia) should be considered a thing of the past.

The second reason Oladipo’s looming return to form matters is he’s in the final year of his contract, and if Indy does not trade him before the deadline it may lose him for nothing.

Plenty of teams will have cap space this summer, and thanks to a slew of extensions signed before this season began, a 2021 free agency class that could’ve transformed the league has thinned out. Oladipo will be a primary target for teams that can afford him, if motivated enough to do so. The Knicks, Bulls and Spurs should be interested. The Heat, Mavericks and Raptors need to clear some salary but could also see Oladipo as a missing piece.

Are any of those teams willing to exchange key assets for everything Oladipo can bring to the table in this year’s postseason, plus his Bird rights, or would they rather wait and try to sign him outright without having to fork over any draft picks or present-day contributors? Who knows. But if the Pacers are confident they can re-sign Oladipo this summer, or are willing to roll the dice and bet on a deep playoff run, then no league-altering deal will be in the cards. Indiana is good enough to prioritize its present (it’s fifth in net rating). And right now that appears to be the plan.

“Obviously you’re looking in the moment because you want this team to be successful and you want to help this team have a great season. That’s the number one priority right now. And you know the contract, the business part of it obviously comes into play down the road,” Buchanan says. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, but in the meantime we want to try and help this team hit its fullest potential this season.”

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The Pacers built this roster around the hope that Oladipo would have 100% trust in his body two years after the injury. Medical professionals gave Indy’s front office that 24-month timeline as the stretch before anyone could know how it would permanently impact his career.

“We feel like where he’s at right now is where we hoped he’d get back to, and I know he’s got even more growth and steps to take that are in front of him,” Buchanan says. “Everybody wants him to be back to who he was when we first traded for him, and we all want that. Whether he gets back there eventually or not, you know, we’re hopeful. But we also know Victor is the type of player who’s gonna work on his game, and his game was gonna evolve whether he had the injury or not. And it has.”

With Indy’s highest usage rate, resting just above both Sabonis and Brogdon, the primary way Oladipo attacks a defense is slightly different from what we saw back in 2018. He doesn’t hold the ball and survey the defense in Bjorkgren’s system, while embedded in arguably the most talented roster he’s ever been on.

The idea of standing at the top of the key, waiting for a high screen, and then letting help defenders dictate how the action unfolds from there is undesirable, which makes sense for myriad reasons, including the reality that Oladipo still doesn’t quite have the same acrobat-on-a-trampoline level of bounce he used to. Plays like this used to be a consistent part of his game.

He isn’t finishing at the rim as effortlessly as he once did—Oladipo is shooting 50% in the restricted area, which would be worse than every single player who averaged at least five shots around the hoop last season—but that’s somewhat expected as he continues to process what his body can and can’t handle.

“I think some of it is health related. I think some of it is he started to realize, ‘Hey here’s the things that I can do better than I used to, and rather than focusing on trying to be completely what I used to be, I can do some other things differently that really help my game,’” Buchanan says. “He’s not always trying to elevate at the rim to finish. He’s got good footwork around the basket now where he’s slowing down at the rim and using little reverse laybacks and getting his body into a guy.”

Oladipo is also doing the glut of his work before he even gets the ball, be it curling out of the corner off a stagger screen to receive a pass as his momentum carries him into the paint, or Iverson cutting his way into a side pick-and-roll that forces the defense to guard him and his rolling screener with the strong side intentionally bare. These actions are extremely difficult to guard.

Oladipo utilizes the dribble handoff more than any player in the league (and twice as often as he did in 2018), working himself into a slingshot that’s helpfully propelled by Sabonis and Turner, two big men with gravity and comfort handling the ball out on the perimeter.

“If you’re following over the top, he’s gonna turn that corner and go downhill. If you shoot the gap and go underneath, he’s gonna shoot that three. But what we’re trying to create for Victor —and Domas and Myles and Malcolm and everybody else—is we’re just trying to create that space, and we’re trying to create that weakside movement to keep the defense busy, so the defense can’t just load up on you,” Bjorkgren says. “That’s why we want to create more offensive movement. We want to get our opponents on their heels. And Victor? That’s right up his alley.”

Here’s how that looks on a possession where Brogdon has an open runway because Deandre Ayton and Jae Crowder are readying themselves for Oladipo to attack from the weakside.

Again: This stuff is really hard to guard, and helps explain why Bjorkgren is so committed to maximizing his starting backcourt’s complementary features as opposed to staggering their minutes. Oladipo has played just seven minutes without Brogdon also in the game this entire season. “I want them on the floor together, absolutely,” he says. “They have a nice connection about them, of knowing what play calls need to be run and what actions and cuts need to be made.”

The decision to add Brogdon was made believing he’d eventually be a fantastic fit beside Oladipo. So far, so good. Oladipo is fourth on the Pacers in time of possession (2.7 minutes compared to Brogdon’s 7.9), which is notably down from 2018. He no longer leads the team in touches.

There’s change in his shot selection as well. Along with everyone else on Indiana’s roster, Oladipo has cut most long twos from his diet. A good thing, considering he’s making more threes in a variety of ways. There are pull-ups, stationary spot-up tries, and even an increase in difficult attempts wherein he’ll catch a pass on the move, plant his feet and rise in one fluid motion. This stuff isn’t totally new, but his embracing it as he has is significant considering how it allows him to affect games without controlling them.

“I never tell a player that he can’t shoot a certain shot,” Bjorkgren says. “But what I try to show our team and our players is better shots and the shots we want in the flow of our offense. We like attacking the rim and getting to the free-throw line. We like the paint touch and the spray out threes that you’re seeing.”

For Oladipo, the long ball (he’s made 46.2% of his catch-and-shoot threes) opens things up inside, against defenses that are spread too thin to load up and stop him. Here’s Steven Adams needing to step up and take away Oladipo’s three, which opens the paint for a critical layup. Josh Hart is stuck to Doug McDermott in the weakside corner and Eric Bledsoe is a split-second late coming off Malcom Brogdon to provide some help.

Instead of having Oladipo’s free agency hover like a dark cloud over this season, the Pacers have done an excellent job putting their one-time franchise centerpiece in positions to succeed, without hindering individual growth from any of his teammates.

The seeds of a copacetic partnership were planted back in October, when Bjorkgren traveled down to Miami for a meet and greet. Bjorkgren spent his first day watching Oladipo work out at the gym before the two sat down for dinner, where, over a filet, creamed corn, and cherry coke (“The second greatest drink ever, behind Mountain Dew,” Bjorkgren laughed) they talked about the on and off-court leadership role Indy’s new head coach wanted his highest-paid player to assume.

“The conversations that him and I had [in Miami], he has been exactly that person that he said he would be, like, to a tee,” he says. “He wants to win, he works so hard, he will do anything for this team. He has constantly said that to me over and over, how much he loves being an Indiana Pacer, how much he loves playing with this group of players and how he will do anything that I ask of him. And then here we are, three months later and he has stayed exactly true to that. He’s been true to his word on everything.”

Maybe it works out, and what we’re currently witnessing is the ground floor of a formidable, harmonious trio that will do meaningful damage through their respective primes. Or maybe the Pacers stumble over the next couple months and feel like dealing Oladipo is their smartest play. There’s also the chance no trade is made and Oladipo decides to sign elsewhere, as is his right, in July.

Either way, the upshot will send ripple effects throughout the league; the steady reemergence of a guard who nearly knocked LeBron James out of the playoffs three years ago is worth attention. It matters. If Oladipo gets back to where he was, in Indiana or elsewhere, the league’s title picture may soon look different than it does right now.