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Can the Pacers Unlock Victor Oladipo?

He petered out in Orlando. He never fit in OKC. But Indiana could be the perfect home (again).

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Hours, podcasts, think pieces, and strong drinks have been devoted to figuring out how blockbuster acquisitions like Chris Paul and Paul George will fit in new roles this offseason. But what about the less-acclaimed pieces in these trades, the guys exchanged for the superstars? Can an highly paid role player offloaded as part of a "salary dump" ever blossom in a new situation? Or can someone on the cusp of 25 minutes a game completely fall out of the league altogether? We’re looking at the prospects of those players, the Unintentional New Beginnings crew, this week.

The first minutes Victor Oladipo ever played as a professional were in Bankers Life Fieldhouse, barely an hour away from where he played college ball. He wore a Magic uniform, Orlando having selected the shooting guard second overall that summer in the 2013 draft. But to Dipo, fresh off of three years under Tom Crean at Indiana University, it felt more like a home game.

This season, for the first time in five years, Oladipo will play his home games in the Hoosier state again. Just a season after acquiring him from the Magic, Oklahoma City dealt the 25-year-old, along with forward Domantas Sabonis, to the Pacers for Paul George. This will be Oladipo’s third team in five seasons in the NBA, but this is home, even to the Maryland native. In his welcoming press conference, Oladipo sounded like a veteran returning to the team that drafted him.

"This is where it all started for me," he said two Fridays ago. "I’m a Hoosier. Living, breathing, any way you can imagine, I’m a Hoosier."

The Pacers announced that their new 6-foot-5 guard will even wear no. 4 again, as he did under pinstripe warm-ups at IU. But reviving that Dipo, who humiliated the eventual national champion Kentucky Wildcats, won Sporting News Player of the Year, and left school with a Dwyane Wade ceiling, will take more than a jersey number.

Oladipo struggled to prosper during his season in Oklahoma City, though sharing a backcourt with the league’s most ball-dominant point guard was never fertile ground to begin with. He averaged the fewest points since his rookie season with 15.9 per game and saw all-time lows in what he, praised for energy and aggression, should be building his game on: steals, assists, and trips to the line.

Still, Indiana bet the future of its rebuild on Dipo revving up his underwhelming pro career. The $84 million extension he signed last October with the Thunder kicks in this season, making Oladipo the seventh-highest-paid shooting guard in the league. The Pacers are now locked into a four-year deal the OKC front office thought better of just eight months after offering it.

Oladipo’s start with the Magic was encouraging. His defense, which produced two Big Ten All-Defensive team honors and the 2013 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, had translated to the NBA. In Year 1, he received All-Rookie First Team honors; in Year 2, his scoring average bumped to 18 points a game, the most of anyone in the 2013 draft. Then growth stalled. Dipo’s production waned that third season — and along with it, projections of his potential. He was a key player for the Magic, but the regression was enough for Orlando to deal away Oladipo for 56 games of Serge Ibaka.

When Oklahoma City traded for him on draft night 2016, Dipo was never meant to be the second option. Kevin Durant had yet to leave in free agency, Dion Waiters looked likely to return, and the Thunder franchise was building off a conference finals run, their second in three seasons, not yet clamoring for a new core.

OKC seemed like the perfect destination to harness the 24-year-old’s upside. He had dabbled in the combo guard role enough that Billy Donovan could slot him as a secondary ball handler, and his leaping abilities would be showcased better paired with two already-established superstars. He wouldn’t be shoehorned into a focal-point role any longer. Then Durant left for Golden State.

KD’s free agency was a dropping Tetris piece — lined up perfectly to fit the gap — that turned sideways at the last second. Everything that came after was built in damage-control mode: Oklahoma City lost one centerpiece, and was determined to keep the other, Russell Westbrook, the summer after. With cap space in mind, the front office rescinded its qualifying offer to Waiters.

Incentivizing Westbrook to take a long-term deal by locking in young talent around him became important, too; three games into Oladipo’s tenure in Oklahoma City, the front office offered its $84 million extension. Steven Adams, 23, was paid shortly after. But without Durant or Waiters, the team hankered for shooting, a void their newly committed 2-guard was unqualified to fill.

At the start of the 2016–17 season, Oladipo was coming off the best deep-shooting season of his career. But that was still a positionally mediocre 34.8 percent.

Here, as second fiddle to Russell Westbrook, Dipo had little choice but to try his hand at spot-up shooting. The former went on to claim a record-high usage rate, while his counterpart left the isolation game behind. In its place were the most catch-and-shoot attempts of Oladipo’s career. He attacked the rim less than ever, released the majority of his shots after two seconds or less of possession time, and used a greater percentage of his touches for 3-point attempts than Russ did. To the non-shooting shooting guard’s credit, there was improvement. Oladipo ended the season shooting 36 percent from deep and found rhythm with the corner 3s at 43.8 percent altogether. He was OKC’s second-leading scorer.

That mark is deceptive with an offense like the Thunder’s, and it’s more of an indictment on OKC’s lack of non-Westbrook scoring than it is praise for Oladipo. If last season was better than his 2015–16, it was only marginally so, and by the playoffs, his first, the implications of his stalled growth were evident: Not enough time with the ball had short-circuited Oladipo in all areas, even in spots he was talented.

When resting Westbrook became unavoidable in the Rockets series, Donovan finally gave his 2-guard the rock. Dipo struggled to command attacks, had less success finishing drives both in the paint and at the rim than he did in the regular season, and, in three of the five games, did not make it to the line even once. He managed just 54 points total in the playoffs, on 24 percent deep shooting.

Even with all the Hoosierly love for Oladipo, the reaction to getting him as a return for Paul George was dismal. Cleveland, Boston, and Houston had all approached the team, taking after mall-kiosk salespeople the moment Indiana started shopping George. But the best return GM Kevin Pritchard managed was not via Houston’s long bench, or Boston’s deck of assets, or even Kevin Love. It was Oladipo. (And, well, Sabonis.) For the fans, the move was iffy at best. But for the players traded, the new situations fit. George longed for more sound talent around him and Oladipo needed the opposite, especially after a season standing and waiting on the perimeter.

That’s what a roster like Indiana’s, where the biggest name is "Myles Turner," can do for Dipo. After waiving Monta Ellis, Oladipo will share the Pacers backcourt with Darren Collison and Lance Stephenson. Last season Collison touched the ball less on average than 24 other starting point guards did. He averaged 74.8 possessions per contest, while Westbrook, Oladipo’s former partner, topped all players (regardless of position) with 99.5 per game.

Dipo’s average of 46.7 touches was second-most for the Thunder last season, the largest drop-off between any Option 1 and Option 2 in the entire league. The Pacers, meanwhile, lost both players at the top of that list, George and Jeff Teague, who were also Indiana’s two leading scorers.

"When you play with a guy like Westbrook," Pritchard said, "he can create a lot of things, but sometimes it can be a little more challenging. … We studied [Oladipo] hard, and feel he still has a lot of upside."

Second overall picks rarely get traded around so early into their careers like Oladipo has been. Sent off to his third team in three seasons, it can slip that he, at just 25 years old, still has plenty of development left to do. "I think he’s motivated to be great." Pritchard said. "Sometimes guys get paid, and they put it on cruise control. Victor is not on cruise control at all."

Still, there’s no guarantee. The money Indiana will be paying him, $21 million annually, is more than even George will make this upcoming season. Footing a higher bill for a lesser player is a hard swallow, especially when Indiana might not be sold on which identity it wants in a centerpiece shooting guard. Since Oladipo’s acquisition, George told ESPN that the franchise had offered him to the Warriors for Klay Thompson.

Thompson is the prototype for today’s catch-and-shoot game, a wave of off-ball (maybe overqualified) third options that represent the future of the 2-spot. The Wade mold is aging, along with its titular leader, as each season finds players pushing farther out to the perimeter. Today there’s not only a shortage of quality shooting guards, but an even shorter list of ones who can make an accolade-studded career in the position without 3-point shooting. Even Jimmy Butler was pressured to make the outside shot a more integral part of his game last season.

Tom Crean isn’t worried about fit, sure that Oladipo will get "a feel for what they want him to do in Indiana," and another former player of Crean’s is helping that transition. Every summer Oladipo works out and talks with Wade, a friend and mentor. In his welcoming press conference, the new Pacer was sure to include shooting on their to-do list.

"I sit down and pick his brain," Oladipo said. "It’s about being more aggressive, picking my spots on the floor that are effective and trying to get to those spots as much as I can. … [Keeping] that mentality that no matter what, I don’t care how many shots I miss, I’m not going to stop shooting the ball."

If there was ever a time to learn the league’s favorite new party trick, it’s now, while Oladipo can still lean on his athleticism to score when the shots aren’t falling. His new team has time for that development. The Pacers have no choice but to rebuild, with the last starter from their 2013–14 Eastern Conference finals run gone. Their roster will be its worst in years, without any star presence. Yet.