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Victor Oladipo Is Back for the First Time

A new offseason regimen and a new opportunity back in Indiana has helped turn the Pacers guard into the surprise breakout star of the NBA season

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Victor Oladipo first met Dwyane Wade at the White House. Oladipo, then an uncommitted high school recruit, was attending a Father’s Day event hosted by President Barack Obama in June 2009. Wade, then the NBA’s scoring titleholder, was one of the featured speakers. While there, Oladipo asked the All-Star guard about Tom Crean, whom Wade had played for at Marquette. Wade gave his former coach his stamp of approval. Oladipo committed to Crean’s new team, Indiana, three months later.

Before his return to his Indiana roots this season, Oladipo set out to reboot an NBA career that had yet to make much of an impact. So, once again, he sought Wade’s advice. This summer, Oladipo spent time with Wade in Miami. Oladipo went to Wade’s gym, visited Wade’s house, and discussed the level of patience and mind-set required to develop in the league.

“When you walk into [the gym] and you see [LeBron James and Dwyane Wade] jerseys and those names on the wall, it gives you a certain motivation every day,” Oladipo told me about working out in Miami. “Those are [two of the] top players ever to play. That's what I aspire and dream about being. So why not put in the work?”

The work has paid off. Oladipo, a late-bloomer at virtually every stage of his basketball career, has played like a superstar in his first season with the Pacers. Almost six months after a surprise trade from Oklahoma City, the 25-year-old is averaging career highs across the board, including 24.5 points and a 56 effective field goal percentage, while developing as a passer and leader and playing his typical hard-nosed defense. Indiana was supposed to take a step back after dealing Paul George this offseason—a move that was panned by media, fans, and executives alike. But Oladipo has supercharged the team to a 16-11 record heading into Wednesday's matchup against George and the Thunder. Oladipo quickly has Pacers fans forgetting their ex-superstar and the rest of the NBA rethinking its evaluation of his potential.

“All NBA players work, but not every NBA player works on the right stuff,” Crean told me over the phone. “Victor has always had an ability, going back to college, to identify and trust what he had to work on to get better.”

Oladipo’s mind-set and work ethic are what have always set him apart, according to Crean, but he’s taken those to a new level this season. He transformed his body and got in the best shape of his life at DBC Fitness in Miami, hired a sports doctor and chef, and focused on skill work at two gyms, I’m Possible Training and Integrity Hoops. “I invested in me,” Oladipo said. “I invested in my time, invested in my body, invested in my mind, and it's paying off.”

When Oladipo began his quest in May, DBC Fitness ran him through 64 orthopedic measurements, with the goal of designing an individualized program for each athlete. DBC owner David Alexander said the results showed that Oladipo’s training, nutrition, sleep, and weight all weren’t where they could be. He didn’t have proper knee flexion and hip range of motion, so stretches and exercises were designed to restore his strength, mobility, and flexibility. He also had a high-carbohydrate-and-processed-food diet, so DBC aimed to not just put him on a new meal plan, but change his lifestyle. “If it didn't come from earth, you can't eat it,” Alexander said he told Oladipo. “If it didn’t swim, crawl, run, or grow, you can’t eat it.”

Oladipo immediately removed flour, fast food, refined sugars, and gluten as instructed. Alexander was amazed at how quickly Oladipo adapted because many of his clients can’t quit cold turkey. “He literally was a robot,” Alexander said. “He woke up one day, and that was it.”

After three weeks in Miami, Oladipo posted a glo-up photo in mid-June.

Those abs aren’t Photoshopped. Oladipo might’ve been training in Miami, but Alexander said he wasn’t indulging in the nightlife. He followed his new nutrition plan, drank a gallon of water a day, and underwent two-a-day workouts. Wade said Oladipo transformed his mind down in Miami. (Robotic, indeed.) His mornings started with skill-enhancement training with I’m Possible Training, then he went over to work at DBC Fitness, went home to nap, and returned to DBC for recovery and treatment.

Oladipo’s physical changes set the foundation for his progress on the court. For 13 weeks this offseason, Micah Lancaster and Joshua Dudley of I’m Possible Training put Oladipo through unorthodox drills that helped him stay low and stop on a dime as a ball handler, and get better at reacting to traps and hedges. Oladipo later worked in August with Noah LaRoche from Integrity Hoops on in-game actions, such as drive-and-kicks in the pick-and-roll, post-ups, and finishing at the rim. The training was designed to complement his gym workouts. If Oladipo was working on hip flexibility and quick-twitch muscle movements at DBC, then I’m Possible helped him translate it to quickness in the open floor, agility in tight spaces, and change of direction.

Oladipo, the no. 2 pick in the 2013 draft, always had a strong playing foundation to work from. The difference now, Lancaster said, is he’s learning how to mesh refined skills with his explosive athleticism.

Behind Oladipo’s scoring jolt are improvements in his off-the-dribble game. To elevate his shooting, Lancaster said they used drills that forced Oladipo to drive full speed, stop to place a cone down without losing balance, and pull up or step back into a jumper. “We work on simulating body movements and positions,” Lancaster said. “It allows [the player] to plug into the game.”

Their techniques have worked. Oladipo made 48 total 3s in 104 games with the Hoosiers, but he’s made 71 triples, at a 45.2 percent success rate, through 26 games with the Pacers. Oladipo has drained 45.5 percent of his dribble-jumper 3s, compared to 32.7 percent over the past four seasons, per NBA.com.

This isn’t just a hot shooter. It’s a player who reinvented himself. The moves seen in the summer training video—from the side-steps to the step-backs—have all translated to the court. He expanded and mastered his repertoire of moves, which not only makes him a go-to scoring option in end-of-game situations but opens up everything else for him on the floor.

More defenders are going over screens to prevent him from simply pulling up over the top, which means driving lanes are opening for him to attack. At-rim finishing was as much of a priority. “Everything was a priority this summer,” Oladipo said. “Everything to get better is a priority every day.”

Lancaster said the use of a foam roller while defending Oladipo’s drives to the rim was meant to simulate the player’s ability to drop his inside shoulder, like a trigger so he knows he’s getting low enough on his drives. Already capable of overpowering defenders, Oladipo finished his summer workouts by focusing on sidesteps, reverses, and improving his inside hand with LaRoche. “We didn’t reinvent the wheel,” LaRoche said. “We just tried to tighten things up.”

Oladipo shot only 55.7 percent from the restricted area over his first four seasons, and now he’s hit a career-best 61.7 percent from the same area.

Oladipo showed off all the goods in a 47-point performance on Sunday in a win against the Nuggets. He finished with lefty scoops, reversals, and right-hand finishes high off the glass—and got it all done in clutch moments, with 17 points in the fourth quarter and overtime. It was exactly the sort of moment Oladipo would never have gotten the chance at last season.

In his lone season in Oklahoma City, Oladipo typically played next to two traditional big men and guards and wings who couldn’t effectively space the floor. Not only were his opportunities limited next to Russell Westbrook, but when he did get the ball, there was no space to drive. In Indiana, virtually every forward and big can shoot 3s. Al Jefferson is the only non-floor-spacer to log over 100 minutes. “I think he wanted more responsibility in OKC, just playing with the MVP,” Wade said. “Sometimes it’s about opportunity. You can see it in certain guys. Sometimes they don’t get it. But he took it.”

When I asked Pacers head coach Nate McMillan if he’s seen a player improve as rapidly as Oladipo, he brought up Brandon Roy, who he coached in Portland from 2006-07 through 2010-11. But Roy’s leap came in his second season. Oladipo’s is coming in his fifth. Sports quantitative analyst Steve Shea, who helps LaRoche train pro and amateur athletes, found that Oladipo was miscast early in his career. Lottery picks usually see a steady increase in their on-ball usage on drives, time of possession, and free throw attempts, Shea said. With Oladipo, there was a downward trend. Orlando experimented with Oladipo at point guard as a rookie, then drafted Elfrid Payton and invested in Evan Fournier. At one point, Oladipo was coming off the bench. He was traded to Oklahoma City, where the heaviest usage player in NBA history resided. It’s not as if Oladipo got worse as a player (he scored about 16 points per game in each of the past three seasons). He just never got more chances—only new coaches (five over his first five seasons, to be exact). For example, as a rookie, Oladipo touched the ball for 5.8 minutes per game and dribbled an average of 5.4 times per touch. His final season in Orlando, those numbers dropped to 3.5 and 3.2, respectively, before plummeting to 2.9 and 2.4 in Oklahoma City. As a sophomore, he tallied 9.2 drives per game, compared to just 3.9 last season with the Thunder, per NBA.com.

After trading their go-to scorer, the Pacers were able to provide Oladipo with the sort of opportunities typical of a top pick. And LaRoche and Shea had the foresight to plan for Oladipo’s imminent role reversal, tailoring drills to help Oladipo’s ball skills and his ability to create and finish. As a result, Oladipo went from a role player to a centerpiece who helped the Pacers “establish a style,” according to McMillan. Indiana ranked 18th in pace last season, compared to 10th so far this season with an extra 2.7 possessions per game.

They play unselfishly as an entire unit, pushing the ball ahead, making the extra pass, and moving without the ball. The Pacers rank 12th in passes per game, per NBA.com, compared to 24th last season. McMillan, after years of his teams playing at a snail’s pace, preached playing faster last season, but the Pacers ended up in the league’s bottom half. Now with Oladipo as the lead ball handler, it has the personnel to do it.

Pacers Time of Possession Ranking

Year After All Shots After Made Shot After Def. Rebound After Turnover
Year After All Shots After Made Shot After Def. Rebound After Turnover
2017-18 9 11 10 10
2016-17 15 13 25 23

Rankings via Inpredictable.com, as of December 10.

Indiana is pushing the ball significantly more after defensive rebounds and turnovers, which has led to a surge in transition chances and, more broadly, the sixth-ranked offense in the NBA. Oladipo already has logged more than half as many transition chances as he did last season in Oklahoma City. “Victor has shown the ability to do some of the things Westbrook does: rebounding and starting the break,” McMillan said. “It puts a lot of pressure on the defense when you have a guard that can rebound, and [you] have speed coming at you. He’s done a good job at that.”

Oladipo is having a better season than Westbrook, who is shooting only 39.6 percent from the field on 20.3 shots per game. (Maybe Pacers GM Kevin Pritchard will get the last laugh after all.) But Oladipo doesn’t receive the same type of defensive attention as the triple-double machine. There will also come a point where he does. Double-teams, traps, and hedges will be used to take the ball out of hands and put the onus on someone else. McMillan expects that Oladipo will soon see the top defender every night. “What he’ll learn is that he’ll need to get mentally and physically stronger going against those types of defenders,” McMillan said. “That can take a toll over a season since it’s something he hasn’t seen.”

Once defenses overload on Oladipo, he’ll need to get better at making plays for others. Oladipo has shown flashes, particularly in the pick-and-roll with Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner. Oladipo does a good job of whipping passes with his left hand to spot-up shooters, and he’s adept at completing pocket passes to rolling bigs. McMillan said he sees Oladipo’s potential as a passer once the guard learns how to take advantage of his speed in the pick-and-roll, in transition, and when coming off pin-down screens. To that end, Oladipo and McMillan have spent countless film sessions together focusing on how he can change pace. Oladipo has only a 0.62 assist-to-usage ratio, per Cleaning the Glass, a moderate rate. Per Synergy, he has a 26.3 percent turnover rate when the defense commits in the pick-and-roll. In plain terms, he could do better at cutting down on turnovers committed when he's moving too fast for his own good.

Oladipo isn’t a finished product, of course. The theme emerging from those around Oladipo is that, despite his explosive start, it’s the first phase of a project they’ll keep working on each offseason. But the progress thus far is undeniable. In recent weeks, Oladipo has done a better job of utilizing hesitations and contorting his body on layups around the rim. “I'm definitely moving better out here,” he said. “I'm probably a good 15-20 pounds lighter than I was last year, and leaner. So, I'm still getting used to this body. Sometimes I can get too fast, too out of control, but I'm learning.”

It’s taken some time for the production to come, but the drive Oladipo has shown to get there is hardly new to those who know him. “He knows now that he’ll be defined by his winning,” Crean said. “That’s what happens when you spend time around guys like Dwyane Wade, when you get in those environments and see how those guys carry themselves.”

In May 2012, after Wade shot 2-for-13 and the Heat fell to a 2-1 deficit in the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Pacers, he crashed Indiana University for a film session with Crean. Oladipo popped in, absorbing everything he could from the superstar he once crossed paths with, by chance, at the White House. “He has been very important, showing me things, guiding me through what to expect,” he said.

Now Oladipo is trying to set an example of his own. He hosted Raptors rookie forward OG Anunoby, an ex-Hoosier, for Thanksgiving. After Turner struggled against the Pistons in November, Oladipo went over to his house at 1 a.m. to talk it out. After four-plus seasons, five different coaches, and three different teams, Oladipo understands that everyone’s path is different. “Sometimes it takes time,” he said, “sometimes some people come along quicker than others. Some people are put in the right situation before others.”

But the work Oladipo put in this summer has opened up all sorts of new possibilities. “I hope it ends in a Hall of Fame moment for him,” Wade said. “We talked about not knowing the path of your career, don’t put limitations on yourself, and he hasn’t done it.”

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly referred to Indiana University as the University of Indiana.