Victor Oladipo will, in all likelihood, be named the Most Improved Player of the Year for the 2017-18 NBA season. It’s well deserved. Oladipo transformed his body and enhanced his game this past offseason, and his game has blossomed. After his second 30-plus-point performance in a row, Oladipo is now scoring an efficient 24.4 points per game on the season and the Pacers are surging toward a playoff appearance, only two games behind the Cavaliers for the 3-seed. If there’s a new Dwyane Wade in the NBA, it’s Oladipo.
But working hard doesn’t guarantee success in life, or in sports. Luck and opportunity play a significant role. The Pacers enabled Oladipo to be the man. His team put the ball in his hands more frequently and leaned on him in end-of-game scenarios. He’s doing the most with his moment, but without the chance the Pacers took, we might still view him as an underwhelming no. 2 overall pick.
It’s not a particularly sexy title, but Most Improved Situation of the Year might be a more appropriate name for the award. Oladipo went from standing around and watching Russell Westbrook rack up triple-doubles to being an All-Star face of a franchise. Not every situational makeover is as drastic as Oladipo’s, but there are other players from this season who have been given (or will be given) the opportunity to showcase their skills in a new light. Here are the 2017-18 Victor Oladipo All-Stars.
DeMar DeRozan, Raptors
Not every situation is improved by a blockbuster transaction; sometimes all it takes is learning from the past and committing to a new way of thinking. DeMar DeRozan is the face of Toronto’s overhauled, modernized system, which aims to increase the team’s pace, 3-point shooting attempts, and ball movement. The Raptors routinely ranked near the bottom of the league in all passing metrics over recent seasons, but are now seeing an uptick across the board. They’re passing the ball more times per possession, holding it less, and playing at a faster pace. Within his new environment, DeRozan is tallying 7.1 assists per 100 possessions, compared to 4.3 over the first eight seasons of his career.
One frustration in watching DeRozan in the past was his tunnel vision, which sometimes worked to his benefit as a pure scorer, but often was detrimental since better shots could be available. Now, DeRozan has become more mindful when attacking; rather than forcing jumpers, he’s seeking out open shooters and delivering accurate dimes.
That’s Jonas Valanciunas draining the 3; he’s hit 21 triples over his entire career and 20 have come this season. But no player’s shooting habits have been more notable than DeRozan’s. The All-Star guard’s offseason workouts focused on extending his shooting range and he’s done just that; 19.3 percent of his shots have come from 3, compared to 9 percent over the rest of his career. DeRozan has increased his 3-point shooting volume as the season’s progressed, attempting 2.8 triples a game before the New Year and 4.5 after.
While he’s shooting only 33.9 percent from 3 overall, he’s hitting a very solid 37.7 percent of his 3s off the catch. Those attempts have cut into his allotment of contested 2-point jumpers, though it’s not as if DeRozan has forsaken his core identity: The midrange can still be extremely valuable in end-of-clock situations, and he still averages 7.2 pull-up 2-pointer attempts per game. But the mere threat that he will catch and shoot has made him a more unpredictable scorer, and the Raptors as a whole benefit from the increased spacing he provides. It remains to be seen if DeRozan and his team’s improvements will lead to greater postseason success, but his new approach to the game certainly made him a more dynamic offensive player and made the Raptors a more dynamic team as a whole.
Reggie Bullock, Pistons
As a college freshman, Bullock struggled to find his place in the rotation at North Carolina, and his shooting suffered. As a sophomore, both his role and production increased drastically, and as a junior he played a feature role and developed into a lethal shooter off the catch. It seemed like the more opportunity Bullock was given, the better he performed. History is repeating itself in the NBA.
After being drafted 25th overall in 2013 by the Clippers, he received inconsistent playing time, didn’t shoot well, and was eventually traded to the Suns, then dealt again to the Pistons. During his third NBA season, he began to show signs of life with the Pistons until injuries derailed his ascension. Now he’s healthy, playing nearly 26 minutes per game, and shooting the lights out.
With polished footwork and a quick release, Bullock is hitting 45.8 percent of his 3s. But he does more than hit basic catch-and-shoot jumpers from a standstill position: He’s one of the league’s most efficient shooters off screens and handoffs, per Synergy Sports, and does an excellent job of moving without the ball to create passing lanes for his teammates.
“His defense, his energy, his basketball intelligence, his movement without the ball—that’s always really good,” Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy said in January. “It’s just a matter of shooting, and now I think when he’s playing all the time he’s starting to get in his rhythm shooting the ball.” It’s a nice bonus when players can come off the bench frozen, heat up immediately, and hit a shot, but Bullock doesn’t have that ability. Fortunately, he’s in a situation now where he’s receiving regular minutes, and he’s flourishing.
Josh Richardson, Heat
Goran Dragic might be Miami’s All-Star, and Hassan Whiteside might be its most recognizable name, but Josh Richardson is its best player. It’s amazing when you think about it: Three years ago, after Richardson capped off a stellar senior season at Tennessee, he didn’t even receive an invitation to the NBA combine. Richardson was eventually drafted 40th by the Heat, and after two up-and-down seasons, he’s looking like one of the biggest second-round steals since Draymond Green.
Richardson, 24, carries a heavy two-way workload. Erik Spoelstra regularly assigns Richardson to guard the opponent’s best scorer, a responsibility that once seemed destined for Justise Winslow. At 6-foot-6 with long arms and quick feet, Richardson has become a multi-positional menace.
Offensively, the Heat are pushing his limits to find out what he’s capable of. They run Richardson through handoffs and screens as well as in the secondary pick-and-roll, and empower him to push the pace in transition. This might be a surprise for those just catching onto his game, but it isn’t anything new for him—he’s been this versatile, slippery scorer since college.
The difference now is that he’s adapted to the NBA’s speed and pace and is getting the opportunity. Dion Waiters is out for the season. Dragic can’t do it all. Dwyane Wade is back, but he’s a shell of his former self. Someone needed to handle the load, and the player who showed he can is Richardson. Now he’s going to be learning from Wade. He might not be done rising.
Spencer Dinwiddie, Nets
Jeremy Lin’s ruptured patellar tendon on opening night and D’Angelo Russell’s knee surgery weeks later pushed Spencer Dinwiddie into the spotlight. The fourth-year point guard got promising and productive minutes last season on the Nets, but their void at point guard this season gave him the space to be what he is now: the team’s best player. “I didn’t just wake up a month ago, like, ‘Hey, I can play basketball really good now, guys!’” Dinwiddie told The Ringer. “It took the coaching staff’s belief in me. They didn’t go find a vet or sign another guy. That’s what’s producing this.”
Dinwiddie has taken advantage by averaging more than double the shot attempts and assists he had in any previous season, and he’s had multiple high-output scoring nights that have won games for the Nets, or at least kept them within range. The Nets, despite their efforts at creating a winning culture, are still one of the worst teams in the NBA. The stench of losing can make it difficult for someone like Dinwiddie, a two-way player who still struggles with efficiency, to prove he can contribute to a winner. But despite everything, the league has noticed his impact on the Nets. The Cavaliers reportedly offered their first-round pick for Dinwiddie, according to ESPN, but the Nets rightfully resisted. The 24-year-old guard is a smooth operator in the pick-and-roll who can drive, pass, draw fouls, and pull up from anywhere. When it’s late in the clock, he’s capable of scoring in isolations.
Dinwiddie shoots only 45.4 percent from 2 and 33.7 percent from 3, but part of the reason his numbers are so low is because he’s asked to do so much. It’s conceivable that once he’s surrounded by more talented players, his production will increase, which had to play into Brooklyn’s thinking in refusing offers at the deadline. Dinwiddie hits 41.7 percent of his spot-up 3s, but takes only 2.4 per game compared to 3.3 off the dribble. As the talent level on Brooklyn’s roster increases, he’ll see more easy scoring chances.
Dinwiddie will earn $1.6 million next season, making him one of the league’s best bargains. But that won’t be the case once he hits the free-agent market in 2019. Dinwiddie has been given a chance to show what he can do. It won’t be long until he’s rewarded.
The Four Cavaliers
“[LeBron James is] the Batman, and we got to be all Robins,” new Cavaliers point guard George Hill said recently. Sunday’s game in Boston was a good start. Just look at Batman’s reaction:
The Cavs ran the Celtics off the floor, 121-99, and looked like they had been together for months, not days. Their four new players acquired before Thursday’s trade deadline—Hill, Rodney Hood, Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson—injected energy and effort not seen from the team in weeks.
Hill went from rotting in Sacramento to starting on an NBA Finals contender; he played better defense in one game than all of Cleveland’s previous guards had all season. We’re about to find out what Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson can do when paired with a superstar on a winning team for the first time in their careers; Nance was effective as a rim-runner and played versatile defense, looking the part of a player who will push for a greater role over Tristan Thompson. Rodney Hood was already in a good situation in Utah, but finds himself on a team that has both his short- and long-term interests in mind: He’ll get more open shots than ever before playing with LeBron, and once he hits restricted free agency this offseason, the Cavaliers will likely retain his services for the foreseeable future. It remains to be seen if the Cavs can sustain this level of success. They won’t hit over half of their 3-pointers every night. But the early returns are encouraging. Sunday’s win was a rallying cry for a team looking to prove to the rest of the world that they are true contenders. The new guys played their part and then some.