The Indiana Pacers have shined through the early season and the single biggest reason why is the emergence of Victor Oladipo.
Before the season, a major talking point was the perceived talent migration to the Western Conference. A cavalcade of stars left the East with only a couple going the other way, and after Gordon Hayward’s injury on opening night, it appeared as though the East might not even have enough talent to field an All-Star team. But, after the first 25 games of the season, it is clear that a major talent headed East and nobody even noticed.
In trading away Paul George for an almost universally panned return of Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, the Pacers may have gotten the best asset of the deal. Sabonis has had a very good start to the season and has solidly built upon his rookie campaign, while Oladipo has been a revelation.
Oladipo hasn’t just been good, he’s been among the league’s best. So far this season he’s won the Eastern Conference Player of the Week twice and will very likely get his first All-Star nod this February.
If you look at his production, it’s clear why he’s earned this recognition. His points (24.5), rebounds (5.3), steals (1.8), and blocks per game (1.1) are all career-highs. While a lot of that improvement comes as a result of his 9.5% increase in usage rate over last season, his increased efficiency is even more impressive.
In addition to his per-game stats, he also is averaging a career-best 56.0 eFG%, and has a PER of 23.5. The fact that he’s producing like a number one option without falling into the traditional pitfalls of scarifying efficiency is very impressive and rare.
Oladipo has become a more effective scorer in many ways, but the key has been his shooting at the rim. Since his early days in Orlando, Oladipo has always been a very aggressive driver. On the Magic, he took over 40% of his shots from within three feet, but was erratic in his finishing at just 56.2%.
Last season in Oklahoma City, his FG% on those shots rose above 60%, but he took fewer shots in the paint as a result of his diminished role. This season, he has found the happy medium between the efficiency he developed in OKC and the aggressiveness he had in Orlando and has converted that into 59.8% shooting on over five attempts a game inside of three feet.
As improved as he is around the rim, his greatest jump has come from the perimeter. Through his first four seasons, Oladipo was a pretty streaky shooter; he took almost four attempts per game but made under 35% of them. This season, Oladipo has found his stroke and isn’t just shooting more (6.2 attempts per game), but is making them 44.4% of the time.
If we were picking nits in an area that Oladipo could still see some improvement, he does take too many long twos and pull-up jumpers (44.1% of his FGA). While that is a common problem when you are asked to create your own offense, Oladipo has become decently effective on those shots. And when he’s been asked to make a play when the Pacers have needed it the most, he’s made the most of his opportunities.
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In addition to his game-winner against San Antonio, he hit one against Chicago and put the final dagger in the Cavaliers. Just this past week he put up 47 points against the Nuggets, including eight of Indiana’s final ten points in regulation and six of their twelve in overtime.
As great as he’s been overall, Oladipo’s game has gone to another level in crunch time. His usage rate jumps to 41.5%, Indiana is +18.3/100 possessions with him on the floor, and the Pacers are 10-5 in crunch time games this season. Winning so many close games is probably the biggest reason Indiana would be in the playoffs if they started today.
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As Oladipo completes what has been a very impressive first quarter of the season, we are left trying to figure out where this came from. We knew that the 25-year-old had promise, but anyone who says that they saw this coming is lying to you.
The answer to that question is pretty simple, but it’s not easy to grapple with. For as undeniably great as Russell Westbrook is, he is not built to share the backcourt spotlight and his greatness blocked Oladipo’s.
Westbrook and Oladipo didn’t work as a tandem last season, and they were probably never going to. When one of them had it going, the other didn’t, because neither player was built to play with the other. They didn’t work together not because they were too different, but because they are so very much alike.
The confidence that Westbrook so often lives and dies by is now what Oladipo is thriving on. He couldn’t have taken, let alone made, those game-winners without a supreme level of confidence. This season Oladipo has masterfully taken his natural talent, combined it with the confidence and leadership that was muted in Oklahoma, and become a burgeoning star of his own.
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Unless something dramatic happens over the next few months, Oladipo and the Pacers will continue their breakout seasons. Oladipo’s All-Star candidacy grows stronger by the day: he’s the current odds-on favorite to win Most Improved Player, and the Pacers have played like they are clearly one of the eight best teams in the East.
While they might not make any real postseason noise this season, the young core of Oladipo, Sabonis, and Myles Turner will develop into East contenders sooner rather than later. Six months ago we all rushed to declare time of death on the Pacer franchise, but today their future looks pretty bright.
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