Draft Preview: Victor Oladipo

Athletic Oladipo goes from fringe prospect to lottery lock in short order

Victor Oladipo
Victor Oladipo
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

(Editor’s note: Fifth in a recurring series leading to the June 27 draft. Coming Friday: Shabazz Muhammad.)

It speaks to how thoroughly Tom Crean has restored Indiana to its customary elite status after the NCAA put the Hoosiers in shackles over Kelvin Sampson’s recruiting transgressions that Victor Oladipo probably wouldn’t be on Crean’s A recruiting list these days.

But for where the Hoosiers were four years ago, when Oladipo was a rising senior in suburban Washington, D.C., and playing at storied DeMatha Catholic as the nation’s 41st ranked shooting guard, according to Rivals.com, Crean saw a building block – a highly athletic player who would play hard and play defense, even if his athleticism on the offensive end seemed a long, long way from being harnessed.

Through his first two seasons in Bloomington, Oladipo carved out a niche just as Crean envisioned – a high-energy, high-character player who helped the Hoosiers turn the corner, winning 27 games in Oladipo’s sophomore season, Crean’s fourth since leaving Marquette for the Big Ten, after a 12-win freshman season.

But nobody was talking about Oladipo as a first-round draft pick, let alone a high lottery selection, when his junior season began last November. He was still very much a fringe NBA draft prospect, widely known to scouts who saw him as potentially a defensive specialist. If there was a best-case scenario for Oladipo in the eyes of NBA scouts when his junior season dawned, it would be to come to the NBA as a second-round draft pick and eventually evolve into a Tony Allen-level defender.

Today, there are some who feel Oladipo could shoulder his way into the discussion for the No. 1 overall pick, though after spending the No. 4 pick in last year’s draft on shooting guard Dion Waiters, Cleveland – lottery winners – seems an unlikely landing spot. Yet it would be something of an upset if he slides out of the top five and works into the range of the Pistons, selecting eighth, though it bears remembering that they’ve come out of the last three drafts with players expected to be out of their reach: Greg Monroe, Brandon Knight and Andre Drummond.

The Pistons probably aren’t counting on Oladipo joining them, though, because the combination of his career arc – and the possibility that he’ll take another emphatic step or two forward – plus the effusive personality he’ll project in predraft workouts is fairly certain to close the case for a top-seven team drafting him before their turn.

The Pistons had their chance to interview Oladipo at the Chicago draft combine earlier this month, but it’s a long shot that they’ll be able to get him to come to Auburn Hills for an individual workout. Most see Phoenix, picking fifth, as Oladipo’s likely floor in the June 27 draft.

If there’s a crack in Oladipo’s draft armor, it could come as scouts scratch into his junior season and wonder if his spike in productivity is to be trusted. He doesn’t put the ball on the floor to create offense often and the open shots he got at IU in transition or as a result of the shooters around him and the presence of Cody Zeller inside might not present themselves as easily in the NBA. There’s also a smidgen of doubt about Oladipo’s size; at 6-foot-4 ½ in shoes as measured in Chicago, his ability to guard all three perimeter positions might be a stretch, though his 42-inch vertical leap and 6-foot-9¼ wing span produces a profile that allows him to play bigger.

Oladipo would respond to questions about his ability to continue to improve by showing scouts the pass card to Indiana’s Assembly Hall that he used so often it wore out.

“When I’m in my apartment at Indiana and you just finished watching a playoff game on the West Coast, it’s about midnight and you’ve got to wake up at 9:30 the next morning but there’s something about you that you just want to be in the gym, so I just get up and go,” he said. “Twenty-four hour access, you just swipe the card and right in there – it’s a beautiful thing. I just want to get better. I want to be the best basketball player I can possibly be. I had to get another (card). It didn’t work any more. I got a new one and I was good after that.

“I’m just abnormal, to be honest with you. I’m a weird dude. I’m not going to lie to you.”

It was at Assembly Hall, through dogged work, that Oladipo launched so many jump shots he quite suddenly became a confident shooter, he said.

“I just stayed in the gym, building my confidence. I felt like it was all a mental thing for me. Just repetition after repetition after repetition and realizing that if I miss, so what? Go on to the next shot, get it off quick and just keep shooting the ball at a high level. Once I realized I’m just going to shoot the good shots and the open shots and the shots I feel like are my best, I started making them at a high level. I feel like I’m a shooter now, a whole different mentality.”

Oladipo was nowhere near a prolific 3-point shooter at Indiana – he went from attempting 1.3 a game as a sophomore to 1.9 as a junior – but his accuracy improved dramatically, 21 percent to 44 percent. In fact, he averaged only 8.4 shots despite playing more than 28 minutes a game. Outside of dominant defensive big men, not many players who average eight shots a game find themselves high lottery picks.

The Pistons would like to get more athletic on the perimeter, and Oladipo brings that in spades. But they also would like a more consistent 3-point shooting threat. It’s no certainty he’d help as much in that area. Will NBA teams trust the abnormal one-year jump in 3-point accuracy?

If it was the offensive improvement that vaulted Oladipo from the draft’s murky second-round status to lottery lock, defense will remain his surest path to an immediate NBA role. Crean has long valued deflections as a barometer of a player’s defensive merit, dating to his days as a Michigan State assistant to Tom Izzo, and Oladipo ranks with Dwyane Wade as the two most prolific he’s ever coached. Could Oladpio possibly harness his athleticism in the way that Wade has?

And those Tony Allen comparisons? Scouts now see that as Oladipo’s floor. As Oladipo matures and gains strength, his superior athleticism could make him an even more stout, disruptive defender than Allen. Purely as an athlete, Oladipo comes to the NBA in a class with Russell Westbrook, scouts feel.

His defensive promise and zeal for personal improvement would make Oladipo an easy pick, it would seem, for the Pistons if he somehow drifts to No. 8. No matter whom Joe Dumars tabs to replace Lawrence Frank as coach, he’s likely to be in favor of adding a supremely athletic wing defender dedicated to the gym.

“A defensive-oriented team that’s growing and wants to work hard and just win games, win at a high level,” Oladipo said of the best NBA franchise for him. “That’s what fits me. Whoever picks me, wherever I go, I’m going to go there and bring a high level of work ethic and come in and make a positive impact.”

And Oladipo is adamant that his work ethic will remain on high burn and lead him to increasingly higher planes of productivity.

“I feel like I have another level to go every year,” he said. “I’ve just got to keep growing as a player and as a person every year and taking it one day at a time and being better each day.”

Oladipo makes convincing cases that he both still has ample room for growth and the determination to get there. And in a draft with very few sure things, that adds up to him likely being out of reach for the Pistons four weeks from Thursday.