For Oladipo, All-Star Game Is A Step Towards A Greater Goal

In Victor Oladipo's mind, it was meant to be this way. It's destiny, really. From the time he was three or four years old, he's just had the feeling his life would bring something special, a feeling he finds difficult to explain.

Becoming an NBA All-Star, as he did on Tuesday, is only part of that grand plan, and in some ways only a beginning. Still, it qualifies as a special moment for a player who was lightly-recruited out of high school and started just five games as a freshman at Indiana University, was traded twice in his first four NBA seasons, and needed five seasons to establish himself as his team's best player.

Don't tell him that, though. His stats identify him as the Pacers' brightest star, and the team's 0-5 record when he sat out with injuries reflected his value even more clearly, but his go-to response to individual acclaim has been the same since the season began.

"It's a blessing, definitely," Oladipo said following Tuesday's practice at St. Vincent Center, when asked to speak hypothetically about being named to the Eastern Conference team. "I credit my teammates, because obviously it's a team game. I credit them for all my success."

And then he added:

"I'm going to keep working hard so I can keep getting better, because there's a lot of things I can improve on."

This is Victor Oladipo at 25 years old. It's always a good age for a promising NBA player. The legs are still fresh, the mind has been matured by a few seasons of hard knocks and the best seasons likely are still ahead. Oladipo at this age and stage of his career is on a par with two other Pacers who became familiar with playing in the All-Star game, Reggie Miller and Paul George, when they were the same age.

It remains to be seen how Oladipo handles success, whether fame and fortune affect his devotion, but for now he stands as one of the most popular and promising players in franchise history. He's local, at least as far as IU fans are concerned, he's dynamic, and he's hungry. The dreams he's carried since childhood don't end with becoming an NBA all-star.

"I have way bigger goals in mind," he said. "I want to be the best."

But he knows he has a long way to go to get there. He brought up the need for improvement on Tuesday, and didn't flinch when asked the ways in which that can happen.

"Oh, man, so many," he said. "I can always become a better shooter, better decision-maker, better at time and score as far as ending quarters, halves, games. I still have a lot of room to improve in general. I want to dominate night-in and night-out, and I feel like I still have a lot of work to do to get there."

The odds are, he'll do the work. Oladipo has proven he has the energy to power his dreams, not just in games, but in daily life. He lifts his teammates' mood on the court and in the locker room with encouraging words, but goes beyond that. He literally sings for them, providing a soundtrack that keeps them smiling.

His mood, his energy, never seems to flag. He says he doesn't know where it all comes from. His teammates wonder, too. But they appreciate it.

"The positivity he brings every day is unmatched," Cory Joseph said. "He's always in a good mood. And that lifts other players, too. I don't know where he gets the energy from, but that man has the most energy I've ever seen. In the morning … anytime you see him, he's always energetic. He's a positive spirit to be around."

Joseph remembers an example from one of the games in which the Pacers made a dramatic homecourt comeback from a double-figure deficit – he thinks it was the one against Detroit – when Oladipo kept his teammates from collapsing.

"I just remember him picking the whole team up," Joseph said. "Everybody was kind of down, but he was the one picking everybody up, saying, 'We're going to win this game!' He does it in the huddles, on the court … you might make a mistake on the court and he's like, 'All right, man, that's OK, next play, let's go!'"

Pacers coach Nate McMillan wasn't sure what he was getting when George was traded to Oklahoma City for Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis over the summer. He had seen him as an opposing coach, of course, but Oladipo had been a young, developing player for three seasons in Orlando and had been overshadowed by Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City.

As a member of the Thunder, Oladipo had averaged 15.9 points on 44 percent shooting – 36 percent from behind the 3-point line. Nobody could find evidence in those numbers that he would become what he's been this season for the Pacers, but McMillan saw hints of greater potential.

He told Oladipo and Sabonis when he first met with them that one or both of them needed to get on a path toward becoming an All-Star for the organization to have serious success. He had hoped that Oladipo would arrive sooner to begin working with his teammates in August, but noticed that whenever he called, Oladipo was working out somewhere – such as in Miami, with Dwyane Wade.

He also noticed that Oladipo, once he arrived, reminded him of Westbrook because of his raw speed. It was speed that needed to be tamed, but also speed that can't be coached or instilled.

Oladipo doesn't mind that comparison. In fact, he considers the season he spent with Westbrook, who averaged a triple-double last season, to be part of the grand plan of his career, as if he was meant to have that apprenticeship and then come to a team such as the Pacers, where he could assume a starring role. While he might have been frustrated at times by his diminished role in the offense in OKC, he learned a lot playing with someone who brought unbridled energy to every game.

Even before the trade to the Pacers, which he learned of from social media after his flight to Atlanta landed, Oladipo had dedicated himself to a rigorous summer of improving his body, mind and skill set. Playing with Westbrook had been a primary impetus for that.

"There's always a turning point in somebody's life, right?" he said. "There's always that point in your life you can go south or north. You can say yes or no. You can go right or left.

"(Playing with Westbrook) obviously had something to do with it; just watching his great season, him being a mentor to me was huge as well. I appreciate everything he did for me. His mindset, relentlessness. A lot of things happen in your life that you don't really understand, especially when you're in it. Like I said in my press conference when I first got here, things happen for a reason."

McMillan agrees, Oladipo has plenty of room for improvement. His defense can always improve. Oladipo, in McMillan's view, should rank even higher among the league leaders in steals than the seventh position he currently holds. Shot selection is an issue at times as well.

"We've talked about that, where he was hunting some shots, taking quick shots," McMillan said.

Right at that moment, Oladipo and Joseph walked by, returning to the practice court after recording segments for the Call a Pacer program. Oladipo was singing, for no particular reason.

"You hear that?" Joseph said, referring to the comments he had made a few minutes earlier about Oladipo's uplifiting nature.

It was heard. But there's something else Oladipo wants heard. Just because he's singing doesn't mean he's celebrating anything. And just because he's an All-Star doesn't mean he's comfortable, despite all the love he's getting in his adopted home state. He's not comfortable now, and, hopefully in his mind, not ever comfortable as long as he's still playing.

"I'm at my best when my back is against the wall," he said. "It's always going to be against the wall. I've been through so much in my lifetime and my career, I can never get comfortable.

"Someone asked me one time, 'Are you comfortable here now?' I said no, I never will be comfortable. Not in a bad way, it just motivates me to get up every day and go to work and chase greatness. I still have a lot of room to improve. Those (game-winning) shots, those moments, are in the past, they mean nothing now. They're just memories. I have to continue to keep working so I have great memories."

*PER is Player Efficiency Rating, a per-minute stat that takes into account both positive and negative stats. Usage rate is an estimate of the percentage of team plays involving a player while he is on the floor, whether by a shot, assist or turnover.

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Mark Montieth's book, "Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis," covers the formation and early seasons of the franchise. It is available at retail outlets throughout Indiana and online at sources such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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