Oladipo on His Health, Coach Bjorkgren & Upcoming Season

December 1, 2020: Victor Oladipo provides an update on his health and discusses his relationship with Nate Bjorkgren, as well as his excitement for the upcoming season.

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Oladipo on His Health, Coach Bjorkgren & Upcoming Season

December 1, 2020: Victor Oladipo provides an update on his health and discusses his relationship with Nate Bjorkgren, as well as his excitement for the upcoming season.
Dec 1, 2020  |  02:10

Bjorkgren on Practice, Calbert Cheaney & Managing a Season

Dec. 1, 2020 - Pacers head coach Nate Bjorkgren discusses the start of the 20-21 season, why he hired Calbert Cheaney and managing a long season in the NBA.
Dec 1, 2020  |  02:33

Sabonis is Excited for the Season to Start

December 1, 2020: Domantas Sabonis discusses his health, Coach Nate Bjorkgren and how the team will play this season.
Dec 1, 2020  |  01:08

Oladipo and Sabonis Healthy, Optimistic Entering New Season

by Wheat Hotchkiss
Pacers.com Writer/Editor
@Wheat_Hotchkiss

The 2019-20 Pacers season was marred by injuries, bookended by large stretches without each of Indiana's two All-Stars.

The 2020-21 season opens on a more hopeful note, as both Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis are healthy and ready to tip off a new chapter of Pacers basketball.

"It's a different kind of feeling around here," Oladipo told the media via Zoom on Tuesday, the first day of formal individual workouts to open training camp. "It's a lot of excitement because we get an opportunity to be full throttle and go into a season full throttle, knock on wood. We're excited about it and you can tell everyone is.

"We have an opportunity to do something really special here this year."

That different feeling can be attributed to new head coach Nate Bjorkgren, who made a quick impression on both Oladipo and Sabonis. Shortly after his hiring was announced on Oct. 20, Bjorkgren flew out to meet individually with his star players, spending two days each with Oladipo in Florida and Sabonis in Los Angeles, where he watched their workouts and shared his vision for the franchise.

Both players noted Bjorkgren's energy and enthusiasm as qualities that really stood out in those initial meetings in addition to his basketball IQ.

"We really clicked," Oladipo said. "He's really smart, he sees the game differently. The style of play is going to be different. I'm going to play hard (and) play Pacer basketball, but I'm guessing there's going to be a new feel to it. I'm looking forward to it."

"He has a lot of ideas, a lot of different things he wants to try out with us," Sabonis added. "I feel like everybody's excited about that."

For Oladipo, the start of a new season is in many ways the light at the end of a very long tunnel after a tumultuous nearly two-year journey since he ruptured his right quad tendon in January of 2019. The two-time All-Star missed over a year before returning to action on Jan. 29, 2020, played in just 13 games prior to the COVID-19 pandemic halted the NBA season in March, then participated in three scrimmages, six seeding games, and four playoff contests in the NBA restart bubble in Orlando later that summer.

While he had moments where he looked like his old self, Oladipo also displayed some unexpected rust in his return to action, particularly with his shot as he posted the lowest field goal (.394) and 3-point (.317) percentages of his seven-year career.

But entering the offseason with a clean bill of health, Oladipo said he has seen considerable progress over the past few months.

"I would say it's night and day," he said. "I feel a lot better, a lot stronger. There's always room for improvement obviously, but I definitely feel better from even in the bubble until now. I think I've made some pretty drastic improvements."

But while Oladipo quietly made progress on the court in the past few months, he was the subject of rumors surrounding his future. Barring a contract extension, the 6-4 guard will be an unrestricted free agent next summer and some reports questioned his commitment to the Pacers, but Oladipo expressed his commitment to the franchise publicly in an interview with The Athletic as well as in conversations with Pacers President of Basketball Operations Kevin Pritchard.

"Growing up I was always taught not to engage in nonsense," Oladdipo said Tuesday. "I never came out and said that I didn't want to play for the Pacers or be in this organization. I'm focused on here and now.

"All the other stuff, I can't control what they say, what they write, what they do. I'm just focused on me, on improving, focused on my team and being the best version of myself so I can help this team, this organization, and this city win a championship."

Oladipo said that he and the Pacers have not recently discussed a contract extension, reiterating that both sides were focused on the upcoming season.

In his first season with Indiana, Oladipo made a quick impression on the organization and fans alike with his infectious energy and upbeat personality, be it singing in the locker room or celebrating on the court. On Tuesday, he talked about "playing with joy" as enters a new season with the Blue & Gold.

Bjorkgren, for one, has seen that side of Oladipo firsthand.

"He's had that since the first day that I met him," Bjorkgren said. "...He has a smile on his face. He walks by my office every day that he enters the practice facility and we have good conversations. He looks good. He's working hard, he's pushing himself, and he's having a lot of fun."

Sabonis, the Pacers' other All-Star, also enters training camp healthy after missing the entire NBA restart over the summer due to plantar fasciitis in his left foot. The injury was a sour ending to a spectacular season for Sabonis, who earned his first All-Star selection while averaging 18.5 points and 12.4 rebounds and setting a franchise record with 50 double-doubles.

After leaving the bubble to receive treatment on his foot, Sabonis returned to Orlando during Indiana's playoff series against Miami and was hopeful to potentially rejoin his teammates for a potential second-round series had the Pacers advanced. Instead, he watched from his hotel room as they were swept by the Heat.

Sabonis said his foot is healed and he is fully cleared to participate in training camp, though the training staff is monitoring his workload early as a precaution.

The 6-11 big man expressed his excitement for Bjorkgren's "more modern" style and said he expects the Pacers to play similar to recent teams in Toronto, where Bjorkgren served as an assistant under Nick Nurse. That means playing faster and shooting "a lot more threes."

Sabonis has been working on his outside shot in anticipation of hoisting more 3-pointers. He is a capable outside shooter but has attempted just 121 shots from beyond the arc over his first three seasons in Indiana.

Both Sabonis and Oladipo expressed excitement to be reunited with their teammates. While the Pacers have a new coaching staff, the roster remains largely unchanged from last season. The top 13 players from 2019-20 in terms of both minutes played and scoring average are back and both two-way players from last season, Brian Bowen II and Naz Mitrou-Long, are also in camp.

"It's great," Sabonis said. "Even yesterday, the first day, everybody got to see each other and it's like we never left. All the same jokes, all the same things. It's nice having that. You feel like you're at home."

Late into Tuesday's media availability, Oladipo was asked about the 2017-18 team from his and Sabonis' first season in Indiana. With Oladipo leading the way, that team quickly captured the hearts of Pacers fans and took LeBron James and Cleveland to seven games in a hard-fought playoff series.

Oladipo was asked if he thought this year's team could "rekindle" the passion that the 2017-18 squad instilled in the Pacers faithful.

"I honestly think this group can surpass that joy," Oladipo said. "I think they can bring an excitement and joy here that Pacers (fans) have never seen before. I think we have that much talent in this locker room. I'm looking forward to seeing it. I think it could be a real special year."

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