Oladipo's Return to Bring Changes

It looked like the first day of training camp. Twenty-six media members showed up for the Pacers' practice at St. Vincent Center on Tuesday, filling the waiting area outside the gymnasium. But they were there for one reason and one reason only: to speak with Victor Oladipo, who makes his long-awaited and much-hyped return on Wednesday against Chicago.

Indirectly, that's a potential problem for a team that has benefited from outstanding chemistry so far this season, compiling a 30-17 record that ties it for fifth place in the Eastern Conference, 2 1/2 games back of second. Will all the attention suddenly directed toward one player bruise egos? Will the return of the only player on the roster to have made an All-Star team disrupt the balance of a harmonious group? Will the minutes and shots Oladipo gets leave some players feeling underemployed?

Coach Nate McMillan put those topics before his players following practice, starting with the suddenly swollen media presence. While merely a half-dozen or so reporters attend many practices, Oladipo's impending return gave this one the appearance of a major news event. Which it is.

"You can look over here today and see the change is coming," McMillan said. "So how do you deal with that mentally as a player? I'm sure some of the guys are feeling, We've been busting our behinds all season long and haven't gotten the respect and attention and all of a sudden we're getting it today. I can't say how they're going to deal with that, but I did address that with our guys today."

McMillan also addressed the need for everyone, Oladipo included, to be prepared to sacrifice. Sacrifice shots, sacrifice minutes, perhaps even sacrifice whether they play or not. It won't be like training camp, however, when teams have several practices and four preseason games to work out a plan. This adjustment process will come in real games in the heat of a tight race for playoff seeding.

McMillan knows about abruptly changing roles. Four seasons into his NBA career he had started nearly 90 percent of the games he had played for Seattle. Then on draft night in 1990 the Sonics drafted another point guard, Gary Payton, with the second overall pick and declared Payton would be the next season's starter.

A front office executive called McMillan to ask whether he wanted to be traded to a team where he could start. McMillan said no.

"We made it work," McMillan recalled.

McMillan didn't start a game the following season and was just a part-time starter the rest of his career. But he wound up having his jersey number retired, was voted a captain, and earned the nickname "Mr. Sonic" for his career contributions.

Now he can only hope his players — Oladipo included — accept reduced roles as gracefully as he did. Eventually, anyway.

McMillan wouldn't say if Oladipo would start against the Bulls, but if his white practice jersey was any indication, he'll come off the bench. He will at the very least be on an unspecified minutes restriction and it's obvious it will take time to rid the rust of his absence which dates back to Jan. 23 of last season, when he tore the quad muscle in his right leg in a game against Toronto.

The adjustment process will be gradual for everyone. Two other starters, in fact, are questionable for tonight. Myles Turner, who missed Sunday's game in Portland with an illness, showed up for practice on Tuesday but did nothing more than lift weights and went home early. Malcolm Brogdon, Oladipo's intended backcourt mate, will take the final step in the concussion protocol Wednesday morning. Both were gametime decisions as of Tuesday.

Victor Oladipo, T.J. McConnell, Brian Bowen II

Photo Credit: @Pacers

Eventually, barring unforeseen circumstances, the starting lineup will finally be together and everyone will have to find a way to regain harmony. The only player who will be dropped from the opening lineup is Jeremy Lamb, something he knew was coming from the day he signed with the Pacers last summer. But the other starters likely will have to accept a lesser role in the offense than they've had to this point, Oladipo will have to accept a lesser role than he enjoyed the past two seasons and a backup player or two might have to accept being dropped from the rotation.

"The game's going to be a little different," McMillan said. "As I told them, there's two ways you can go. You can embrace it or you can go against it. I expect us to embrace it.

"All of us have to figure out a way, regardless of whether our role is larger or smaller, to do what's best for the team. If that's playing less minutes and cheering on the side and coming into practice and working, that's what you have to do. That's just where we are."

Oladipo was as upbeat and confident as ever while talking with the media on Tuesday.

"I don't expect to go out there and get 40, but my mentality is that I'm going to get 40," he said, laughing.

However, he revealed no specifics about his physical status. He has scrimmaged with the Pacers, although rarely with the starters, for several weeks now and has worked out with the G League affiliate Fort Wayne Mad Ants when the Pacers were on the road. But that's a long way from playing in a real game. Nobody can say if and when he'll be the same blur who penetrated at will and led the NBA in steals two years ago.

He claims it hasn't crossed his mind.

"I don't think about losing anything," he said. "When you think like that, you go out there and actually lose it. I'm still the same V.O. I was practicing today — got a few boards, busted out, and went by some people. At the end of the day, as you think is who you are. I'm V.O. That's not going to change.

"There's no doubt in my mind I'm going to be better than I was. I'm not saying that's going to be (Wednesday) night, but it's going to happen. That's just my belief in myself. I don't care what anyone else thinks or how long it takes or the criticism that comes with it. That's a part of life. I'm just going to attack every day like it's my last."

Wednesday in a sense will be his first. The first of the next phase of his career, which ultimately will define his legacy. And the first for the Pacers, who have an opportunity to become significantly better if enough players adjusts their perspectives and expectations.

"They can make it work," McMillan said. "They can make it work."

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Mark Montieth's book on the formation and groundbreaking seasons of the Pacers, "Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis," is available in bookstores throughout Indiana and on Amazon.com.

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