Oladipo Draws Inspiration From All-Star Game
He's an All-Star now. Officially. Not just an All-Star caliber player, a potential All-Star or a passed over All-Star candidate. He's got the uniform, the 15 minutes of playing time, the seven points, and the memories of All-Star Weekend.
Just what that means for Victor Oladipo will play out over the final 24 games of the Pacers' regular season and possible postseason participation. Will it give him more confidence? Inspire him? Heighten his personal expectations? Go to his head? Give him a false sense of security?
"I think going out there makes you realize, there's no going backwards now," he said. "You have to keep going forward. It makes you work harder than even you did before, take an even stronger approach."
The immediate impact of the first All-Star experience on former Pacers is mixed and offers no predictive trend. The scoring averages and field goal percentages of Paul George and Reggie Miller dropped slightly the rest remainder of the season after they played in their first game. Jermaine O'Neal and Danny Granger, meanwhile, played a little better afterward.
Oladipo at least appears to have returned from Los Angeles the same person who captured the hearts of the Pacers' fanbase before the break. He's not copping an attitude, showing up fashionably late for work or wearing shades on the practice court. Coach Nate McMillan tried to hold him out of some of Wednesday's session, but with mixed results.
"We tried to give him the day off, but that guy …" McMillan said, his voice trailing off.
Oladipo is still singing during the practice-closing shootaround, still saying all the right things, still joking with teammates and media members.
The Pacers are going to need serious production from him, however, to maintain the pace of their season. Their 33-25 record plants them in fifth place in the Eastern Conference, two games back of third place and three games ahead of eighth. The teams surrounding them are trending upward, so they likely can't afford much of a decline and still qualify for the playoffs. The schedule, meanwhile, will offer no relief. Of the remaining 24 games, 14 are on the road and nine of those are against teams that will be fighting for a playoff berth or a higher playoff seed.
Oladipo continues to emphasize that neither the team nor he have accomplished anything yet of lasting value. But while the players have formed a special bond, sharing the burden of all the things that go into a winning season, they've also proven they can't win without Oladipo. At least they haven't yet, losing all six games he missed, most of them decisively.
As their only All-Star, he'll bear the greatest responsibility the rest of the season, although that doesn't necessarily mean scoring more. While fans now view him as an elite player, so do defenses.
"It's going to change for him, as far as how teams approach him these last 24 games and what he's going to see," McMillan said.
"I will have a conversation with him about what I think he may be facing going down the stretch. We certainly want to see him continue to grow. I think he will, but it's going to be more physical. These teams are going to be playing every possession. You might see more trapping, teams try to take him out and make someone else score, and we have to be ready for that. He has to be ready for that."
Oladipo seems ready for anything. The All-Star experience was everything he thought it would be. The game itself was nothing special for him, and he had no exceptional individual conversations, but being a locker room with the best players in the world and realizing he belonged left an indelible impression. He sat next to LeBron James and Kevin Durant in the locker room, and while he had met them in years past – especially Durant – this was different.
"Just to be near those guys and see how they approach the game," he said. "I've seen LeBron work and it's amazing how he works. I've known KD and I know how heard he works. It's an honor and a privilege to be placed in the same rom as those guys. They're like walking hall-of-famers and it's great to go out there and be on their team."
Paul George was another member of the James assemble. The careers of Oladipo and George are intertwined, of course, because of last summer's trade that sent George to Oklahoma City for Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. Truth be told, there's no rivalry between them. They've been friends since Oladipo was playing at Indiana University and George was a rising star for the Pacers, and remain so today.
George opened some eyes in Los Angeles when he said Oladipo was the All-Star he would most like to play with – a surprising comment from someone who is expected to choose between playing for Oklahoma City or the Lakers in Los Angeles after this season. Oladipo didn't read anything into the remark but shares the feeling.
"He's a great dude, man," he said. "I hope he has a respect for me just like I have a respect for him. I'd play with him, too. If he decided tomorrow he wanted to come back and play I wouldn't be opposed to it. He's a great player. Obviously, it was kind of shaky the way he left and everything like that, but you have to respect at the end of the day his ability to play this game, and he's still a great person as well."
More relevant to Oladipo at the moment is the challenge to stay in the All-Star locker room. He's declared his intent to remain an all-star in all of his NBA seasons, and now more than ever knows what it will take.
"It's realizing I need to have that edge every night and every day, no matter what's going on, no matter where I'm at, no matter what day or night it is," he said.
"I'm trying to be the best, so in order to be that I have to do just that."
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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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