Player Review 2018: Victor Oladipo

Age: 26
Years Pro: 5
Status: Has three years remaining on his contract.
Key Stats: Averaged 23.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and 2.4 steals over 34 minutes per game. Led the NBA in steals and takes a streak of 64 consecutive games with a steal into next season.

Amid the pile of stats that can be employed to measure Victor Oladipo's season, perhaps the best is the simplest: The Pacers couldn't win without him. Literally.

Oladipo was unable to play in seven games this season and the Pacers lost all seven, by an average of 14 points. It's probably more accurate to toss out the last game, the season-ender to Charlotte that was meaningless in the standings and included the absence of two other starters, but the point is the same. The Pacers also lost to Boston, Dallas, Chicago, Minnesota, Milwaukee, and Washington when Oladipo was nursing an injury and came close only against the lowly Mavericks, losing by six points at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

With him, the Pacers won 64 percent of their games with a 48-27 record. Had they carried that through the season, they would have finished with the third-best record in the Eastern Conference and played Miami in the first round of the playoffs instead of Cleveland.

It's likely no player this side of LeBron James was more valuable to his team than Oladipo was to the Pacers. It was more than his 23.1 points per game, most on the team by nearly nine points. It was more than his league-leading 2.4 steals per game, highest average for any Pacers player since Micheal Williams averaged 2.9 in the 1991-92 season. It was his joie di vivre. His spirit. His relentless positivity.

"He's infectious," Kevin Pritchard said. "He's positively infectious."

That, too.

Oladipo wasn't voted a co-captain by his teammates before the season began. That honor went to a pair of holdovers from the previous season, Thaddeus Young and Myles Turner. Oladipo, however, emerged as the team's most influential player as the season progressed because of that "positively infectious" attitude. He didn't just break into song in the locker room following victories at The Fieldhouse, he did it when he arrived for morning practices across the street at St. Vincent Center in the dog days of the season.

The Pacers missed that when he didn't play, along with all those things that show up in the box score.

Oladipo is the leading candidate for the NBA's Most Improved Player award. If he wins, he'll follow in the upwardly mobile footsteps of former Pacers Jalen Rose, Jermaine O'Neal, Danny Granger, and Paul George. He would be a worthy winner, certainly. He set personal bests in shooting accuracy, scoring, rebounding, assists, steals, and blocks, but not turnovers or fouls. His playing time was in line with each of his four previous NBA seasons, so it wasn't simply a matter of being on the court longer. It was a matter of his involvement in the offense, which is exactly what he was seeking, as he stated when he first met Pritchard following the trade that brought him to the Pacers with Domantas Sabonis for George.

Oladipo's usage rate of 30.1 meant he shot the ball, turned it over, or drew a foul on that percentage of the Pacers' plays. It far surpassed his previous season (21.4) in Oklahoma City, when he played in the long shadow of Russell Westbrook. Myles Turner's usage rate of 20 was a distant second among the Pacers' starters, an indication of the free rein given to Oladipo in the offense.

For the most part, he didn't abuse it. He was as much a point guard as a shooting guard given how often he initiated the offense. That only made sense for someone who's probably the quickest and fastest player in franchise history and provided the best hope for a layup or dunk. Besides, he finished with a career-high assist average.

Oladipo stumbled at times during the season, but always found a way forward. He struggled with the burden of his enhanced role early on and had some poor shooting games as he occasionally strayed from the offense while looking too intently for his shot. He had a 31-point game at Philadelphia that drew raves but followed with a three-game stretch in which he hit just 21-of-59 shots. He followed that with 25-point and 28-point games against Chicago and Houston, but then hit just 20-of-53 shots over the next three games.

He hit stride in December, when he built his All-Star credentials. A 27-point game against Chicago was followed by a 33-point game against Cleveland, which was followed by a 47-point game in an overtime victory over Denver.

That led to a much-hyped matchup against George and Oklahoma City on Dec. 13, the Pacers' only national television appearance (ESPN) of the regular season other than two games on NBA TV and the first before a capacity crowd at The Fieldhouse. Oladipo wasn't ready for that spotlight, however. Defended mostly by George, he hit just 9-of-26 shots, including 1-of-9 3-pointers, while forcing jump shots. The most damning stat was that he didn't attempt a single free throw.

"You get on this kind of stage, you start playing for you and not playing together, which is what we've done," coach Nate McMillan said after that game. He didn't single out anyone, but it was obvious who was on his mind.

Oladipo bounced back with a pair of 38-point games before the month ended. He hit 10 free throws in each one, revealing the key to his offensive success: attacking the basket and getting to the foul line.

Oladipo went through another slump early in March, shortly after the All-Star break, when he appeared fatigued, but he finished the season well. He had one clunker, a season-low five-point game at Toronto in which he hit just 2-of-9 shots in 21 minutes, but came back two nights later to score 27 on 12-of-15 shooting in a victory at Charlotte.

By then the trend was obvious. He always bounced back.

In the playoffs, too.

He opened the series with Cleveland with a brilliant 32-point performance in which he hit 6-of-9 3-pointers and added six rebounds, six assists and four steals. He was effective in Game 2 as well with 22 points in an appearance limited to 28 minutes by early foul trouble. But he struggled again over the next three games, combining to hit just 12-of-50 shots.

Just when it seemed the pressure was becoming too much — from both Cleveland's double-teaming defensive tactics and the playoff spotlight — he unleashed a triple-double in Game 6 (28 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists, along with four steals) and then 30 points, 12 rebounds, six assists, and three steals in Game 7.

Oladipo has a chance, a realistic chance, of becoming to Pacers fans what Reggie Miller has become: an icon to stand the test of time. He arrived four seasons too late to play his entire career for the Pacers as Miller did, and he might not have as many fictional-quality playoff moments as Miller did, but if he continues to grow and finishes his career for the franchise and doesn't lose his unique combination of mojo and humility, he could become just as popular. His reputation ultimately will be determined largely by how he performs in the clutch moments of the postseason, but he's a better athlete than Miller and equally dedicated toward improvement.

The potential is enticing.

It once looked like Jermaine O'Neal could become The Next One. Then it looked like Paul George could be it. They ultimately lacked the depth of Miller's confidence, maturity, and sustained health. That's not entirely their fault — we're all a product of our genetics and upbringing — but Oladipo shows indication of possessing the "it" qualities found in all of the great ones.

It's difficult to imagine him wrapping his hands around his neck and glaring at a heckling fan, as Miller did toward Spike Lee in 1994 while scoring 25 points in the fourth quarter of a playoff game in 1994 or providing a back-page tabloid headline by shouting "Choke artists!" while running off the court, as Miller did after scoring eight points in 8.9 seconds in the Garden in 1995.

It's not difficult to imagine Oladipo compiling his own "moments," however, not after his performances in four of the seven playoff games this season. He has that kind of persona and that kind of skill, although it would boost his cause immensely if he would improve his form. His percentages were decent, and improved, but still not great. He hit 48 percent of his field goal attempts, thanks largely to all those layups he slithered through the lane to get, along with 37 percent of his 3-point shots, and 80 percent of his free throws.

The stat lines will improve in a meaningful way if he bumps up those percentages a bit. It wouldn't hurt to cut down on turnovers, too; he averaged 2.9, easily the most on the team. Still, one would have to be neurotic to be too critical. He had a great season — as good a season as George ever had with the Pacers all things considered — and he's capable of continuing to improve.

Meanwhile, the positive flair is a given.

"I've learned from Victor Oladipo, no matter how your day goes, no matter what's going on in your life, you always have the right to hit the reset button," Pritchard said at his postseason press conference.

Oladipo will hit that button again next season. As long as he stays healthy, the Pacers should be positively infected once again.

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