Oladipo Off to Fast Start, But Not Too Fast

He’s fast, isn’t he? As fast as any Pacers player has ever been, certainly, and probably as fast as any player in the NBA today.

“He has Wall and Westbrook speed,” Nate McMillan was saying Friday. “It’s pretty amazing to watch.”

John Wall and Russell Westbrook are two of the best guards in the NBA, end-to-end runners who look like they were shot out of a starting block. Pacers guard Victor Oladipo, who comes from sprinter bloodlines, is right there with them.

Now, the trick is for this quiet, streaking apparition to slow down at appropriate moments. Which is certainly a better problem than trying to speed him up. Oladipo has rushed headlong into the Pacers’ season, averaging 26 points over the first five games. He’s had just one sub-par outing, the second game against Portland, when recklessness got the best of him and he hit just 5-of-17 shots. Other than that, he’s quickly made people forget about the athletic wing now in Oklahoma City, and become one of the most intriguing players in the franchise’s recent history.

With his speed, his shooting touch, his defense and his desire to prove himself, what might happen this season if he finds a rhythm in the Pacers’ offense?

“I haven’t played with nobody like Victor,” said Darren Collison, who has played with a large number of players during a nine-season NBA career that has dropped him off at six stops. “Victor (might be) the best transition shooting guard out there. It’s easy to give him the ball in transition.”

Oladipo will contend to become the fifth Pacers player to win the NBA’s Most Improved Player if he keeps up his current pace. Last season in Oklahoma City, where he struggled to find a place for himself within Westbrook’s MVP reign, he averaged 15.9 points in 33.2 minutes. Now, while averaging 31.6 minutes, he’s getting up more than three field goal attempts per game and, more importantly, getting to the free throw line. After attempting just 2.3 foul shots per game last season, he’s getting up seven now.

Most importantly of all, in his mind, is a skyrocketing usage rate. Last season, he finished a play with a shot, turnover, or by drawing a foul on 21.3 percent of Oklahoma City’s plays. This season he’s up to 30.2 percent, which ranks 16th in the NBA among players with enough minutes to qualify.

Oladipo pointed out his usage rate to Pacers president Kevin Pritchard in the wake of the trade that sent Paul George to the Thunder for him and Domantas Sabonis, and the implication was clear.

He wanted a bigger role in the offense. While that raised suspicions about his desire to score and whether he would be disruptive to the offense, that hasn’t been the case other than the Portland game.

McMillan is willing to be patient, aware of the influences that have to be shed. It might have been entertaining for fans to watch Oladipo charge to the basket against all defenders and all odds, but it wasn’t always good basketball.

“He’s been watching Westbrook for the past year,” McMillan said. “It was one-on-four. He was splitting them and getting to the rim but some of those were bad shots. It was a matter of watching film with him and showing him the good things and what he needs to work on. And finishing is what he needs to work on.”

Westbrook clearly wouldn’t mind maintaining his current scoring pace, but he doesn’t seem fixated on it. Only one Pacers player, Billy Knight, has averaged more than 26 points per game in an NBA season (26.6), so it seems unlikely Oladipo will continue his pace. But it seems certain he’ll be well above last season’s average of 15.9.

“Take it one game at a time and do whatever it takes for my team to win,” he said Friday. “Whatever they need me to do; just go out there and play the game.”

Oladipo prepared for this opportunity by finding a new trainer and adopting a new diet in the offseason. There was no specific inspiration that sparked the change, just the knowledge he needed to improve his body. He dropped nearly 20 pounds by improving what he eats and eliminating what he shouldn’t eat, including fast food – even his favorite, Popeyes. He’s grateful he doesn’t pass one on his way home from Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

While he hardly looked overweight in the past, he felt it. He’s down to about 210 pounds now, leaving him lighter on his feet and readier for takeoff to catch lob passes from Collison.

“I wasn’t fat per se, but I was stocky,” he said.

“I’m leaner than I’ve ever been in my entire life, so I feel great. I just locked in and got better. I just feel good. I feel in shape. I don’t get tired as fast as I used to. I don’t know how else to explain it.”

That’s also made him a better defender – the best the Pacers have on the perimeter.

“I feel I have a two-way guy,” McMillan said.

Perhaps as good as the one he replaced.


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