Victor Oladipo is just weeks away from embarking on the most important season of his young NBA career. The Maryland native spent his first three seasons in the league in Orlando, playing for three different coaches on Magic teams that finished with 23, 25, and 35 wins. As such, he has yet to dip his toes into the ultra-competitive waters of the NBA playoffs or even games that carry real significance in the regular season.
That all changed on June 24th when he was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for long-time defense staple and Thunder fan favorite, Serge Ibaka. To secure Ibaka’s unique skill-set, the Magic sweetened the pot with 29 year-old journeyman power forward, Ersan Ilyasova and their number 11 pick in the 2016 NBA draft, Domantas Sabonis.
After completing a trade in late August with Denver for Joffrey Lauvergne, Thunder GM Sam Presti not only added even more international flavor to the Thunder roster with names that will take this writer most of the season to memorize, but combined with Enes Kanter, Nick Collison, and Mitch McGary, assembled a long list of candidates to audition for Ibaka’s vacant starting spot.
Oladipo however is primed to step into a role that OKC has struggled to get consistent production from ever since James Harden was traded in 2012. After the departure of on again-off again Dion Waiters, and a possible shift in duties for former starter André Roberson (a player that was always long on D but generally short on 3), the shooting guard spots stands almost unchallenged for Oladipo to fill a long-time need next to Russell Westbrook in the Thunder backcourt.
Anthony Morrow and Alex Abrines will also vie for minutes though neither seem ready to challenge for the starting spot, and are best suited now for supporting bench roles. Morrow is an offensive sharp shooting specialist with serious defensive deficiencies that will never touch Oladipo’s athleticism, while Abrines is a first time NBA player with questionable knees.
That leaves Oladipo, who is quickly becoming recognized as a burgeoning perimeter defensive star. Former Magic coach Scott Skiles even went as far to declare Oladipo a first-team All-Defensive player last December after he single-handedly beat the Portland Trail Blazers with an elite defense effort down the stretch. Skiles added, “I don’t see any perimeter player playing any better than him on the defensive end in the league right now.”
Obviously that premature and overly optimistic prediction came in the wake of an outstanding defensive performance, but Skiles’ excitement wasn’t without some degree of merit as the young third year guard finished 12th in the league among SG’s in Defensive Real Plus/Minus and 6th in both RPM and RPM Wins.
Offensively, Oladipo has work to do, but has improved in each of his first three seasons. Expectations are high that the former Indiana Hoosier star and #2 pick can combine his freakish athleticism, elite perimeter defense, and steadily improving offensive skill set with that of Thunder superstar, Russell Westbrook, and form an explosive back court duo that will scare the living daylights out of opposing defenses.
To that end, Westbrook wasted no time putting the wheels in motion and reached out to Oladipo within minutes of learning about the trade in late June and welcomed him to the team. Then, to hasten Oladipo’s learning curve and acclimate him to Donovan’s system, Westbrook spent part of the summer working out with his new teammate.
In a recent interview with Complex Sport’s Russ Bengtson, Oladipo spoke about his growing relationship with Westbrook, his expectations for himself in the upcoming season, and a few philosophies he has picked up from some all-time greats about the game he loves:
R.B. - You were already teammates with Russell Westbrook on Jordan, but it’s going to be different being teammates on the Thunder. What was that first conversation like after the trade?
V.O. - It was crazy man, he pretty much just asked me if I was ready. And I am, I’m looking forward to it. It’s funny, before it actually happened we were talking about playing together anyway. We had a relationship beforehand, so we used to talk all the time when we used to run into each other and things like that, I would mention playing with him, how cool it would be. And now it’s actually happened, so I’m looking forward to playing alongside him—I know he’s gonna bring the best out of me and I’m gonna return the favor.
Oladipo spent much of the summer in the gym with Westbrook and spoke about the experience:
Had you guys worked out together before or was this the first time?
No, this was my first time working out with him this summer. It’s different, man.
What was that like?
It’s different. He’s just as intense as I am. He wants to get better just as bad as I do. It’s fun, because now we’re on the same team. We both have the same passion and we both want to win. Now we’re on the same side. It was fun because my first couple games playing against him in my first three years in the league we had a lot of battles, whenever we played them we would go at it. And now we’re on the same team so it’s gonna be fun to watch.
What was that first workout like, did you get to the gym before he did?
Actually no, he beat me there, unfortunately, but he was in L.A. so I’m just gonna chalk it up to he knew where he was going—I was kinda lost. Russ is always there early. He’s kind of like me in that aspect. It’s funny, it’s just crazy how you cross paths with somebody all the time and you relate to somebody and then when you’re actually with them you figure out how similar you guys are and how you guys can relate. It makes your relationship do nothing but grow. I’m looking forward to it, man, I’m looking forward to the season and playing alongside him.
It’s obviously gonna be different since Russ is more of a combo guard who’s gonna take his share of shots. Have you guys talked about that dynamic or is it something you’re just gonna build.
Yeah, I think it’s something we’re just gonna build and talk about at the same time. At the end of the day he wants to win. And I want to win. So that’s where it all starts. That’s the root of the tree, that’s the base of the tree. We want to win, the rest comes later.
During his summer workouts, Oladipo also got a chance to meet and talk with Thunder HC Billy Donovan:
Have you had conversations with coach Billy Donovan about your role?
Yeah, we’ve had a few conversations, he’s had conversations with me and Russ, I’ve had conversations with him solo. But at the end of the day I’ve gotta figure out his concepts and schemes, gotta get used to the team—I’m the new guy, so I’ve gotta get acclimated to everything, but once it clicks I think it’ll be something special.
By golly, the kid may be on to something there!
Victor wasn’t impressed with his 79 rating on the new NBA 2K17 this year:
Do you guys look at that stuff when it comes out?
Yeah, everybody looks at it, I would assume. Do I agree with the rating? No. At the end of the day it is what it is, it’s not gonna affect how good I think I am or how I’m gonna play, but I guarantee at the end of the year it won’t be the same.
(FYI, Westbrook’s rating on 2K this year is 93, his highest rating ever and dead even with former running mate Kevin Durant. Durant’s rating dropped a point from last year. Evidently the secret is out, Westbrook didn’t hold Durant back, he made him a better player and he will do the same for Victor Oladipo)
Possibly the most intriguing part of Oladipo’s interview came when he talked about the path of his career and what he has learned along the way:
Are you feeling more like a vet now, a couple years in?
Shoot, I’m about to be in my fourth year in the NBA already, it’s crazy to think about. I feel like I just got here. I’ve been through a lot in my three years. A lot. A lot of different situations. Four different coaches in three years. Coming off the bench, being benched, starting, starting at the 1, starting at the 2. But it’s grown me into the man I am today, the player I am today. And it’s made me even mentally stronger than ever which is why I think the trade happened now. Because I think I’m more ready than I ever was.
What’s the biggest thing you learned in your first three years?
I think the biggest thing I learned—well, there are two things. The first thing is an even keel. No matter what the situation is, no matter what you’re going through at home, what you’re going through on the court, to always keep an even keel. Never get too high, never get too low. Because at the end of the day the NBA season is so long and there’s a lot of things that go on in the NBA season and in life in general that can distract you. Keeping an even keel levels your head. And then the biggest thing I learned, from Kobe [Bryant], was Kobe said “I don’t lose; I win or I learn.” And I’ve tried to take that and run with it in every situation I’m in. Because at the end of the day he doesn’t fathom failure, he doesn’t believe in failure, he thinks failure is nonexistent. And I’m a firm believer in that because at the end of the day if I do something—and I do it wrong, it’s not like I can’t go back and do it and do it right. I didn’t fail at it, I’m gonna go back and do it right the next time, so I just learned from what I did before so next time I do it I’ll do it the right way. At the end of the day I’m just gonna keep winning and learning.
You said you got that from Kobe, what have you learned from Michael Jordan, being on Jordan Brand.
I mean, he’s—it’s still like [I’m] in awe sometimes just talking to him, being able to have access to him, being able to sit down and have a conversation with him, get advice from him. It’s crazy. He’s the greatest to ever play. And to be a part of his brand, a part of his team, is just a blessing in itself. And I’ve learned so much from him just being around him, just hearing him speak. And I think the biggest thing I’ve learned from him just watching him and hearing him is you gotta have unshakable confidence in yourself in order to play this game, in order to do anything. Because at the end of the day if you don’t believe in yourself how can anyone else believe in you?
Earlier in the summer Oladipo sat down with Nick Gallo at Thunder headquarters and discussed his desire to become a complete two-way player:
Gallo - Why is it so important to you to be able to play both sides of the ball and be a factor on both ends?
V.O. - Because I believe that is where the greats are, what the greats do. There aren’t too many great players that weren’t two-way players. At the end of the day, I feel like if I can impact the game at a a high level on both ends of the floor that is how I will separate myself from everyone else..... I’m still getting better offensively. I’ve improved a lot, I still have room to improve and.... I’m going to improve!
Victor’s Twitter account says:
My overall take on Oladipo’s philosophy is simple; he is never satisfied, is always ready to do whatever it takes to improve, always ready to listen, and he either wins or he learns because...losing is not an option.