DETROIT – Victor Oladipo is playing like an All-Star, hitting big shots, leading the surprisingly competitive Pacers and – along with Domantas Sabonis, who is suddenly showing why he was a lottery pick last year – forcing us to rethink the Paul George trade.
It has been just a dozen games, but if this is Oladipo’s and Sabonis’ new baseline, their careers – and Indiana’s future – look much brighter. Or this could be just a hot start in a small sample.
“I think this is who I am,” Oladipo said. “I think I can bring that every night, and I’m going to. At the end of the day, this is what it is. People might think it’s a high. It’s fine. Hey, I guess I haven’t proven myself yet. So, I mean, they’re going to think that. But just going to go out there and play as hard as I can every night.”
Oladipo and Sabonis have escaped Russell Westbrook‘s orbit. The Thunder rightfully built their scheme around the ball-dominant superstar, but that probably didn’t benefit Oladipo and Sabonis. Both spent far more time spotting up on the perimeter than optimal for them.
A Maryland native who played for the Indiana Hoosiers, Oladipo says he’s back in his “second home” – and looks far more comfortable. The ball is in his hands more, and he’s sparking a zippy attack. Oladipo is scoring a career-high 22.8 points per game, meeting the biggest role he has ever held with, by far, career-best efficiency.
Sabonis is attacking in the paint far more tenaciously, both as a scorer and a rebounder. He’s averaging a double-double with 3.0 assists per game, helpful halfcourt playmaking for a big man.
Neither player chafes at their role in Oklahoma City. “You’re in the NBA. You’re not the best player on your team anymore, in college,” Sabonis said. “You’ve just got to adapt to the role that you’re given and take advantage of it.” Oladipo says he learned a lot from Westbrook, especially his relentlessness. “You can have that mindset, but there’s levels to it,” Oladipo said. “He definitely hits the ultimate level, and it’s something I learned.”
But spending so much time trying to fit around Westbrook bottomed out Sabonis’ and Oladipo’s value. Oladipo looked like he wouldn’t provide surplus value on his $21 million annual salary, and Sabonis appeared to be more bust than boom.
That’s why the consensus, including me, labeled the Pacers big losers in the George trade.
“It doesn’t really bother us,” Sabonis said. “Maybe we want to show everyone on the court that we’re not just those other guys.”
Said Oladipo: “I was already motivated even before I heard that.”
That’s a very Russ answer. But can Oladipo sustain the Russ-lite production?
He might be coming down to Earth. The Pacers have lost four straight, and in his last three games, Oladipo has shot 7-for-21, 6-for-17 and 8-for-21. With a previous career high of 36%, Oladipo probably won’t keep making 45% of his 3-pointers.
Sabonis’ performance seems more reliable. He’s younger, and he’s now playing with the style it appeared he’d bring from Gonzaga.
At minimum, both players have shown the jury is still out on the George trade.
“I’m just happy I’m somewhere where the team wants me,” Sabonis said.