Can Victor Oladipo take a step forward as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder?
One of the pleasant surprises of the 2016 offseason was the Orlando Magic trading Victor Oladipo. The second overall pick in the 2013 NBA draft, Oladipo’s career was seen as up and down, even in the last season. Once viewed as the point guard of the future, Oladipo shuffled back to the shooting guard position once the Magic drafted Elfrid Payton a year later.
Oladipo bounced to the bench and found some success but eventually moved back into the starting lineup, where the issues resurfaced. Oladipo, drafted as a potential two-way starter, traded for Serge Ibaka and starting anew in Oklahoma City, just one season away from his second – and much larger – contract.
Will Oladipo take that step forward for the Thunder?
There is a cause for pessimism here. With the departure of Ibaka and Kevin Durant, there are more questions than answers surrounding the Thunder. Offensively, the loss of Durant and Ibaka takes away two efficient scores inside and out. Not to mention, Durant’s gravity is gone, which will lead to tougher shots.
Defensively, the Thunder will have a hard time replacing Durant and Ibaka. Westbrook’s defensive intensity has always waned – rightfully so, as he takes so much of the team’s offensive responsibility – and now, there’s no Durant and his ability to defend the entire floor. There’s no Serge Ibaka, who was one of the league’s more fearsome shot-blockers and rim protectors.
Oklahoma City finished 13th in the league in defensive efficiency and will see more minutes from Enes Kanter, arguably the league’s worst defensive player. I have my doubts on whether the Thunder can crack the upper half of the league. So where is my optimism for Oladipo coming from? It starts with Westbrook and his gravity.
Coming off a season where he posted a career high in assists and assist rate and finished fourth in assist points created, Westbrook took his ability to create for his teammates to another level. Even in Oklahoma CIty’s preseason game against Real Madrid, Westbrook seemed aggressive, but also unselfish, looking for teammates and even passing up good Westbrook shots for fine shots from his teammates.
There’s space for Oladipo to succeed on and off the ball here. With Cam Payne missing eight weeks due to a foot injury, there’s space for him to play on-ball some. As the ball handler in the pick and roll, Oladipo was a fine weapon. Last season, Oladipo finished with 43 percent shooting as the pick and roll ball-handler, good for a 0.80 PPP.
He also finished with a foul rate of 9.7 percent and a score percentage of 40.2 percent, better than the likes of Gordon Hayward and Paul George.
Just a quick glance at the above video and you see some of what Oladipo brings to the table. Though he only shot 57 percent at the rim last season, Oladipo got to the rim and made plays, whether it be as a passer or finisher. He also did a good job in the mid-range, shooting 40 percent on shots from 10 to 16 feet and 43 percent from 16 to 24 feet.
Off the ball, however, is where I envision Oladipo thriving in Oklahoma City’s Westbrook-led offense. Oladipo has to make his opponent work with his ability to cut and get to the basket. Last season, Oladipo was a good cutter but never got to fully work and thrive in that role. Per NBA.com’s play type stats, Oladipo finished with 67 percent shooting on 57 cut plays last season, good for a 1.37 PPP and the 75th percentile.
In order to fully thrive offensively, Oladipo will have to become a better shooter. One of Westbrook’s weaknesses is his inability to knock down the long ball. Oladipo isn’t a knockdown shooter, but slowly, he has progressed over the last three seasons. As a rookie, he shot 32 percent, 33 percent as a sophomore and 34 percent last season. One would be wise to bet that Oladipo knocks down 35 percent from three in the 2016-17 season.
He’s not a good catch and shoot player, but he did shoot 35 percent on catch and shoot threes. His overall three-point attempt rate moved to a career-high 29.1 percent this past year, but was worse the more he was open last season, knocking down 32 percent on “open” threes and 34 percent on shots considered “wide open.”
The question is what can Oladipo do with that gravity? While we worry about his improvement on offense, the steps are there for Oladipo to become one of the league’s premier defenders.
Oladipo always had the energy, always posted block and steal numbers, but there was something missing, maybe even inexperience, as he worked on the defensive end. Coming out of Indiana, Oladipo possessed everything to be a plus on that side of the ball – a 6-9 wingspan, good defensive I.Q. and a 42-inch vertical leap. Even without prototypical size, Oladipo was presumed to be a dynamic defender capable of defending both wing positions.
Orlando wasn’t noticeably better on defense with Oladipo on the floor, but he finished 12th in the league in defensive RPM among shooting guards. Building upon that step forward on the defensive end, Oladipo will be one of the key defenders on an Oklahoma City team in need of good defenders on the perimeter. The combination of Westbrook and Oladipo hounding ball handlers would be a solid start.
Zoom out to the rest of the lineup and you have the makings of a fine defensive lineup. Westbrook, Oladipo, Andre Roberson, and Steven Adams are all fine defenders, with Adams defending the rim and even stepping out on the perimeter a bit, while the other three can defend several wing positions. Put a solid floor spacer to even out the lack of shooting and Oklahoma City may have a solid five-man lineup.
The Oklahoma City Thunder will be taking a step back from last season’s Western Conference Finals appearance, but they still project to be a playoff team. In order to reach similar heights, the Thunder will need players to step up–whether that’s Steven Adams becoming an improved offensive player or Andre Roberson improve his three-point shooting.
Oladipo is the safe bet for taking a step forward. After being bounced between positions in Orlando, Oladipo will have some consistency in Oklahoma City with Westbrook as the alpha. There’s still time for Oladipo to reach that ceiling as a two-way force, and and if he can continue that development, he’ll be a forceful backcourt complement to Russell Westbrook this season.