How Russell Westbrook and an R&B album helped Victor Oladipo take off

Victor Oladipo is getting it done for the Pacers. (AP)
Victor Oladipo is getting it done for the Pacers. (AP)

Contrary to the prevailing sentiment at the time of that stunning deal last June, Paul George didn’t just fall out of Indiana like loose change from a holey pocket. Might not have been the treasure trove of draft picks and prospects that were expected to be required to land a player of George’s caliber, but the Indiana Pacers actually did receive a return for surrendering the franchise’s best player since Reggie Miller. Victor Oladipo proves his value every time he pulls off some in-game, slam-dunk-contest-worthy, 360-degree jam or buries a game-winning 3-pointer over LaMarcus Aldridge and struts and shouts, “This is my [expletive]! [Expletive] outta here!”

Making hot-take declarations about a trade one month into the season doesn’t help anyone because deals can’t truly be evaluated until years down the road. And no sane person would suggest that any team is better without George. But Oladipo is doing his part to at least make the transition tolerable for the Pacers, elevating his game in an environment that has encouraged him to fly and pushing back on the notion that Indiana got snookered.

“Everybody’s entitled to their opinion. Obviously, the world felt like they didn’t get enough,” Oladipo told Yahoo Sports. “I guess that’s how they feel, that’s fine.”

For Oladipo, the slight regarding that trade has had little influence on what he has accomplished in his first few weeks with the Pacers — a team that wanted him, valued him more than most, and needs him to produce at a higher level than his previous employers, Oklahoma City and Orlando. Back in the state where he starred collegiately and played well enough to go second in the 2013 NBA draft, Oladipo is comfortable and embracing enhanced expectations and opportunity. He’s averaging a career-high 23.2 points — despite playing the fewest minutes since his rookie season — and shooting career highs from the field (47.4 percent) and 3-point range (44.3).

“That really was not going to change how hard I worked, or how I approached the season,” Oladipo told Yahoo Sports about the trade. “I was locked in before the trade, after the trade, and even now. You could say I’m using it as motivation, but I’m already motivated. I got a lot of goals for myself, for this team. There’s a lot I still want to accomplish in this league.”

Victor Oladipo is shooting 44.3 percent from 3-point range. (AP)
Victor Oladipo is shooting 44.3 percent from 3-point range. (AP)

Oladipo can’t be too upset with the negative reactions inspired by the trade because his performance in Oklahoma City — especially his disappearance in the playoffs — made him expendable and contributed to the perception that reigning MVP Russell Westbrook was a one-man show. The role Oladipo had to assume in Oklahoma City wasn’t conducive to his success. He’s never been a standstill, knockdown shooter. But the Thunder simply couldn’t lean on his playmaking when the ball needed to be in the hands of the walking triple-double eager to assume a ridiculous load, either out of spite, recklessness or stubbornness. Westbrook’s presence inhaled those around him, making it difficult to flourish with limited opportunities. Oladipo still views his time in Oklahoma City as a positive because it exposed him to more than he expected simply by being in the presence of a superstar.

Oladipo struggled with his confidence in Orlando because he often had to look over his shoulder. The Magic had no established talent hierarchy, which made it difficult for Oladipo to assert himself without it coming across as a challenge to his teammates. There were no such problems in Oklahoma City, where the floor tilted to wherever Westbrook stepped. Oladipo observed how Westbrook moved without fear and made no apologies for how he approached the game. Paired with a player to whom he had been lightly compared was eye-opening when Oladipo recognized how wide the gap was between them. So, no, Oladipo wasn’t very good and didn’t produce as he would’ve liked alongside Westbrook, but the experience was hardly a waste.

“It was a different position. Obviously, a different role that I was placed in,” Oladipo told Yahoo Sports. “I learned a lot. Made me a better player, going there and experiencing what I experienced. Watching Russ and learning from him on and off the court, that was huge for me as well. Everything about Oklahoma I’m very appreciative of. Going there, it benefited me, and it’s helping my game now.”

The Thunder also gave Oladipo the security of a four-year, $84 million extension before he ever suited up for the organization. Oladipo expected that he’d get the chance play at least one year under that contract. But Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti couldn’t pass up on the chance to add George, even if it turns out to be a one-year rental. Stars rule the NBA and George had made it clear that his time was up in Indiana. So, Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis — two players who had proven not to be essential parts of the Thunder’s future — had to go.

“It was tough. A little shocked at first, and then when it settled in after a while, I realized I was going back to Indiana. That made it a little bit better,” Oladipo, a three-year standout at IU, told Yahoo Sports. “But it’s still tough, being traded twice in three years. … It is what it is. I feel like I’m supposed to be here, so I’m going to make the most of it.”

Oladipo is playing with more freedom in Indiana, where coach Nate McMillan has empowered him to be an offensive focal point and playmaker on a team that is off to a better-than-expected start. After spending last offseason focusing on sculpting his body through intense workouts and a changed diet that included the removal of fast food — including his favorite, Popeyes — Oladipo has had ample endurance to thrive in the Pacers’ exciting, up-tempo offense. “I worked really hard this summer. Investing in my mind, my body, my game. I’m just seeing the results from working hard, but I’ve got to get better,” Oladipo told Yahoo Sports. “I’m trying to be one of the best, so I’ve got to keep working hard, striving for that goal.”

That Oladipo is looser and more carefree is also probably not a coincidence coming off a summer in which he also decided to expose himself artistically with the release of a vanity project, an R&B record called, “Songs for You.” Oladipo grew up singing in the children’s choir at his church and offered glimpses of his talents in college. But he waited until he had the resources and the means to produce an album that featured guest appearances by 2 Chainz and Eric Bellinger.

“Just letting it all hang out,” Oladipo told Yahoo Sports. “Doing the music, I just kind of said, ‘It’s whatever.’ I just did it. And put it out, not really worried about what would come from it, what people thought about it, or what result came from it. I just put it out, worked hard on it. And whatever happens, happens. In the game of basketball, you kind of have to go out there and just play. Not worry about anything else and just play. Play the game within the game, play through your mistakes and keep going after it until you get it right. That’s my mentality. And it translates to both.

“It’s pretty awesome to have that talent. I thank God for that,” Oladipo told Yahoo Sports. “It was refreshing and relaxing to show other people that side of me. Got some good reviews and some good feedback from people all over, so that’s pretty cool, too. I feel like, when you have a gift, you should always share it. If you don’t share it, then you’re not utilizing your gift. To be able to do that was a blessing and I’m thankful for it. It came out great and I can’t wait to do another one.”

Before returning the studio, Oladipo would first like to build up a professional basketball career that stalled the past two seasons. Oladipo will have a hard time maintaining his torrid shooting from long distance or a scoring average that currently ranks better than George’s. But if and when the numbers eventually taper off, Oladipo is adamant that the work he put into getting better will not. He’s out to prove more to himself than to any snide comments on social media or elsewhere.

“I’ve got to continue to bring it every night,” Oladipo told Yahoo Sports. “My confidence is real high. I feel like I’m capable of a lot more than I’ve shown.”