The opening stretch of Victor Oladipo’s return for the Indiana Pacers has not been what many imagined, but there is still time to get him ready for April.
In the midst of a five-game losing streak, weariness can be expected. The Indiana Pacers hadn’t lost more than two in a row since the three-game slide to start the season. They were showing potential to be a playoff disruptor before the return of Victor Oladipo, but due to the integration of their star, they haven’t looked the same in the six games since.
This shouldn’t totally come as a surprise. Integrating low-usage behemoths like Zion Williamson is much easier than reintroducing a player that is expected to provide for himself and others. Oladipo’s role is a much more complex organism than any rookie’s.
As high as the expectations for a player of Williamson’s stature may be, there is still a bit of unknown that comes with a player’s first NBA action. Will he be able to be as physically imposing against grown men? Will he force shots? Is he best used as a power forward or a center?
Oladipo didn’t have those luxuries. He has become a known commodity in Indiana. He became devastating while attacking down hill in first season, but was doubled out of his comfort zone in the playoffs. So he returned the next year with a strong pull back move to alleviate the pressure and go perfectly with his unguardable pull-up three.
Then he ruptured his quad tendon, an injury not very common among professional basketball players. The kind of injury typically reserved for much older players on the wrong side of their primes. The kind of injury that forces players into an earlier retirement than they may want.
Sorry for the scare, but there is a player that could bring hope to this situation: Tony Parker.
Parker suffered the same injury, but not to quite the same severity, in May of 2017. The injury was sustained just weeks before his 35th birthday, nearly a full decade older than Oladipo at the time of his injury. Parker missed only six months, but returned without the same explosiveness as before.
Upon that return, he sat out back-to-backs and played barely more than 20 minutes per night over his first 17 contests. From there, he was able to play 37 of the final 38 contests of the 2017-18 season. The playing time didn’t increase, but his availability became important for a San Antonio Spurs team fighting for playoff seeding.
Parker saw a reduction in minutes each of his final seven years in the league, but his efficiency did not take any realistic dip following his return from injury. Both his field goal percentage and scoring per-36 minutes were at the same mark as the season before. The real change came the following season.
He looked more like the old Tony Parker and found it much easier to slither through defenses again. He was able to get to his spots, find open teammates, and make the kind of Spursian plays everyone was accustomed to, all while playing on a much less Spursian Charlotte Hornets team.
There is a much to say about how comfort in making the same plays after an injury can be lost. Being unsure whether the body can do the same things as before, whether one bad cut could lead to another stint on the trainer’s table, or worse, lead to more surgery. Many of the problems come from a mental block that is hard to overcome without repetition.
Right now it should be okay to see Victor Oladipo trying the same moves as before without the same success. Predicting an immediate return to form would be unattainable expectations. Jumping from G League practice to NBA games is hardly even comparable. There is a reason many G League MVPs continue to toil in the NBA’s minor league.
The Pacers had a good thing going and they shouldn’t feel compelled to make Oladipo an All-Star again immediately. Domantas Sabonis filled the star player role quite valiantly in his absence and has the playmaking chops to make the former Hoosier guard’s life easier. The type of hand-off action and high-post play he runs with the second unit is perfect for working Oladipo back into the system.
Indiana doesn’t need to feature Vic right away either. There have been several instances in the initial six-game stretch where even when he seems winded, the ball finds Oladipo and he’s expected to make a play. This has led to several pull-up threes that wouldn’t normally be part of his game.
Finding more comfort going downhill is the next step in Oladipo’s progression and what easier way than when the ball is switching around the perimeter? Malcolm Brogdon, T.J. Warren, and T.J. McConnell all have the ability to get a head of steam toward the basket then find open players when the defense collapses. A willingness to work off their strengths will give Vic reps and a level of comfort with his new teammates the team will need in the playoffs.
Outside of Milwaukee and possibly Toronto, the East is full of question marks. Miami also lost three in a row last week while Philadelphia is 9-19 on the road this season. Finding continuity could allow Indiana to exploit deficiencies in those opponents as well as Boston’s lack of size. Working through the kinks in the regular season raises the team’s floor in the playoffs. There are still 29 games to figure out what works and what doesn’t.