So much of the excitement surrounding the NBA lies in predicting who within the game’s rookie ranks stands the best chance of achieving superstar status—those who reach the promise bestowed upon many but met by few.
Amongst last year’s surprisingly productive crop, few showcased quite the superstar ceiling of the Orlando Magic’s Victor Oladipo, who finished a close second to Michael Carter-Williams in the league’s Rookie of the Year race.
In less than a month, Oladipo will be headed to Magic training camp as one of the franchise’s unquestioned cornerstones. With a core that includes promising fourth-year players Tobias Harris and Nikola Vucevic (“He can get you 20 and 20 on any given night”), veteran sniper Channing Frye and rookie point guard Elfrid Payton (“He’s going to be awesome for us”), Orlando’s future is bright indeed. Even if rebuilding remains the name of the game.
In third-year coach Jacque Vaughn, the Magic have a skipper whose offensive principles—cultivated during Vaughn’s tenure under San Antonio Spurs maestro Gregg Popovich—have the potential to inspire one of the game’s elite attacks. Last season’s 29th-ranked efficiency notwithstanding.
“I think we have a good variety of players,” Oladipo told Bleacher Report in a recent phone interview. “Everyone is capable of doing more than just one thing. I think we have more shooters now, which sounds crazy because Arron [Afflalo] is gone. But we’ll be better at the offensive end, especially with our efficiency.”
The loss of Afflalo, the journeyman swingman who very nearly notched his first All-Star appearance as Orlando’s on-court leader a season ago, can’t be discounted. Between his lockdown perimeter defense and ever-blossoming offensive repertoire, Afflalo—who was dealt to the Denver Nuggets on June 26 in exchange for Evan Fournier and the draft rights to Roy Devyn Marble—will be nearly impossible to replace.
It’s a fact that doesn’t escape Oladipo, who credits Afflalo with imparting upon him one of the most valuable lessons a young NBA player can learn: treating each and every game like Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
“I think the one thing that sticks out is how [Afflalo] had the same approach every night,” noted Oladipo. “When there’s so many games, it’s easy to lose focus. He taught me to bring that same hunger every game, night in and night out. So I’m fortunate he helped bring that to my table early—it didn’t take me a long time to figure out how important that is.”
Truth be told, it’s an ethos that’s come to define Oladipo’s very basketball being dating back to his days as a skinny, under-recruited standout at the legendary DeMatha High School in Maryland.
Four short years later, Oladipo has officially arrived—a two-way talent as adept at handling the ball as he is locking down opposing small forwards, with an offensive skill set that grows more versatile with each passing game.
Watching him lope and glide about the floor, it’s impossible not to conjure this flattering player comparison—one even Oladipo admits has for years served as perhaps his biggest basketball beacon.
“Dwyane Wade is definitely a big one. Growing up, I could relate to him because we were the same height,” Oladipo said of the 10-time NBA All-Star, with whom he shares a common coach in Indiana University’s Tom Crean. “When I was younger, I felt like, just in case I don’t grow to be 6’9”, I might as well watch someone who’s successful who’s not necessarily the tallest guy even at his position. That was D-Wade for me.”
Owing to the arrival of Payton, Oladipo—who spent 51 percent of his rookie-year minutes as Orlando’s floor general, per 82games.com—will likely go back to logging the majority of his minutes at his more natural shooting-guard position. Still, Oladipo is quick to acknowledge his crash course in Point Guard 101 is one that’s bound to pay lasting dividends.
“It helped me out a lot—to see the floor in different ways, not just playing off the ball,” he said. “Just having the ball in my hand was huge for my development. I feel like I can play both positions, but learning to play point guard more just makes me more of a threat.”
“A threat” probably isn’t how most would describe this year’s Magic; the team, for all its palpable promise, is still at least a year or two away from legitimate conference contention. But as last year’s Charlotte Hornets proved, in an East this weak, authoring an upstart playoff appearance is by no means out of the question.
“I think we can [make the playoffs]. You have to play really well on a lot of nights, but it’s something we’re capable of, “Oladipo said. “The East isn’t as lopsided anymore; it’s pretty even all around. It’s going to be competitive every night, which means we have to bring it every night.”
With Afflalo’s departure, Oladipo will be the one tasked with sounding that mantra, in the process helping forge an even deeper camaraderie in the service of what he calls “a great franchise in a great city.”
“Orlando’s eager for something to cheer about,” he said, “and that’s what we want to give them.”
And while weights and hardwood reps have been foremost on the combo guard’s mind, he’s still found time to take on another routine near and dear to his heart: community service.
Oladipo’s latest initiative: teaming up with Allstate’s Tom Joyner Family Reunion in Orlando to create superhero capes for cancer patients at the Florida Hospital for Children.
“It’s something I feel I’ve always been about, changing lives in any way I can,” Oladipo said. “There’s nothing like giving up your time and energy to kids like this and changing their lives.”
Asked to reflect on the past three years, a span that saw his rise from scarcely-recruited-but-still-serviceable freshman to two-way NCAA standout to the vanguard of the NBA’s youth movement, Oladipo can’t help but invoke a higher power.
Which, whatever one’s beliefs on the matter, speaks perfectly to Oladipo’s well-worn humbleness. Even when such modesty is occasionally tempered by a stronger, more assertive stance—one captured by a passage with which this burgeoning star is doubtlessly familiar: “From he who has been given much, much will be demanded.”
“It’s been a blessing from God, man,” he says. “Coming out of high school, I didn’t really get a lot of attention. I just always tried to play with a chip on my shoulder. I think that’s what’s helped me take my game to the next step. In the end, I want to be one of the greatest to ever play the game."