By MICHAEL MAROT, AP Sports Writer
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Victor Oladipo feels right at home in Indiana.
Here, he evolved from a high-flying, college acrobat for the Hoosiers into a legitimate NBA draft prospect. Here, he won over the hearts and minds of a basketball-crazed state. And here, he finally got a chance to tap into his full potential.
Now, five years after being taken No. 2 overall in the draft, the multi-talented guard has returned to his adopted home state, revived a rebuilding Pacers franchise and heads into the playoffs as the favorite to be the league’s Most Improved Player.
“To come out and get 48 wins after everything that happened is a great accomplishment,” Oladipo said after sitting out Tuesday’s 119-93 loss to Charlotte with a sore right foot. “But there’s a lot more to accomplish and a lot more goals we want to accomplish starting this weekend.”
The only surprise bigger than the Pacers’ remarkable resurgence this season might be Oladipo’s transformation from a potential future star into an NBA All-Star.
Orlando saw the possibilities when it drafted the junior back in 2013 but wound up trading him to Oklahoma City in July 2016. With the Thunder, Oladipo served a one-year apprenticeship with eventual MVP Russell Westbrook — a year Oladipo credits with helping him emerge as the budding star he has become.
But when the Thunder got a chance to pair Westbrook with four-time All-Star Paul George of Indiana, they put Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis on the trading block. Things could not have worked out better for the players — or the Pacers.
Oladipo and Sabonis each played key roles in helping the Pacers shed the preseason projection of NBA lottery team, and Oladipo has finally found a place where he can be himself.
“I know it kind of came out of nowhere (for fans), especially after the trade. People were kind of down on Vic last year for some odd reason,” said Kevin Durant, the Golden State star who grew up in the same Maryland county as Oladipo. “To see the trade and how people viewed that trade, and then he just turned it up throughout the season. For me, I thought it was expected of him. I’m very excited for Vic and happy for him and I know he’s going to keep getting better as a player.”
Returning to Indiana certainly helped. Hoosiers fans revered Oladipo because of how he played the game. They embraced the passion and heart he showed on the court, the effort he made on defense and believed he spoke a language any true basketball fan respects. Time hasn’t changed that part of Oladipo’s game.
“He is himself every day, and then he’s just very positive all the time,” Myles Turner said. “Even when things aren’t going well, he’s still talking, still getting guys involved, still hyping everybody else up.”
After spending four years looking for the right fit, Oladipo found it in Indy:
His scoring total increased by nearly 30 percent over his previous career best and 45 percent over last season. His averages of 23.1 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.3 are all career highs. His average of 2.36 steals is the highest single season average of anyone in the NBA since 2013-14 and his 77 steals were 18 ahead of George, who is second, heading into the final night of the regular season.
Even opposing coaches and players acknowledge Oladipo’s breakout season should make the fifth Indiana player to earn the most improved award since 2000.
“Oh, definitely,” Lance Stephenson said, almost scoffing at the question. “In my eyes, he’s the MVP. He’s played terrific.”
Oladipo knows there’s still plenty more to do and his blazing speed and charismatic charm make the possibilities seem endless for the 25-year-old.
The next chapter begins in the playoffs. In his previous four seasons, Oladipo has won only one postseason game and he doesn’t want this season’s magical ride to end before he can celebrate winning his first playoff series with his teammates.
And the message he sent Tuesday night resounded throughout the state.
“We’re going to go in there and win,” he said. “We’re not going to go in there and try to win. We’re going to go in there and win.”
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