Victor Oladipo had just landed in his home state of Maryland when a friend, accompanying him for the trip, turned to him with some news.
"You were just traded to the Pacers for Paul George," the friend said.
Oladipo had spent the week in Oklahoma City running a basketball camp for local kids and thinking about ways he could help propel his then-team, the Thunder, further into the playoffs than the first round. He, like the rest of the basketball world, had no inkling that his time with the Thunder could soon be coming to an end. The reports of the trade—Oladipo and teammate Domantas Sabonis to the Pacers in exchange for George—shocked everyone. But perhaps Oladipo most of all.
"Get out of here," he responded.
He reached for his phone. Texts and tweets were pouring in. This was the second time he'd been traded mid-flight—the Magic had sent him to the Thunder nearly a year earlier to the day—but the familiar feeling didn't offer any comfort.
"Being traded twice in [that timespan], it makes you feel like people don't want you," Oladipo says now. "You start second-guessing yourself. Doubt starts to creep in a bit."
But then he started hearing from those who know him best. His mom called and so did Tom Crean, his coach at Indiana University. Both reminded him how successful he'd been when playing for IU, where he spent three years, and how playing for the Pacers would offer him all sorts of new on-court responsibilities. Kevin Pritchard, the Pacers' president of basketball operations, echoed that message soon after in another call.
Still, Oladipo couldn't quarantine himself from the criticism of the deal. Pritchard, most felt, had settled for a poor haul. The trade was widely panned as fans, media and even league insiders were unanimous in the opinion that the Pacers had shipped out a franchise player in exchange for a couple of spare parts.
"Of course it bothers me," Oladipo says of the criticism of the deal. "But people's opinions, they are what they are. I can't control that. All I can control is how hard I work."
A few weeks later, he walked into the St. Vincent Center, the Pacers' new state-of-the-art downtown training facility, where he met with head coach Nate McMillan to begin mapping out a plan for the following season.
"By making this move, management is saying they're going to build around you," McMillan recalls telling Oladipo. "But I don't want you to put any added pressure on yourself. So do your thing, play freely, and we'll figure out how you begin leading this organization."
It was the expression of confidence that Oladipo had been waiting years to hear. A former No. 2 overall pick, the 25-year-old guard has enjoyed a solid NBA career (16.3 points per game). The thing is, solid isn't what teams or fans expect from players drafted that high. No. 2 picks are expected to become studs, the types of talents that no team would dream of trading, let alone twice, which is all to say that through the first five years of his career, Oladipo had fallen short.
But now, one month into this new season, it seems that one more change of scenery coupled with an expression of faith was all he needed.
Oladipo is playing like a star and validating the Pacers' decision to place their future in his hands. He's boosted his scoring all the way up to 23 points per game while shooting a career high 47.4 percent from the field. He also has the 12-9 Pacers, a team pegged by most experts prior to the season as one of the worst in the league, outperforming expectations, despite the squad's other star, Myles Turner, missing five games due to a concussion.
It's still early, but Oladipo is morphing into a walking reminder of the dangers of leaping to conclusions, and that fit and opportunity can often be the secret ingredients to unleashing a player's full potential.
"I feel like I'm in a very comfortable situation now—the most comfortable I've ever been since I've been in the NBA," Oladipo says. "Sometimes, a player might not be in the best situation, but people will still label you and judge you regardless."
Last year, Oladipo spent the majority of his time spotting up from the perimeter and watching Russell Westbrook break defenses down. It was a new role for him. Throughout his basketball life, he'd always been the one tasked with carrying the load.
"It was definitely something I had to adjust to," Oladipo says. "I wouldn't say it was hard, but it was something new for me."
Oladipo is adamant about having no issues with Westbrook—or his style of play. On the contrary, he calls Westbrook a close friend and attributes some of the success he's enjoyed so far this season to spending a year watching him.
"I learned so much from Russ," he says. "Just his mindset, how relentless he is, those are things I've definitely taken with me."
He certainly did over the summer, which he spent in Miami, working out two, sometimes three times a day. He hired a chef. He did skill work with a personal trainer. He ended last season weighing 220 pounds, but he says he's now down to 205.
"You can see his abs now," Enes Kanter, who played with Oladipo last year in Oklahoma City, says. "He looks completely different. He put in a lot of work."
He knew he'd have to improve his jumper if wanted to reach the heights he intended, so he spent hours in a gym launching hundreds of triples.
When Oladipo showed up in Indiana for training camp, he did so as a new player ready to take on a new role, one which the Pacers were ecstatic to hand him. Oladipo is touching the ball 61.4 times per game this year for an average time of 3.5 seconds per touch, up from the 46.7 touches and 2.9 seconds per touch he averaged last year, per NBA.com. His usage rate is eighth in the league among players who've been on the floor for more than 100 minutes.
McMillan says he and the coaching staff spent the summer watching film of Oladipo, pinpointing the ways they could best use him. He recognized that Oladipo is one of the fastest players in the league. He figured pushing the ball—which the Pacers hoped but failed to do last season—could transform both Oladipo and the Pacers offense into explosive weapons.
He also spent hours huddled with Oladipo, reviewing tape of how opponents were guarding him and honing in on the areas where he could grow his game. During the preseason, for example, McMillan pushed Oladipo to alternate between different paces as opposed to constantly playing at full speed. He thought it'd make him more difficult to defend, like a speedy wide receiver who knows how to turn on the jets 10 yards down the field.
So far, all these decisions have paid off. The Pacers have upped their pace from 98.2 possessions per 48 minutes (18th) to 101.1, the ninth-highest mark in the league, per NBA.com. The offense, despite losing George, one of the game's top scorers, is scoring a blistering 108.2 points per 100 possessions, a two-point leap over last season and the league's fifth-best mark).
Much of that is thanks to Oladipo's emergence. Flipping between various speeds when attacking, as McMillan suggested, has gifted him with more room to maneuver. This season, Oladipo is converting 60.9 percent of his looks at the rim, per NBA.com, a nice uptick from the 57.0 percent finished last year.
He's become a one-man fastbreak.
A career 34.6 percent three-point shooter before the season, he's now drilling 46.2 percent of his looks from deep. He's shooting the ball confidently and forcing opponents to choose between poisons on pick-and-rolls.
The 1.1 points he's averaging per isolation possession rank in the 80th percentile of the league, according to NBA.com.
"There's still a lot of room for growth, but I think he can one day be an elite player at the 2-guard position," McMillan says.
He goes out of his way to add how much he's enjoyed working with his new star, pointing out that this summer, Oladipo became his first player ever to reach out and wish him a happy birthday.
"He's just a joy to work with and be around," McMillan says.
Of course, no story like this is complete without the list of caveats. The season is not even two months old, and soon opponents will no doubt begin drawing up scouting reports to counter Oladipo's new game. Three-point shooting can be sporadic, and it's possible Oladipo's percentages soon regress back to their previous rates. Also, he's still growing accustomed to what it's like to have plays run through him each possession, and how best to elevate those around him, though his assist rate does rank in the 89th percentile among all wings, according to Cleaning the Glass.
"There's still a lot that Victor has to learn about his teammates," McMillan says. "But things like that come."
Especially when a talented player is granted the vote of confidence he's been waiting years to receive.
"They told me they believed in my ability to play this game," he says. "It's a good feeling that somebody believes in you as much as you believe in yourself."