Indiana Pacers: Why Victor Oladipo’s return has been a success

Victor Oladipo had a rough return last season after coming back from a torn quad. This season, however, he looks as good as ever for the Indiana Pacers.

Just a few months ago it was entirely fair to wonder if Victor Oladipo would ever be the same as the player he was before tearing his quad in January of 2019. After a long layoff to rehabilitate, he made his return to the Indiana Pacers‘ roster and struggled terribly.

Before the NBA season was suspended due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Oladipo averaged 13.8 points per game in 13 appearances. He shot 39.1 percent from the floor and 30.4 percent from 3-point range and had none of the old spring in his step from his breakout 2017-18 season.

Things were barely better in the NBA bubble when the season resumed, where he averaged 16.2 points per game while shooting 39.4 percent from the floor and 34.5 percent from long range. In the playoffs where the Pacers were swept by the Miami Heat, his numbers were largely the same as his overall bubble output.

Sometimes players just don’t recover from catastrophic injuries, and you couldn’t be blamed if you thought Oladipo would be one of those unfortunate souls who didn’t.

Fortunately, his bounce-back campaign in 2020-21 has laid all those fears to rest, at least so far. In stark contrast to his numbers from last season, he’s averaging 20.4 points, 6.0 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game while shooting 44.1 percent from the floor, and his 3-point volume and efficiency are through the roof. 7.3 of his 15.9 field goal attempts per game are from 3-point range, and he’s shooting a career-best 41.2 percent from behind the arc.

The way he’s being used by new Indiana Pacers head coach Nate Bjorkgren is a big part of why he’s been able to find such success in the early stages of the season. Instead of being the offensive fulcrum, he’s been able to thrive off the ball and benefit from outstanding playmakers like Domantas Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon.

To compare versus his 2017-18 season, 68.6 percent of his possessions came in the form of pick and roll ball-handler, transition and isolation. This season, just 48.6 percent of his possessions are coming in play-types where he is the offensive focal point.

Instead, he’s largely operating off the ball and nearly half of his possessions (49.2 percent) are coming off cuts, hand-offs, screens and spot-ups. This is in stark contrast to 2017-18 when only 25.8 percent of his possessions came in the form of off-ball actions.

Watch here as Oladipo and Sabonis play a two-man game in the post resulting in Oladipo getting free off a cut for a layup.

He’s also turned into a serious opportunist, as we see here. Oladipo uses a T.J. Warren screen to take advantage of a Chicago Bulls defense that’s too slow to rotate and stop his slash to the rim.

Victor Oladipo’s usage is down just a tick from that breakout season, from 27.8 percent to 26.1, but the way Bjorkgren uses him in the offense has made life so much easier on him. And Bjorkgren has been able to utilize him in the way he has thanks to these savvy playmakers that surround him.

With the injury track records of several key Indiana Pacers, it was easy to underrate this squad coming into a new season with a new head coach. One thing we need to learn once and for all, though, is that underestimating the Indiana Pacers is a mistake, and Victor Oladipo is a big reason for that.