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February 26, 2013

The rise of Victor Oladipo

When Victor Oladipo first signed with Indiana, he was so unknown, Tom Crean had to help people with the basics.

Such as pronouncing his name.

"Oladipo," Crean would tell people, "rhymes with Home Depot."

The 6-foot-5 wing was an athlete from one of the most famous high school basketball programs in the country, but after a non-descript junior year, no one knew what to expect. No one really knew who he was.

He had a solid senior year in high school but entered Indiana in the early stages of Crean's rebuilding of a decimated program without ever being ranked as a top-100 recruit.

Fast forward to the present.

Oladipo is a National Player of the Year candidate as a key player on the nation's No. 1-ranked team.

He's considered a shoe-in to be an All-American, and he could be the National Defensive Player of the Year as well. Several NBA scouts tell Peegs.com he's a lottery pick right now and is only going to continue to climb up the draft boards.

"I think he's the player of the year in college basketball," said Clark Kellogg, lead analyst for CBS' coverage of the NCAA Tournament.

The son of Nigerian immigrants, Oladipo has turned himself into a force in college basketball and what many analysts see as a rising star in the game.

He can shoot. He can score from all around the floor. He passes and rebounds. And oh yeah, there's that defense that remains the backbone of his game.

And he's done it with personality.

Outgoing, thoughtful and engaging, Oladipo is more than comfortable in the spotlight with a constant smile that seems to welcome everyone to the party.

Oladipo is Indiana's second-leading scorer, third-leading rebounder, top 3-point shooter and leads the team in deflections, a statistic several teams use to measure defensive activity.

The reality is, while those stats sound nice, they scratch the surface of the overall impact Oladipo has made and tell but a portion of the story of his rise.

In one year, his shooting has improved from 47 percent to 64 percent, his 3-point shooting from 21 percent to 51 percent and his offensive rebounds from 1.8 to 2.4. And oh yeah, that defense. He leads the Big Ten in steals at 2.4 per game.

"It's hard to find the correct word to say how much he's progressed," one NBA scout who has watched Oladipo multiple times told Peegs.om. "I'm impressed with where he was last year to where he is now. You start to ask yourself, if he can improve that much in that short of period of time, basically is there a ceiling for what this kid can do?"

MR. EVERYTHING

Oladipo has always been known as a high flyer. He won the dunk contest at the prestigious HoopHall Classic in Springfield, Mass., as a senior. He has a highlight reel full of theatrical finishes at Indiana.

Now there is an athlete and a basketball player. Players such as sophomore 7-foot teammate Cody Zeller, Michigan guard Trey Burke and Ohio State guard Aaron Craft were more heralded entering the season. Now, Oladipo moved onto that level and, in the opinion of many, passed them by.

"He's a First Team All-American in my eyes. I don't think anybody affects the game on a more consistent basis than he does." ESPN commentator Dan Dakich said. "Maybe Trey Burke, but on the defensive end ... Oladipo, like Craft, prides himself on that. And Oladipo shoots it so well. He finishes so well. I don't know that any guard has had a better year.

"Some may be scoring more, but I don't know that anybody is playing better on both ends. I don't think anybody is, big guys, little guys, anybody."

The defense is what came first.

At 6-foot-5 with overall quickness, quick hands and a burst, Oladipo has guarded point guards, shooting guards, small forward and power forwards in college. He has 347 deflections this year. Zeller is second on IU with 230.

What makes Oladipo an elite defender isn't the steals. It's his ability to stay properly balanced and not need help.

"Tom makes a big deal of deflections, but that can work against you if you're not balanced," Dakich said. "You end up lunging for a stat as opposed to playing defense. If you get off balance, you put a teammate in a bad spot. He never has to be helped."

Oladipo entered college as an athlete. He added skills last year that took his game to another level. The third level of progression, one that Oladipo has taken this year, is film study that gives a player a deep knowledge base onto which the athleticism and skill are attached.

Oladipo understands when and where the most advantageous spots are to go for steals. He's not really gambling. He's taking a risk that he's studied. He knows when the percentages favor him. He knows where teammates are on defense, so he doesn't hang them out to dry.

His steal and save at Michigan State that led to a layup as the Hoosiers beat the fourth-ranked Spartans 72-68 on the road looked like a spur-of-the-moment tip away of a pass. The truth is, the Spartans were running a play Oladipo had studied. And he knew where to position himself and when to get into a passing lane.

"From the time he was here until now, he's a world-class defender and he will always be that," said Mike Jones, coach at DeMatha, which has had a couple dozen NBA players come through its program. "He's so long and so fast and so strong and has such great instincts, no matter what he does on the offensive end, he can play in the NBA because of his defense.

"Because of his offensive improvement, he's that much more of a commodity. I love the way he plays the pick and roll, and I know that excites NBA teams. With his ability to handle it and make the proper decisions and who he is athletically, he's going to measure up with anyone.

"You put four other really good players around him and he knows how to play with them, but he's improved now to the point, he can be the leader of that group."

The offensive improvement has been most pronounced.

Known as little more than a dunker in high school, Oladipo's 63.9 field goal percentage is third in the country.

He's shooting 23-for-45 from 3-point range, 67.2 percent from 2-point range and he's getting to the line. He's made 76 of 101 free throws, one of three IU players to attempt more than 100 free throws and shoot 75 percent or better from the line.

"Here's what he does, and I'm ridiculously impressed by this," Dakich said. "He'll get inside and then, boom, show up on the other baseline and he jumps and lays it in and no one else even jumps. Pete Newell once told me great players with the ball make everybody else look like they're standing still. It's like, 'Damn, how'd he do that?' He's the only one at the rim laying it in. It's fun to watch and it happens all the time."

Oladipo wasn't even mentioned on Preseason All-American lists. He wasn't even preseason all-Big Ten.

Now, many are calling him National Player of the Year, and his performances in key situations have fueled that.

Oladipo scored a career-high 26 points on 8-for-10 shooting as Indiana beat No. 10 Ohio State in Columbus, Ohio, 81-68 for the program's first double-figure win over a top-10 since the 1960s.

He followed that with a team-high 19 points and team-high nine rebounds in the Hoosiers' win at Michigan State, the program's highest ranked opponent (No. 4) ever beaten on the road. And he did it while on a sprained ankle that Crean said wasn't close to 100 percent.

The Michigan State win was another example of his key crunch-time plays. Oladipo scored six of his points in the final 94 seconds as IU came back from four points down in the final three minutes.

"Victor's impact and presence at both ends and the dynamic, impactful plays he's made on a pretty consistent basis separates him in my eyes," Kellogg said. "Right now, if I had to vote, he's my player of the year. He's got the lowest scoring average of any of those guys but the quality of production and impact defensively in a year when there isn't a clear-cut Player of the Year, I default to the Heisman Look.

"Who's had the buzz or electricity that's been generated by not just really good play, but outstanding, eye-catching play? He's probably done that more. The other players are sure-fire All-Americans and worthy of player of the year considering, but I'd give it to Victor."

A TRUE GRINDER

Oladipo's rise is that of a grinder.

There wasn't just one moment when something clicked and he burst onto the scene. He's been about steady improvement thanks to his devotion to Crean's player development program.

Oladipo is one of the players Crean says has "worn out his key card" to Cook Hall, IU's 24-hour practice facility.

"It's a great example of the old boring statement about daily improvement," Crean said. "I have not seen him have a day when he wasn't doing something extra in the day, whether it's after practice, in the summertime, in the springtime. And the extra time with watching film has really helped increase his knowledge base.

"The biggest difference is, he's always been a charismatic young man who didn't want to hurt anybody's feelings. He isn't worried about that anymore as a leader. He's grown. You can't be a leader without being demanding and hurting some people's feelings and being able to call people out, and he's getting there. He's a great voice for this team."

Oladipo has always been a worker. He had no choice, really. His parents were that way.

Growing up in Upper Marlboro, Md., southeast of Washington, D.C., Oladipo went to high school at DeMatha, about a 90-minute ride away in Hyattsville, Md., His sisters, Kendra and Victoria, went to different schools.

He wanted to work out at school each day at 7 a.m. That meant leaving the house no later than 5:30 a.m.

"Not only did I have to wake up early, they had to wake up early, so they had to make some sacrifices they didn't want to make and I appreciate that so much from the bottom of my heart," Oladipo said. "Without them I wouldn't be in the position I'm in.

"For as long as I've known them, I've know my parents to be hard working. My mom had to go to nursing school and she was always studying hard. My dad had to work three or four jobs just to provide for us so we could go to school and live a comfortable life. It was rough growing up at first. We had struggles, but they would continue working hard.

"There would be days they'd be coming home where they go no sleep or three hours of sleep. Some days when my mom starting working, she had to work nights so she would come back, take us to school, get maybe a three- or four-hour nap then wake up and pick us up, take us home and get ready to go to work again.

"I think that's where I get it from."

Oladipo arrived at Indiana in 2010 and played all 32 games, starting five. He averaged 7.4 points and shot 55 percent from the floor and 31 percent from 3-point range. Last year as a sophomore, he started 34 of 36 games as Indiana won 27 games and reached the Sweet 16. He averaged 10.8 points but pressed into more duty, he shot just 47 percent from the floor, including 21 percent from the arc.

"It's really cool that maybe the two top players in the country, Oladipo and Trey Burke, are both under-recruited, self-made guys," said CBS Sports senior college basketball writer Jeff Goodman. "Victor even more so because of where his skill set was early on. Even last year when I watched practice in the preseason, I was like, all right, he's good. But he still can't really shoot. He plays hard, but it wasn't like he was locked in defensively on every possession.

"People think he was always this defender that was locked in on every play, but he would have stretches where he would disappear defensively a little bit. But he just works. That's the biggest thing. The kid just works."

"IF HE SEES ME, HE SEES ME"

Oladipo was good kid growing up. He obeyed his parents.

Except sometimes when it came to basketball.

When he was in elementary school and the Oladipos lived in their first house, his dad, Chris, now a Ph.D., didn't want him taking the ball outside and risk an issue in a not-so-great neighborhood.
On a Sunday before church, his dad had to run an errand. Little Victor saw an opening.

"He was bouncing the ball in the house and my dad told him not to take the ball outside," his twin sister Victoria said. "My dad left and he decided to go outside. We told him, 'You'd better not,' and he said, 'If he sees me, he sees me.'

"For some reason, dad came right back, and Victor was outside bouncing the ball. My dad started yelling, 'I told you not to bounce the ball outside,' and my mom was like, 'It's OK, we're going to church.'

"That just describes how much he loves the game. He didn't care if he got in trouble with my dad."

His mom, Joan, saw it often.

"He is very headstrong," she said. "He got in trouble many times with basketball. When it comes to basketball, he is very headstrong."

When the family moved, the first time his mom took him and Victoria with her to the grocery store, Victor noticed a basketall court nearby. From then on, he took a basketball with him every time the went to the store.

His mom and Victoria would shop. He would shoot.

At DeMatha, Oladipo wasn't unproductive. He was just unknown nationally, despite a very good senior year.

He didn't start much until his final season of high school when he averaged 11.9 points, 10.3 rebounds and 3.6 blocked shots and was named to the Washington Post All-Met team and first team all Washington Catholic Athletic Conference, widely considered one of the top high school basketball leagues in the country.

During his high school career, teammates included Quinn Cook (Duke), Jerian Grant (Notre Dame), Jeremy Grant (Syracuse), James Robinson (Pittsburgh), Mikael Hopkins (Georgetown) and Beejay Anya (headed to N.C. State), among others. Nearly everyone from his high school years is playing or is headed to Division I basketball.

"He had a great high school career, but he always floated under the radar," Jones said. "Some of that is because of the teammates he had on his team and some of that was just because he was so unselfish.

"They all averaged between 10 and 15 points a game, and I think they enjoyed that because no one could key on any one guy. In another situation, Victor could have averaged 20-some points per game."

But he didn't. And he didn't stand out much, finishing high school ranked 144th in the class, despite also playing with a major AAU team, Team Takeover.

"I saw that Team Takeover team play, and I saw DeMatha play," said Goodman, one of the few national college basketball writers who also covers the recruiting scene. "I'm sure I saw him play multiple times. I don't remember seeing him play."

Indiana assistant Kenny Johnson, a former Team Takeover coach and high school coach in the Washington, D.C., area, has known Oladipo since Oladipo was a high school freshman.

"One thing that Vic has never really gotten credit for is how basketball intelligent he is and his overall desire to win," Johnson said. "When I look back at him, he's always been on teams that had guys who could score the basketball, guys' maybe that was their best attribute. He was trying to find his niche and his way to be productive on that team.

"He never was the type of young man who wanted to go out and outshoot the shooter or try to out-handle the ballhandler. He looked at it and said, 'OK, I'll do the dirty work. I'll be the one who goes and guards the other team's best player. I'll be the one who has to put up big rebounding numbers."

"He kind of got in a box where people said, 'OK, he's not the greatest scorer. He's not the greatest ballhandler. He's a great energy guy and defensive player, but what else can he do?' There's no doubt being here and working with coach Crean, he's been able to expand his offensive arsenal and become more comfortable in those areas, but it was something that was in him that he possessed.

"Now this program has given him a platform to be able to show his full offensive arsenal and he's improved his jump shot and a number of different things. He's going to be a team-first guy, always. Whatever the team asks him to do, he's going to try to do. Whatever coach deems his role to be, that's what he's going to try to do. He's aggressively attacking his weaknesses. He has great self-awareness. He knows what he needs to improve on. When you love the game and you have a program that allows you to continue to grow in the game and expand your personal ability, that's kind of what you're seeing in his performance."

That's been the rise of Victor Oladipo, from DeMatha to Indiana to now a potential NBA lottery pick and National Player of the Year as a junior.

For Jones, his high school, coach, the only unexpected aspect is the timing.

"I'm surprised it's come this quickly, but I fully expected these calls to start the summer going into his senior year," Jones said. "I've been contacted by almost every team in the league doing background checks. But the fact is, he's worked hard for everything."

What NBA scouts see, is a player who has developed NBA attributes while winning in college.

Ones who spoke to Peegs.com see a player who is likely a lottery pick after this season.

"You see a lot of kids that have the ability to go from point A to point B in a straight line with the dribble, and he's impressive with how fast he can cover that distance with the dribble," another NBA scout said. "What I've noticed is his ability to change direction. That's makes it very difficult for a defender to stay in front.

"A lot of guys can stay in front if you go in a straight line. When you cross over going left and right, his ability to go two or three dribbles one way and come back with two or three dribbles another, eventually he's going to get the better end of a defender.

"What you look at with his position is, one, what's his range? Obviously I think he's got NBA range. Two, can he handle the ball well enough where he can play multiple positions? I think the answer to that is yes. He's shown that. Three, is he strong enough to get to the rim to where if he's having an off night with his jump shot, he can get to the rim? I think the answer to that is yes."

If Victor Oladipo does declare for the pros, no one will need help pronouncing his name anymore.



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