ORLANDO, Fla. — Victor Oladipo admitted he didn’t know how to react at first over the summer when Jameer Nelson sought him out in the weight room of the Orlando Magic’s training facilities.
But on the eve of training camp, the second pick in the NBA draft and the veteran who’s about to begin his 10th season with the Magic are pretty much on the same page, even though they might be competing for the same position.
“I’m just trying to soak up everything he teaches me every day,” Oladipo said Monday at the team’s media day. “He’s a great vet. I grew up watching him. I know how good he was and how good he is. It’s just crazy playing him in pickup (games) and seeing how smart he is, how he gets everybody involved. I’m just being a sponge. Call me SpongeBob.”
Actually, if either player is close to resembling a cartoon character, it might be Nelson, who has battled the notion that he’s too small to play point guard at the highest level for so long that he’s now the franchise’s all-time leader in assists.
“I guess some point guards are 6-foot and some point guards are 6-4,” he said, acknowledging the four-inch height advantage Oladipo has on him.
Nelson has reached out to teammates in the past in his role as a captain of the Magic. He would often organize offseason gatherings in his hometown outside of Philadelphia, although he chose not to do so this summer in order to let his body recover from an injury-plagued and loss-filled season.
In that respect, the transition to becoming a mentor to Oladipo has been natural.
“I’ve pretty much already told him there’s always going to be ups and downs,” he said. “Just try to stay in the middle. That’s the most important thing. You can’t get too high or too low. He’s going to win some games, he’s going to lose some games. And he’s a good enough player to understand what he’s doing right and what he’s doing wrong. I’ll just be there to help him out when he needs it.”
Magic coach Jacque Vaughn, who played 12 years in the NBA, is glad to have both players on the 19-man roster. But he expects the mutual admiration Nelson and Oladipo have for one another to give way to gritty reality once practices tip off.
“The thing I learned early on as a player is this is a man’s league,” Vaughn said. “There’s men in the locker room who are married, who have kids, who want to support their families. That’s the approach you have to have every single day. You come to work and work as hard as you can. You listen to your coworkers. You learn from your coworkers. But at the end of the day, there’s a responsibility on yourself that you have to have, a self-disciplined approach. That’s the challenge Victor will have.”
Oladipo made quite an impression in July playing on the Magic’s entry in its summer league which included Maurice Harkless, Andrew Nicholson and Kyle O’Quinn, all of whom were coming off their rookie seasons. But while he demonstrated the ability to make jump shots from 3-point range with the game on the line, the fact that he finished the week with almost as many turnovers as assists showed the adjustment from three years in college at Indiana won’t be without some growing pains.
“I don’t think it’s a huge adjustment, as far as the game of basketball,” he said. “But it’s 82 games. I’m not used to that. I’m not used to the size. Every night, you’re playing against the best of the best.”
As to the question of whether Oladipo might be more of a threat to Nelson at point guard or Arron Afflalo at shooting guard, Vaughn put a variation on the party line that has been espoused from the night the Magic took him after the Cleveland Cavaliers picked forward Anthony Bennett.
“There’s only one position on the floor, and that’s the center, in today’s game,” he said. “That’s the way we’ll approach things. Victor played some guard for us, and he’ll continue to play guard for us. Whether some people want to consider it lead guard, point guard, off guard, shooting guard, I’ll leave that to everyone elses semantics. For us, I’m going to put basketball players on the floor and let them excel at playing basketball.”
“Wherever they put me,” Oladipo added, “that’s where I feel like I need to be in order for us to win. I’ll go out there and play my butt off.”
A combination of injuries, the last of which was a sprained right ankle in late March, caused Nelson to miss 26 games in a season when the Magic finished with a league-worst record of 20-62. Veteran Beno Udrih, who took over for him, left as a free agent over the summer and signed with the New York Knicks.
Setting aside semantics, it’s clear that Oladipo’s skill set will have to resemble Nelson’s in time.
“You’re not just out there passing the ball,” Nelson said. “You have to look for your own shot as well. But you have to understand there’s a time and place for both. I think he’ll get it. It’s going to take some time, just like anything else. But I’m here to help him work at it.”
Vaughn is of the belief that Nelson and Oladipo can work in harmony, and he used an unusual analogy to prove his point.
“On the farm, there are cockerels and there are roosters,” he said. “And they live within the same area. They can co-exist.”
He then paused and asked, “Anyone know what a cockerel is?”