ORLANDO, Fla. — After ranking 29th in steals in the NBA last season, the Orlando Magic are convinced they got themselves a steal with the second pick in the draft.
Victor Oladipo, who couldn’t crack the starting lineup two years ago as a freshman for an Indiana team that won only three games in Big Ten play, knows exactly why he now finds himself in a position to contribute right away and keep the Magic from staggering through another 62-loss season.
“My defense is everything. It’s the reason why I got here,” he said Thursday night after the Magic, emphasizing an area of need over the luxury of size, resisted the temptation to gamble on Kentucky center Nerlens Noel and instead chose a 6-foot-4, 213-pound guard who set a single-season school record with 78 steals in his junior year.
Not even Isiah Thomas, the last Hoosier to be taken No. 2 overall back in 1981, had so prolific of a defensive season. Not even Dwyane Wade, who Tom Crean coached at Marquette before leaving to revive one of college basketball’s most storied programs, went so early in the first round.
“To be honest with you, it’s crazy,” Oladipo said. “It’s just a surreal experience. I’ve been dreaming about this day for a long time. And for it to actually be here is just a surreal feeling. I’m definitely blessed and humbled by it.”
Oladipo, an outstanding athlete and a self-described gym rat, is expected to compete for the starting job at shooting guard with veteran Arron Afflalo. That scenario might not materialize, however, since the Magic are reportedly looking to send Afflalo to the Los Angeles Clippers in a trade for point guard Eric Bledsoe. A backcourt of Oladipo and Bledsoe would make the Magic younger and more energetic, although a bit lacking in length.
“We like Victor because we feel like Victor has a work ethic and approach to the game that will allow him to continue to improve,” Magic general manager Rob Hennigan said. “We feel that way about a lot of the players we have.”
Oladipo went into last year with little to no fanfare but wound up averaging 13.6 points and 6.3 rebounds while helping the Hoosiers to their first Big Ten regular-season championship in 20 years. His meteoric rise and the national attention that went along with it brought about another look at the unusual and distant relationship between Oladipo and his father, Chris, who came to the United States in his teens from the west African nation of Sierra Leone and went on to earn a Ph.D. in behavioral science at Maryland.
When Victor was a senior in high school, he told the Washington Post that his father had never come to see him play. He remains close to his mother and three sisters, and in a sign that things could be improving between him and his father, Chris Oladipo was on hand at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., to see the draft.
“It was an amazing feeling to have him there, to have him watching,” he said. “I know he’s definitely proud of me. I knew he wasn’t about to come out a lot in the past. So for him to actually come out here and be here, it absolutely means a lot to me.”
Ben McLemore of Kansas had been more highly regarded than Oladipo at the same position after the Magic finished second to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the draft lottery last month. But a series of less-than-impressive workouts for teams caused McLemore’s stock to slide. He lasted until the seventh pick, when he was taken by the Sacramento Kings.
“We felt like Victor made more sense for us,” Hennigan said.
Center Cody Zeller, Oladipo’s teammate at Indiana, was taken with the fourth pick by the Charlotte Bobcats. The Magic brought in Zeller for two workouts earlier this week on the chance that they might trade down in the first round. Little did they or anyone else know the 7-footer would be chosen ahead of Noel and Alex Len of Maryland, the two players who the Cavaliers were supposedly torn between taking at No. 1.
Hennigan said the Magic had two opportunities to move down in the first round but elected not to do so. He would not say which teams were involved in possible trade talks.
It wasn’t until four hours after they took Oladipo that the Magic made their second-round pick and chose forward Romero Osby of Oklahoma. The 6-8, 232-pound Osby averaged 16 points and seven rebounds as a senior for the Sooners. At 23, he’s older than many of his new teammates and has a wife and a daughter.