Victor Oladipo’s play as rookie gives Magic hope for future

Victor Oladipo averaged 13.8 points in 80 games, including 44 starts, for the Orlando Magic.

Kim Klement

Failing to win the NBA draft lottery a year ago was far from a disaster for the Orlando Magic. As things turned out, Victor Oladipo had a better scoring average and played more minutes than anyone else who was chosen in the top 10.

The guard from Indiana, who was the first No. 2 overall pick in the Magic’s 25-year history, provided a much-needed infusion of talent, hustle and charisma. What he couldn’t do, however, was reverse the fortunes of a team which won a league-low 20 games the season before.

Except for two games he missed in early March because of a sore left ankle, Oladipo played at least 16 minutes in all 59 Magic losses. That was almost three times as many defeats as he experienced as a freshman with the Hoosiers before he and Cody Zeller, the No. 4 pick a year ago by Charlotte, helped turn the program around.

"It was a crazy year, a long year," Oladipo said. "I had a lot of ups, a lot of downs. And I’ve learned so much. I’m looking forward to next year."

Unless general manager Rob Hennigan can pull off a trade, the Magic will be picking behind three other teams June 26. And while the top tier of players is considered to be far superior in talent to those chosen in 2013, the Magic will be fortunate to add someone whose work ethic is similar to Oladipo’s.

"The only thing I ask is whoever they get, they buy in the way Victor did," forward and backup center Kyle O’Quinn said.

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Oladipo made his first start Nov. 20 against the Miami Heat in a game where the Magic trailed by as many as 36 points. He went back to coming off the bench before the end of December, returned to the starting lineup four games into the new year, and spent most of the final month being a reserve again.

So the question of whether he’s a starter or not might have overtaken the dilemma that surrounded Oladipo even before the Magic drafted him — namely, whether he’s a point guard or a shooting guard.

"Our stance on the infamous question remains the same," Hennigan said. "He’s a guard."

"It’s perfectly fine with me," said Oladipo, who finished fourth on the Magic in scoring with a 13.8-point average and was second to Jameer Nelson in assists. "I’m a basketball player. So if they want me to play center, I’m going to go do it. I don’t have to have a title."

One thing he already has is the respect and admiration of Nelson, who he was paired with in the starting backcourt 31 times during the season. The Magic’s record in those games was 9-22.

"He’s a competitor," Nelson said. "He has something that a lot of people don’t have, and that’s that motor where he’s just going to keep going."

The feeling is clearly mutual. Asked what he learned from Nelson, Oladipo said, "What didn’t I learn? I learned so much from him because his knowledge of the game is overwhelming. He knows so much, and he wants to teach you."

Oladipo was twice named the Eastern Conference rookie of the month, making him the first Magic player to receive that honor since Mike Miller in March 2001. His shooting percentage from 3-point range improved after the All-Star break, and his 129 steals were the most since Darrell Armstrong’s 135 during the 2002-03 season.

Perhaps most impressively, he never hit the so-called rookie wall.

"The amount of minutes he played were pretty good for a rookie," coach Jacque Vaughn said. "He showed that his body could take some pounding. That was a part of his indoctrination into the league."

"My body knows it’s played that many minutes, I know that much," said Oladipo, the first Magic rookie to average more than 30 minutes a game since Dwight Howard. "I’m just glad I got through a year of it. I’m getting used to it, and I know what to expect now going into next year."

WHAT HE DID RIGHT

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Playing 80 of 82 games speaks highly of Oladipo’s conditioning and durability. Only Michael Carter-Williams of the Philadelphia 76ers averaged more points, steals and free throws than him among rookies, and his average of 4.1 assists was more than what Jameer Nelson registered in his first season. He also made 78 percent of his free throws, an improvement over the best of his three years in college.

WHERE HE NEEDS TO IMPROVE

Although the game began to slow down for him as the season went on, Oladipo’s 256 turnovers were a glaring weakness. Getting his assist-to-turnover ratio up to at least 2.0 would be a step in the right direction. If his future is at shooting guard, he’ll also need to shoot better than 32.7 percent from 3-point range.

BEST GAME

Feb. 21 vs. New York. Oladipo had 30 points and 14 assists in the Magic’s double-overtime victory over the Knicks. It was one of six double-doubles by him and the first time since 2000 that a rookie had 30 or more points and 14 or more assists in the same game.

LOOKING AHEAD

It’s doubtful Oladipo will play every game for the Magic in their summer league for rookies and free agents in July, but the plan is for him to be on hand. Should the Magic take a guard with the fourth or 12th pick in the draft, his role for next season might need to be redefined.

You can follow Ken Hornack on Twitter @HornackFSFla or email him at khornack32176@gmail.com.