ORLANDO, Fla. — Victor Oladipo’s length, reach and quick feet are attributes which should become readily apparent when he takes the court for the first time as a member of the Orlando Magic.
But it’s his eyes that are the first thing you notice about him. That certainly was the case with Tom Crean, the coach who saw Oladipo develop in three years from a player with no discernible offensive skills to the second pick in the NBA draft.
“One of the things that endeared me to him from the very beginning was his eye contact,” Crean said. “And that sounds kind of goofy because we’re all taught at a young age to give that but we all know that’s getting harder and harder. Victor looks you in the eye. He’s respectful. He’s spent a lot of his life around older people. He’s a wisdom guy. He loves to learn. He’s got a humbleness.”
His laser-like focus was evident less than 24 hours after the Magic selected the 6-foot-4 guard with the primary goal of shoring up one of the most porous defenses in the league last season.
“Nothing’s been given to me since Day One,” said Oladipo, flanked by Magic general manager Rob Hennigan to his right and coach Jacque Vaughn and second-round pick Romero Osby to his left. “My family always told me to achieve anything in this world, you have to work hard. That’s what I’ve been trying to do.”
“He’s about what we want to be about,” Hennigan said. “And he has a certain sense of urgency and intensity to how he approaches things that I think will bode well for both him and for us.”
Although he was invariably described as a shooting guard leading up to the draft, the Magic envision Oladipo as someone who can also play the point and even small forward in a three-guard lineup. He’ll be at a height disadvantage in many of those situations. But it’s nothing he hasn’t gone through from his high-school days all the way through last season, when he set an Indiana record for the most steals and was named the defensive player of the year in the Big Ten.
“Guarding people taller and stronger than me, that’s all about heart,” he said. “I’m kind of quick and I can move my feet, too. So that’s always good.”
“That’s a pretty good combination,” Vaughn added. “It doesn’t mean he’s perfect. We’ll continue to challenge his skillset and try to maximize his skillset.”
Those skills now include the ability to hit the 3-point shot. Oladipo isn’t quite in the class of Ben McLemore, the shooting guard from Kansas whom the Magic chose to pass on, but he has made considerable progress from when he arrived on the Indiana campus.
“You look at where Victor was his freshman year and where he is now, it’s a night-and-day difference,” Hennigan said. “We remember watching him as a freshman, and no offense, but if he was standing on the court, he couldn’t throw a rock in the ocean. But now that’s different. That couldn’t be further from the truth. And that speaks to his willpower.”
Not since the Detroit Pistons took Isiah Thomas more than 30 years ago and began their march toward back-to-back championships had a former Hoosier been drafted as high as Oladipo was. He also went three turns earlier this year than Dwyane Wade, whom Crean coached at Marquette, was chosen by the Miami Heat in 2003, although it wasn’t as if there was anyone remotely the equivalent of LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony on the board Thursday night.
“It’s all nice,” Oladipo said. “But a year ago, nobody was saying a word about me. Nobody knew who I was. At the end of the day, I know where I come from. Accolades and getting noticed is nice, but if you don’t produce, it can all be taken from you. So why walk around with an ego? Just keep working. That’s what I plan on doing.”
Wade earned his third championship ring as a member of the Heat last week. Oladipo is coming to a franchise entering its 25th anniversary season with no titles and coming off its worst record since its expansion year.
But for as much as Crean claims to dislike drawing comparisons between the two of them, he can see history repeating itself.
“Dwyane went in and established he was going to work,” he said. “He wasn’t going to take a back seat to fear. He wasn’t going to take a back seat to experience. He was going to work and play the way that he knew how to play. I fully expect Victor will do the same thing in Orlando.”
One look into Oladipo’s eyes should tell you that.