Oladipo, of course, exceeded every possible expectation anyone — including the Pacers themselves — could’ve had for him when he was traded from Oklahoma City for Paul George last summer. Oladipo’s breakout season included his first all-star selection, a possible all-NBA nod and being the presumptive winner of this season’s Most Improved Player Award, and came to an end with he and the Pacers pushing LeBron James and the Cavaliers to the brink of elimination.
The former DeMatha Catholic star is a unique individual, though. By the time he sat down in front of those cameras, he’d texted his trainer, David Alexander, about when they can start working out again. And instead of giving the usual platitudes about Indiana’s season and what is next for him, Oladipo took the opportunity to lay down a marker for what his future and that of the Pacers will look like.
“If y’all don’t respect the Indiana Pacers now, I have no respect for you,” Oladipo said after averaging 22.7 points, 8.3 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 2.4 steals in the series. “That’s just how I feel. Nobody thought we were going to be here — not one person — but us in the locker room.
“I feel like we’ve earned our respect from everyone now.”
Whether the Pacers as a whole have earned that respect remains to be seen. If Oladipo had a credible second star alongside him, perhaps Indiana wins this series and has a chance to advance deep into the East playoffs.
But there is no doubt about how Oladipo’s play resonated across the NBA both this season and in this series. It certainly caught the eye of James, who sought Oladipo out immediately after the game to speak to him, and began his postgame news conference praising Oladipo for his play.
“Unbelievable jump from last year to this year,” James said. “We all saw that. He’s proven why he’s a franchise-caliber player.”
For as much as the Pacers were doubted coming into this season, Oladipo was so even more. The package of Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis was not seen as nearly enough for George at the time of the trade, and Oladipo — after four solid but unspectacular seasons with the Orlando Magic and Thunder to begin his career — was not seen as having anywhere near this kind of upside.
Then he showed up for training camp at a different level of physical fitness, and it translated into him becoming a one-man wrecking crew, leading the Pacers to become the biggest surprise of any team in the NBA.
And, if how Oladipo sounds now means anything, he seems determined to take another leap forward next season, saying that watching James in this series has only motivated him further to try to reach that level of the league.
“I don’t know how to take time off,” Oladipo said. “I had someone tell me, [to] take a break and enjoy my life. This is my life. I feel like I’ve got a lot of room to improve. This summer I’m going to go to work so I can come back even better.”
Whether the Pacers, who can go in many different directions but have the potential to open up around $50 million in cap space this summer depending on both player option decisions by Thaddeus Young and Cory Joseph and how they handle several non-guaranteed deals, can come back a better team next season remains to be seen.
Yet having a bona fide star to build around moving forward has Indiana in a far better place than it appeared to be a year ago. And if anyone was left doubting whether Oladipo was a star after his breakout regular season, they’ll have to be convinced after Oladipo’s showing in this series.