When the Indiana Pacers acquired Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis for Paul George in 2017, the front office was widely criticized, as the general consensus was that they didn’t get enough in return for George. However, Oladipo made huge strides after joining Indiana, averaging career-highs across the board and earning the Most Improved Player award, an All-NBA 3rd Team selection and All-Defensive First Team honors.
Unfortunately, Oladipo’s 2018-19 season ended in January when he ruptured a quad tendon in his right knee. Prior to getting hurt, he was averaging 18.8 points, 5.6 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 1.7 steals. Despite the injury, Oladipo earned his second All-Star nod. Now, the 27-year-old has been scrimmaging with teammates and is close to playing. HoopsHype caught up with Oladipo to discuss his rehab, his newfound stardom, the Pacers’ full potential, his R&B career, his experience on The Masked Singer and more.
First of all, how are you feeling? I saw that you’re now scrimmaging with your Pacers teammates, so how is your recovery going?
Victor Oladipo: My recovery is going well. I’m slowly building and slowly getting better. I just have to keep taking it one day at a time and everything else will take care of itself. There’s no definite timetable right now; it’s still up in the air… My rehab has been pretty self-explanatory. I’ve been doing things to help my quad get stronger and build stamina, so I can play at the highest level.
Pacers GM Chad Buchanan told me that your input helped the front office when they were building the team’s culture. How nice is it (and how rare is it) to be part of a team that really values player input?
VO: I haven’t played on many teams, but based on the teams I have played on, it’s pretty rare for upper-management and the program to take the players’ input and opinions to heart and really try to apply those things throughout the entire program. For them to do that, it just shows what kind of people they are and it shows what kind of organization we’re trying to build. We just have to continue to do that and get even better at that, and we’ll keep doing special things and continue to grow.
Here’s a great example of your impact: Chad said that when you first got to Indiana, you were so happy and calm every day. When he noticed this, he asked if you ever have bad days. You told him that you “reset” every day and approach that new day with a positive attitude, regardless of what happened the day before. Now, there’s a symbolic red reset button in the weight room. When did you develop that mentality?
VO: As I continue to grow and continue to get older, I realized that every day is a new day. Great people know how to treat it as such; they know not to take the good and the bad [from previous days], no matter what it is, and apply it to the new day. Every day is a fresh start, a new start. At the end of the day, you just have to remain the same way and keep the same even-keeled approach no matter what’s going on.
You’ve been rehabbing your quad for much of 2019. In the past, I’ve talked to players like Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant who said that going through a long, strenuous rehab (and not being able to play) takes a toll on you mentally. Have you experienced that?
VO: It is tough, not being able to play the game at the highest level possible because that’s what I love to do. It’s what I do every day. But, at the end of the day, there are other ways to build your mindset. You have to work on your mind just as much as you work on your body. You have to continue to train your mind and prepare your mind so that when you do come back, things are basically the same and it’s like your mind has essentially been playing even though your body has been out. I’m just trying to grow mentally and physically.
What did you do to pass the time when you were going through rehab? I know some guys play a lot of video games or find other hobbies. Did you do anything like that?
VO: I think the biggest thing was just watching a lot of basketball. Whenever you’re playing, you’re kind of just focused on playing and performing at the highest level possible. But over the last 10 and a half months, I had the opportunity to really watch a lot of games and really watch a lot of other players. I watched pretty much everyone, especially all of the best players, and I’d see why they’re so successful at certain things. I just tried to find different things that I can apply to my game, so that I can continue to grow and continue to separate myself as a player.
Malcolm Brogdon was the Pacers’ big offseason acquisition and he’s playing really well right now. Since you’ll be playing alongside him once you return, what do you make of how Brogdon is playing and what he brings to this team?
VO: He’s playing amazing right now. First and foremost, he’s doing a great job out there of leading us and preparing us to play before every game. I mean, he’s a great player. Obviously, I was excited for us to get him before the season started and now that we’ve got him, I’m glad he’s here. I’m really looking forward to getting out there and playing alongside him. I think we got a chance to be a special backcourt and do something special this year.
Right now, the team is 19-9, which is sixth-best in the East. Indiana recently had impressive wins against the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers. It feels like you guys are getting slept on quite a bit. When you return and this team is at full strength, how good could this group be?
VO: I think we could be really special. I think we could make some real noise, and I think we got a chance to shock a lot of people. But, at the end of the day, we just need to continue to take care of what we need to take care of and just focus on us. No one else matters. If we do that, everything will take care of itself.
From the start of your NBA career to now, what has changed for you and what are the biggest things that you’ve learned over the years?
VO: I just think for me as a player, my mindset has changed. But I think my role has changed too. Here, they demand a lot more from me – on and off the court. I get the ball more, I have more responsibilities and I’m able to play at the highest level because of that. I wasn’t really given those opportunities in Orlando or Oklahoma City, but things are different here. When those things became different, I became different. But I need to keep getting better too, so I can keep playing at the highest level that I can. When I do that, I give my team a chance to be successful. I just have to continue to get better.
When you broke out in 2017-18 and earned the Most Improved Player award and All-NBA honors, do you think that was mainly because of your increased opportunity or were there other factors? What do you think allowed you to take that huge step forward?
VO: Yeah, I think it was a little bit of everything. Obviously, the opportunity [was part of it]. The coaching staff and the program gave me that role and those responsibilities so that I’d have a key role on this team. I prepared myself mentally and physically to fill that role, and I was successful. But now, I have to keep getting better. I never stay satisfied. I obviously need to get healthy, then I can continue to build and continue to grow. That’s what I’m focused on doing.
I spoke to Pacers president Kevin Pritchard about the intense criticism that the front office faced (nationally and locally) when they traded Paul George to the Thunder for you and Domantas Sabonis. There was such a negative response, so what was it like to go through that and did that motivate you to prove your worth as a player?
VO: I mean, I was always working hard before they had their criticism and opinions and I’m still going to continue to do that. But they definitely added the fuel to the fire. To this day, everybody keeps adding fuel to the fire. I see people underestimating me as I come back from rehab, and I see people underestimating this team. People are going to have their opinions; it doesn’t really matter. I know my approach, I know what I’m capable of and I know what I can become. That’s all I focus on.
You attended college in Indiana and these fans loved you, so what did it mean for you to return to Indy in that trade?
VO: It’s been great, man, coming back here and playing. I played three years here in college and, as I say all the time, the people in this state pretty much saw me grow up and become who I’ve become and who I’m still becoming. They played a big part in my story and my life, so I’m nothing but grateful that I’m able to represent them every time I put on that jersey. I still have a lot of work to do; I have certain goals and aspirations. I want to win a championship here for these people. That’s what I’m focused on every day.
You were a contestant on The Masked Singer and were revealed to be “Thingamajig.” I feel like you won over a lot of non-basketball fans who were blown away by your singing. What was that experience like, and how much fun was it participate in a show like that?
VO: It was awesome. It was a new experience and something that I’m definitely not used to doing. But to be able to do it and to kind of be successful at it – getting to the second-to-the-last show and having everyone react the way they reacted and being surprised – was amazing. I’m truly thankful for that opportunity.
You’re a great singer and I feel like more and more people are now realizing that. I know you dropped an EP in 2017 (Songs for You) and your debut album in 2018 (V.O.). Do you have any plans to release another album?
VO: Yeah, yeah, definitely. I have some more stuff coming soon and I’m really looking forward to sharing it. Hopefully people like it and continue to share it with others, so more people can hear about my experiences through the songs that I write and sing.