Hoosiers In The NBA: Oladipo Provides Spark Off The Bench

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I try not to favor any one player when I write this column, but sometimes one former Hoosiers’ situation is a lot more compelling and thus deserves more attention. With Victor Oladipo possibly starting a new phase of his career, I think this week I should focus on how Oladipo has recently made the switch from starter to sixth man and has had immediate success. I will go in-depth on how the switch came about and whether or not this is temporary or for the long haul. I’ll also go over how Eric Gordon, Cody Zeller and Noah Vonleh fit in their teams’ playing rotations, but first let’s dive into Oladipo’s situation and how it has affected the Orlando Magic:

Victor Oladipo: Guard, Orlando Magic:

Games Started:

@ Cleveland (L 117-103): 10 points (5-12 FG), 3 rebounds, 2 assists, steal, turnover, 2 personal fouls, 26 minutes.

Games Off The Bench:

Vs New York (W 100-91): 24 points (5-15 FG)(13-15 FT), 4 rebounds, 2 assists, personal foul, 26 minutes.

Vs Milwaukee (W 114-90): 17 points (7-12 FG)(3-5 FT), 6 rebounds, 9 assists, steal, 2 turnovers, 24 minutes.

Vs Boston (W 110-91): 19 points (5-12 FG)(7-8 FT), 8 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 steals, block, turnover, 4 personal fouls, 30 minutes.

The idea of a healthy Victor Oladipo coming off the bench seems weird at first glance. Here’s a young guard being lauded by some of the game’s best (LeBron James has said many good things while Kevin Durant actually made a comparison to a young Dwyane Wade), but now is watching his role change from starting shooting guard to sixth man.

Yet it has worked wonders as not only is Oladipo playing better (averaging 20 points, 6 rebounds, and 5.7 assists since leaving the starting lineup) but so are the Magic who have won three in a row and are over .500 heading into December for the first time in the post-Dwight Howard era.

While on the outside it looks like Head Coach Scott Skiles benched Oladipo that is far from the truth. If this was a demotion, Oladipo wouldn’t still be playing during crunch time, when you need your five best players on the court. The real reason behind the switch was to not only to inject some energy into the Magic’s second unit, but to also help find a way to get Oladipo to play better. While he has been excellent defensively, Oladipo has been a bricklayer offensively, shooting 36.6% from the floor coming into this week. The Magic’s young and talented backcourt of Oladipo and Elfrid Payton offers a lot of strengths but craters if neither can shoot above 40% (Payton is shooting a just-as-disgusting 37.2% from the floor).

So why move Oladipo and not Payton? There are actually a few reasons, the first being that Oladipo would likely be more receptive to coming off the bench than Payton. Every Hoosier fan knows that Oladipo is an unselfish player and cares more about winning than stats. The second reason has to do with Oladipo’s ability to get hot offensively and score three or four straight baskets, a trait shared by almost every great sixth man. The last reason is that Payton’s best skill (passing) works best when you surround him with starter-level talent where as Oladipo’s best skill (defense) can translate to either the first or the second unit.

It’s only been three games and Skiles has made it clear that this lineup change isn’t permanent, but so many things are clicking for both the Magic and Oladipo. I know some will think that Oladipo is too talented to be a sixth man, but then again it’s not unprecedented for one of a team’s best players not to start. Just ask James Harden, Manu Ginobili, and Jason Terry, all of whom either won an NBA title or made the NBA Finals while playing the sixth man in their prime.

Eric Gordon: Guard, New Orleans Pelicans:

@ Phoenix (W 120-114): 23 points (6-11 FG)(7-7 FT), rebound, 3 assists, turnover, 2 personal fouls, 35 minutes.

@ Los Angeles Clippers (L 111-90): 16 points (5-12 FG)(5-6 FT), 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 turnovers, 2 personal fouls, 30 minutes.

@ Utah (L 101-87): 4 points (1-9 FG)(1-2 FT), assist, steal, 2 turnovers, personal foul, 32 minutes.

Of all of the former Hoosiers, Gordon’s role is by far the least complicated. He’s one of the New Orleans Pelicans’ best players. As such he both starts the game and plays in crunch time. He’s the secondary scorer and the primary scorer when Anthony Davis gets injured (which seems to happen a lot lately). He’s a three-point specialist who is still capable of getting to the free throw line even after all the injuries he has susatined. Gordon is in an ideal situation and as long as he continues to play like he has so far (minus the last game against the Utah Jazz) then he will remain in this position for the rest of the season.

Noah Vonleh: Forward, Portland Trail Blazers:

Vs Chicago (L 93-88): 7 points (3-7 FG), 3 rebounds, block, 3 personal fouls, 12 minutes.

Vs Los Angeles Lakers (W 108-96): 4 points (2-2 FG), 5 rebounds, assist, steal, turnover, personal foul, 20 minutes.

Being the starter doesn’t mean you are one of the five best players on your team. Nor does it guarantee you a lot of playing time. This is especially true for Vonleh, who has started six of the last seven games but has only averaged 17.3 minutes during those starts. While Vonleh’s playing time has increased (he only averages 12.2mpg when coming off the bench), he’s still trailing Ed Davis in minutes (Davis has averaged 25.2 minutes the last five games, all of which were started by Vonleh) and is on the bench during crunch time. However, there is a reason Portland Trail Blazers’ Head Coach Terry Stotts has Vonleh in the starting lineup. Vonleh has played considerably better when playing with the Blazers’ first unit, resulting in a huge jump in both scoring (1.9ppg off bench, 4.7ppg as a starter) and shooting (29.6% off bench, 45.8% as a starter). It remains to be seen whether or not Meyers Leonard takes back his starting spot when he gets back to 100%, but right now the Blazers are getting the most out of Vonleh in the short time that they have had him.

Cody Zeller: Forward, Charlotte Hornets:

Vs Sacramento (W 127-122 OT): 12 points (4-8 FG)(4-4 FT), 6 rebounds, steal, turnover, 4 personal fouls, 28 minutes.

Vs Washington (W 101-87): 11 points (5-7 FG)(1-1 FT), 8 rebounds, 2 turnovers, 3 personal fouls, 22 minutes.

Vs Cleveland (L 95-90): 7 points (1-2 FG)(5-6 FT), 2 rebounds, assist, steal, block, turnover, 4 personal fouls, 15 minutes.

Vs Milwaukee (W 87-82): 2 points (1-3 FG), rebound, assist, 4 personal fouls, 16 minutes.

Where Vonleh has thrived more from starting the game, Zeller has performed much better this season when coming off the bench. So it should come as no surprise that Zeller, who was moved to the bench after starting two games last week, had two of his best games this season when he returned to the bench. While Zeller is shooting better when he starts (50.0% compared to 45.6%), he actually plays more (21.6mpg off bench, 16.0mpg as a starter) and scores more (7.4ppg coming off bench, 3.0ppg as a starter) when he is a reserve. The main reason is that Zeller is allowed to score when he is part of the second unit but when he’s with the starters they need him to focus all of his attention on playing great defense. Luckily, because he’s one of the best defenders on the Charlotte Hornets, Zeller still sees play during crunch time, either as an offense/defense sub for Al Jefferson or as the power forward when he’s clicking offensively. As long as Zeller remains one of the Hornets’ best defensive options, he will continue playing in crunch time regardless of if he starts or not.

Season averages:

Victor Oladipo: 14.3ppg, 6.1rpg, 4.0apg, 1.27spg, 0.60bpg, 1.4tpg, 2.0fpg, 38.2% FG, 26.2% 3FG, 78.8% FT, 31.2mpg.

Eric Gordon: 17.8ppg, 2.4rpg, 3.0apg, 1.06spg, 0.18bpg, 1.6tpg, 2.3fpg, 39.8% FG, 35.1% 3FG, 86.7% FT, 35.5mpg.

Noah Vonleh: 2.9ppg, 3.2rpg, 0.4apg, 0.12spg, 0.35bpg, 0.8tpg, 1.9fpg, 37.3% FG, 18.2% 3FG, 75.0% FT, 14.5mpg.

Cody Zeller: 6.8ppg, 5.0rpg, 0.7apg, 0.73spg, 0.53bpg, 0.8tpg, 2.5fpg, 45.9% FG, 0.0% 3FG, 68.0% FT, 20.8mpg.

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