Victor Oladipo didn’t make any promises about when he would return to game action on Tuesday, but he practiced for the first time in almost a month and was upgraded to questionable after missing the last 11 games due to knee soreness.
“It’s up in the air I guess you can say,” the All-Star guard said when asked if he would be ready to play tonight against the Bucks. “But, we’ll see. If all the dots align, maybe.”
With everything apparently going according to plan, the team announced this afternoon that he would be available to play, thus giving a finite conclusion to his indefinite absence.
On that note, and taking into account that Nate McMillan indicated that his star will be on a minutes restriction until he can work himself back into game shape, here’s four questions the Pacers need to answer once Victor Oladipo starts to look like Victor Oladipo.
Will Myles Turner fade into the background, again?
Over the last 11 games, Indiana’s starting center has averaged 52.9 touches per game, a mark which would be a career-high if it held for the full season. He’s also up to 35.7 percent from behind the arc compared to 21.7 percent before Oladipo went down. The 22-year-old stretch-shooting shot-blocker needs to stay involved, not only for the sake of his own growth but also to bend the defense.
Teams that drop deep have to give up something when Turner pops and generally the option they choose is him. The decision is two-fold: 1) They aren’t conceding anything if he doesn’t touch the ball, and 2) they’d rather chance him making a three than risk having their rim protector stray too far from the restricted area (see: Rudy Gobert, Jazz).
Still, the Pacers could stand to put more pressure on the stunter when Victor Oladipo gets back, and the best way to do that on these actions is to feed Turner with increased regularity.
Take a look at this possession against Utah. Because Darren Collison dribbled off the pick and immediately delivered the pocket pass to Turner with Gobert hanging back in the paint, Donovan Mitchell gets caught in halfway purgatory — trapped in-between inching closer to Indiana’s starting center until Gobert can recover and abandoning Tyreke Evans.
That decision will become all the more agonizing when Oladipo’s speed is stationed on the weak side in place of Evans, thereby highlighting why it is that Nate McMillan needs to encourage his floor-spacing five to focus on getting his feet set behind the 3-point line.
Will Victor Oladipo’s usage see a decline?
Oladipo’s usage percentage in the 16 games he’s played this season has been higher than any full season that Paul George suited up for the Pacers, including 2016-17 when seven of the two-way star’s teammates were players who are no longer in the NBA.
That’s a lot of wear and tear for a player who has been battling irritating pain in his knee since the November 7th loss to the Sixers, not to mention last season.
This doesn’t mean he should change who he is when he comes back (nor does it sound like he has any intention to), but it does call for the Pacers to help him find ways to beat the crowds of defenders he’s facing so he can take better advantage of what his teammates did in his absence.
Will Aaron Holiday continue to stay in the rotation?
The 22-year-old sweet-shooting rookie has missed 20 of his last 25 threes, but he’s also demonstrated the ability to do stuff like executing a windmill crossover through traffic to convert a lay-up. He’s swatted shots off the glass, and he’s snaked his dribble to drag out rim protectors. There’s a lot to like about him. And with Darren Collison, Cory Joseph, and Tyreke Evans all on expiring contracts, the Pacers may need him to be ready to play next season.
And yet, even with Victor Oladipo sidelined against the Wizards on Monday, he barely cracked 10 minutes as the Pacers built a huge lead and narrowly avoided giving it all back — and that was with Nate McMillan going with a 9-man rotation (sans T.J. Leaf).
Granted, the bench had its struggles and McMillan tends to roll with whichever players have it rolling on any given night, but the dynamic of that particular game should go to show that divvying up minutes for the team’s crowded backcourt (whether via cutting into the playing time of veteran guards and/or Doug McDermott, playing Bogdanovic more minutes at four, or returning Holiday to the end of the bench) isn’t going to get easier once Oladipo is fully back to health, even if Leaf ends up exiled from the rotation.
What about T.J. Leaf’s development?
If Aaron Holiday has the T.J. Leaf role (i.e. night-to-night 4-5 minute spurts beginning at the end of the first and third quarters), that by extension means T.J. Leaf will no longer have the T.J. Leaf role unless the match-up or injuries dictate otherwise.
Shooting just 2-of-11 from three while still getting overwhelmed on defense by explosive first steps, Leaf has yet to harness his skills as a stretch-four this season on either side of the ball. That being said, he’s been quick off his feet to the offensive glass and has shown improvement making reads for others out of the post. The Pacers already exercised his third-year option, but the possibility looms for the back half of this season to go much like the back half of last season.