Josh Conder just wanted to do his job.
The Indiana Pacers’ equipment manager went player to player after a shootaround this preseason while trying to pack up, asking each player on the court for their sneakers.
It was an easy ask until he got to Victor Oladipo, the team’s unquestioned star, who wasn’t ready to leave.
No, he kept on shooting, swishing jumpers, his Air Jordan’s still laced up. Finally, after Conder had all the other cargo ready, Oladipo kicked off his shoes. And then, with the ball in his hand, he launched one last shot — another swish.
“Maybe,” he said, “tonight I’ll play in just my socks.”
It’s hard to know what would stop Oladipo at this point, his confidence sky high after earning the NBA’s most improved player award because he led the Pacers quickly out of a rebuild and into the playoffs.
The key piece sent to Indiana as part of the trade that sent Paul George to Oklahoma City, Oladipo made his first All-Star game and took LeBron James and the Cavaliers to the limit in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
He’s ready to build on it.
“Last year was huge for me as a player. But it’s just one year,” Oladipo, 26, told the Los Angeles Times. “It was a great year, but it was just one. This is a whole new year. I’ve got to pick it up even more and go to an even higher level. I’m prepared for that.”
With James now out of the conference, the Pacers lead the second tier of playoff contenders, chasing Boston, Philadelphia and Toronto, but not far off the lead pack.
“Guys obviously know what we’re capable of,” Oladipo said. “You could say we were better than expected. But as far as competing and bringing it every night? That’s nothing new for us. We’ve been doing that no matter the situation.”
Coming off a 48-win season and a fifth-place finish in the East, the Pacers and Oladipo know they won’t be viewed as plucky overachievers for a second consecutive season. That counts double for their star.
“This is going to be a challenging year for him,” Indiana coach Nate McMillan said.” Now, he’s on everybody’s radar.”
It’s a place Oladipo wants to be, a place he expected to end up. It just took time for everyone else to get onboard.
He scored for bad Orlando teams — averaging nearly 16 points a game in three seasons — but never got comfortable next to Russell Westbrook in one season in Oklahoma City. After that year with the Thunder, Oladipo got serious about his nutrition, causing a stir with before-and-after pictures that showed his transformation into a lean, muscular athlete.
With his body ready for more, the trade to Indiana created an opportunity for Oladipo to step into a leadership role, and he responded by averaging a career-best 23.1 points a game, tied for ninth best in the league.
In addition to sticking with his diet and training regimen this summer, he focused his on-court training to improving his long-distance shooting and better understanding opposing defenders
“The biggest thing is now I know what to expect on the court,” he said. “I know how guys might guard me, how they might not. Being better prepared for that and the role I’m in here was definitely helpful for me. I knew exactly what to work on.”
While the Pacers were a feel-good story last season, internally no one is mistaking their run as anything worth celebrating.
“We didn’t do anything last year. We lost in the first round of the playoffs,” Indiana center Myles Turner said. “I don’t think anyone is really satisfied with that. We’re still hungry. Our mindset hasn’t changed, and we added a couple of different guys.”
The team signed Tyreke Evans and sharpshooter Doug McDermott to add offensive punch as well as Kyle O’Quinn for frontcourt depth.
And in the preseason opener against Houston, Oladipo looked like he was ready to take another step, scoring 19 points in the first half and chasing James Harden around screens and blocking shots.
“He was a work in progress last season and he still is,” McMillan said. “What’s his ceiling? Can he improve?”