Indiana guard Victor Oladipo is hurting people’s feelings these days at Assembly Hall, and that’s not just talking about opposing players who get picked clean in front of 17,000 fans.
One-time “That defensive guy,” Oladipo has become simply “The Man.”
On Sunday, after the Hoosiers had beaten Michigan State to return to first place in the Big Ten, coach Tom Crean talked about the responsibilities that go along with being “The Man.”
“I think the biggest difference is that he always was a very charismatic personality, a driven young man who didn’t really want to hurt anyone’s feelings,” Crean said. “He’s not real worried about that anymore as a leader.
“He’s grown, and I say that with dead seriousness. You can’t be a leader without being demanding and hurting some people’s feelings, and being able to call them out. He’s getting there. He’s got a great voice with this team.”
It would be great for high school athletes to watch Oladipo go about his business if they want to learn about being a leader. It involves so much more than being the most talented, or even hardest-working, player on the floor, or field or pitch.
More than ever, communication on the court is valued. Crean said Sunday’s game against Michigan State was “a game of adjustments.” Those take place right on the court, with players running full speed. Somebody has to direct traffic.
A coach in football might have a lot of options when it comes to being a leader. Not so much for a basketball coach.
Then consider that Indiana’s point guard, Kevin “Yogi” Ferrell, is a freshman. Center Cody Zeller, a national player of the year candidate, is a sophomore. They are making the same progressions that Oladipo already has experienced.
That being the case, you don’t want a role player telling the stars that they just made a bone-head pass.
Last season, Oladipo didn’t have to worry so much about the communication end of the business, because he just wanted to concentrate on what he did best, which was to frisk an opponent from head-to-toe in three-10ths of a second, all done while the official was checking the shot clock. If a coach had to pick one guy in the conference to make a defensive stop, Oladipo’s name rose to the top of that list.
That kind of reputation might make for some spot duty on an NBA roster, but Oladipo wanted more. His points usually would come on an assortment of amazing slams, often the result of his thievery on the other end. But did he have an offensive game?
He does now.
A guy who shot 20.8 percent from the 3-point line and 47.1 percent from the floor last season is knocking down 54.8 percent of his long-range shots. He leads the conference in field-goal percentage at 66 percent.
When he crosses the middle of the court now and no one is stuck to him, he will pull up and fire. It’s gotten to the point where his teammates, Crean and the 17,000 people in the stands, are more surprised when it doesn’t go down. It’s more than just a percentage; his form looks really good. He has become an offensive nightmare for opposing coaches because of his ability to slash, and with his range expanding, defenders can’t lag off him.
So back to that leader stuff. While all these improvements were being made through gym rat exercises, there was more taking place. “He came in here with athleticism, he came in here with the work ethic,” Crean said. “But I think the fact that he has a higher GPA than he even did, and he was over a 3.0 in high school, says a lot about him.”
Work, work, work.
He took that classroom study a step farther, going to the blackboard to improve at basketball. “I think the (game) film thing is something that’s really, really helped him,” Crean said. “He will have edits made for him where he can watch the different match-ups.”
Hard work in the gym, great work in the classroom. Now, that verbal thing.
As hard as he works, Oladipo has been the guy who likes to have fun. At news conferences, he often is the guy who will go for the laugh. Call him the anti-Zeller in terms of his stand-up routine. Zeller is serious and soft-spoken. Oladipo is an entertainer.
On the court, though, he has to lock his lighter side away. It’s got to be all business, all the time.
With so much on the line with the tournament drawing closer, Oladipo is taking this leadership thing for what could be an uncomfortable test run. You can tell that Crean is giving him a not-so-gentle shove.
Crean knows that this point of Big Ten basketball history could be defined by the way Oladipo finishes this season. Crean knows it. So do the other coaches.
It has to involve more than lifting his own game. Oladipo needs to take Zeller along for the ride, and Ferrell. Could Christian Watford use a little more consistency? You bet.
How do you get great players, like those three, to raise their games just a bit more? By being a leader.
On Sunday, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo called Oladipo the “Ray Lewis of college basketball.”
I don’t know if Oladipo has this leader stuff down pat yet, but when he’s being compared to Lewis, he’s on his way.
Jay Heater is sports editor of The (Columbus) Republic, a sister paper of the Daily Journal.