Hard at work, easy to follow

Last spring, DeMatha Catholic coach Mike Jones called one of his former star pupils, Victor Oladipo, with a question.

When would Oladipo be home for the summer? Jones wanted to know, because he wanted the Indiana junior to come speak briefly at DeMatha’s annual summer camp.

“’I want to work,’” Oladipo told Jones, surprising his former coach, “‘because I want to work out before camp, and then I want to play after camp.’”

Upon hearing that Oladipo wanted to work, not just speak, at DeMatha’s camp, so too did former teammates Jones had also hoped would come talk to campers, including Pitt’s James Robinson, and Notre Dame’s Jerian Grant.

The story neatly encapsulated Oladipo, both individually and in his impact on others.

On the one hand, he did not need to work at DeMatha’s camp. He was, as Jones put it, “a superstar,” and therefore did not need to commit so much of his time to his high school program. But Oladipo wanted the work.

And Jones didn’t need to cajole old Stags into working alongside him, because Oladipo’s former teammates needed no direction — he has always set the tone, at DeMatha, at IU and even, it seems, at summer camp.

This is the Victor Oladipo who now appears to have moved himself from a lightly heralded high school senior to an NBA lottery pick in three years, and according to those around him, this is how he’s done that.

IU coach Tom Crean has routinely credited Oladipo's work ethic, toughness and mentality as being crucial to helping effect the turnaround Indiana has enjoyed in the last two years.

'Not everybody has that work ethic'

Never one to shirk extra hours in the gym, Oladipo has always treated time spent crafting his game on his own as a requirement, rather than a luxury commitment.

“He’s one of those guys that I think, it’s almost like rewarding kids for doing what they’re supposed to do. … I understand what he’s saying,” Jones said, talking about Oladipo’s rather matter-of-fact approach to the added time outside practice he’s spent improving himself as a player.

“Obviously,” Jones added, “not everybody has that work ethic.”

There’s also the collective impact he has, wherever he is, whether it be in a Washington Catholic Athletic Conference game or a tight Big Ten showdown or a summer camp. Teammates naturally follow Oladipo.

“As soon as the other guys found out that Vic signed up to work, the other guys wanted to,” Jones said of his surprising employee list last summer.

Such impact has been felt at Indiana.

Just before the start of his former player’s freshman year in Bloomington, Jones made a projection via social media that he hasn’t been shy about sharing again, as Oladipo has spearheaded Indiana’s surge to the frontrunner’s spot for this season’s national title. In an initial response to an interview request for this story, Jones first sent via text message a screenshot of his prediction.

An electric, energetic player, Oladipo has played a big role in the resurgence of his program — precisely what he hoped to do when he chose to come to IU out of DeMatha Catholic.

“He is gonna change Indiana basketball and help return them to an elite level,” the post read. It was time-stamped for Aug. 12, 2010.

“His work ethic being so strong, I think, is the main thing,” Jones said, when asked what prompted that forecast 2 1/2 years ago.

Getting the story right

Even Jones admits he couldn’t foretell of national player of the year candidacy, but he’s known about the qualities within Oladipo as a player that helped him to where he is now. There is, though, something Jones wants cleared up.

Thanks to Indiana’s rapid ascent in the last year and a half, and Oladipo’s concurrent emergence, his story has quickly become a common tale, almost allegorical to his program. The details, though, don’t all fit reality, Jones said, pointing in particular to the perception that Oladipo was little more than an above-average player at DeMatha.

In particular, Jones spoke openly on Twitter about comments made by former Tennessee coach and current ESPN analyst Bruce Pearl, who suggested that Oladipo had little offensive refinement and didn’t start even as a senior at DeMatha.

“I understand it’s a great story, but I just wish everybody would be accurate,” Jones said, pointing out that Oladipo not only started as a senior, but that he was also first-team All-Met, according to the Washington Post, an honor Jones described as one of the highest a D.C.-area player can earn. On that same team with him were Quinn Cook and Tyler Thornton, both now at Duke, and Kendall Marshall, formerly of North Carolina and now with the Phoenix Suns.

“He was good,” Jones said with emphasis. “Obviously, he’s gotten leaps and bounds better, but people were acting like he was just garbage.”

In 2013, Oladipo has improved by almost every statistical measure. He has upped his shooting percentages, improved his ball handling and become a bigger part of Indiana's offense.

Indeed, he has gotten better, thanks in Jones’ eyes to intrinsic character traits and an environment at IU that nurtured and enabled them. The work ethic was important to Oladipo’s development, obviously. So too were his deference and willingness to be unselfish.

In high school, he played on a team full of Division I players, and Jones said Oladipo wouldn’t play with a selfish streak “even if he had to.” But his growth, coupled with Indiana’s resurgence and success as a program, has brought out a more assertive player in the junior guard.

“Now,” Jones said, “he’s one of the leaders and one of the focal points of the team. He’s looked upon to do more, and he’s taking advantage of that.”

’A refuse-to-lose’ player

Like Tuesday night, when Oladipo scored Indiana’s final six points in a 9-1 run that clinched what Tom Crean later confirmed as the best road win in Indiana history, grading it by the national ranking of the opponent.

It was Oladipo who, on an ankle Crean said wasn’t close to full strength after being sprained three days prior, took over the final minute of a game played in a city that hadn’t hosted an Indiana win since before he was born.

First, he tipped in a rimmed-out Yogi Ferrell layup attempt. Then he escaped from a botched defensive switch and dunked home an easy two points to push the Hoosiers’ lead to three. And after Gary Harris made just one of three free throws, Oladipo grabbed the rebound off Harris’ intentionally missed third, and sank two of his own to seal a top-five win on the road that put the Hoosiers in pole position for so many things they hope to achieve this year.

“Oladipo is just a refuse-to-lose guy, you know,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said after Tuesday’s game.

Oladipo came to the Indy Pro Am in 2011 a changed player, physically and otherwise. He stood out in a field of college, former college and pro players at the annual event.

Izzo had, before the Big Ten’s latest top-5 showdown, compared Oladipo to former Michigan State great Mateen Cleaves, who has a jersey hanging in the rafters at the Breslin Center and who led the Spartans to a national title in 2000.

Lofty praise, and still, Izzo didn’t mind recycling the comparison Tuesday.

“He reminds me of some guys we had,” he said. “We bottled him up pretty much. He gets three baskets in the last 30 seconds or some points, but winning time, boy, he made the plays.”

After making those plays, and after winning that game, Oladipo fielded questions about his Big Ten and national player of the year candidacy. He deferred to Cody Zeller, who deferred right back to him.

“He’ll be the Player of the Year,” Zeller said Tuesday. “He can have it. He would think that I would want it, but I think he deserves it.”

Here is another part of Victor Oladipo — basketball player and commensurate teammate. He leads naturally, draws others to him and his example. He works hard without complaint or question, sees it as much as a duty as something for which he should be patted on the back. And he is willing, like many of his comrades in Bloomington, to share praise and credit, almost compulsively.

“Honestly, I think one of the things that really helps Victor is that he’s coming from a background … he’s always had to play with other really good players,” Jones said.

Jones said Oladipo “volunteered” not to start as a junior at DeMatha, recognizing the talent the Stags had in their senior class, and the fact that those seniors deserved their places in the starting five.

“He’s not selfish by any stretch.”

’He knows what he wants and how to get it’

At Indiana, though, Oladipo did not need to be so deferential. He was allowed to impact play right away, and eventually, it would be his attitude that helped turn the program from listing into rising, and now perhaps skyrocketing.

He forced his way into the starting lineup five times as a freshman, but Crean has traced Oladipo’s greatest impact to the following spring and summer, when he was, according to his coach, one of the key players in demanding a new level of commitment and work ethic from the team as a whole.

Several players, Oladipo among them, took part in the Indy Pro Am in 2011, a summer event held at IUPUI that pits college players, former college players and current pros, domestic and abroad, against each other over several weeks. With the NBA lockout looming, former IU stars Rod Wilmont, D.J. White and Eric Gordon took part, as did Pacers guard Lance Stephenson and former NBA player Bonzie Wells, among others.

Several participating Hoosiers excelled, and Oladipo stood out within that group, and generally. He appeared a player changed physically and otherwise, more explosive and more confident. The Pro Am would turn out to be a harbinger of the coming season. That spring and summer, Crean has said many times, were the start of a growth process that moved the Hoosiers from 12 wins to 27, from the Big Ten cellar to the Sweet Sixteen.

These were not byproducts. They were goals. Oladipo went to Indiana knowing full well what awaited him there, but he left the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area, a region he stills speaks of with great fondness, because he wanted to be a part of rebuilding Indiana basketball, of not just its tradition but of restoring that tradition.

“I think it’s very satisfying for him,” Jones said. “I think the main thing you’re gonna see, if you go back and look at all the statements Victor was making when he was graduating from DeMatha and when he committed to Indiana, he talked about, basically, what’s happening now. …

“He talked about believing in coach Crean’s vision, and that’s why he wanted to go there. He knew what he was getting into, and he relished it. I’m extremely proud that he knows what he wants and he knows how to get it.”

Jones’ words from 2010 have turned prophetic, but now Oladipo is surprising even him. In a recent online live chat, ESPN NBA Draft expert Chad Ford fielded a question about Oladipo’s rather meteoric climb toward the front of the field.

“He's moved into the Top 5 on our Big Board and for the first time, I've had a couple of GMs tell me that they like him more than (Kansas guard) Ben McLemore,” Ford wrote earlier this week. “They are in the minority right now ... but still. What a rise.

“In all my years of covering the draft, I've never seen a player improve as much as I've seen him improve in such a small period of time. He has weaknesses, but major, major upside. If he continues to improve, I don't think it's out of the question he could be the No. 1 pick in June. He's not there yet, but he's special.”

There are five major player of the year awards. There are two Big Ten player of the year awards (media and coaches). At least one NBA team likely to be in the lottery has Oladipo atop its draft board at the moment, according to a league source.

But Jones knows Oladipo’s immediate goal isn’t personal.

At the moment, DeMatha has several alumni, including Oladipo, Robinson, Jerian Grant, his brother Jerami, at Syracuse and Mikael Hopkins at Georgetown. Should any of those players reach the Final Four in Atlanta, Jones will be reworking his spring travel schedule.

“I hope it’s on mine,” he said of a potential visit to the Georgia capital.

“I am,” he added, “very proud.”

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