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The two sides to Victor Oladipo

Oladipo's style of play changes significantly depending on the guys around him. Why is that, and what does it mean?

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

A few weeks back, as I am occasionally wont to do during a Magic game I'm covering, I dove deep into some NBA stats sites to dig up some interesting tidbits.

I was actually looking for some numbers about Nikola Vucevic, but I stumbled on some of Victor Oladipo's passing stats, the present versions of which I'll present now. Unless otherwise noted, the data throughout this article comes courtesy of Across the entire season, as of March 24th, Oladipo's dished out a total of 256 assists. The second-most assisted teammate is Vucevic, with 44 dishes received from the Magic guard.

The most-assisted teammate is Jason Smith, owing 50 of his baskets to Oladipo.

This struck me as odd. After all, Oladipo essentially plays starters' minutes, while Smith is the backup center. There was that phase where Oladipo came off the bench, so just to make sure he wasn't playing an abnormal amount of time with Smith I checked how much each of those pairings have played together this season.

Oladipo-Vucevic Oladipo-Smith
Assists 44 50
Minutes 1104 586
Possessions 2213 1173

Indeed, we can confirm Oladipo spends a lot more time on the court with Vucevic, about 90% more, actually. Despite that sharp difference in playing time, Oladipo tends to assist Smith much more frequently than Vucevic. One way to express this difference: Oladipo assists Vucevic about once every 25 minutes they play together, while he assists Smith about once every 12 minutes.

Of course, some of this boils down to how Vucevic and Smith each score. About 60% of Vucevic's makes are assisted by teammates, while almost 90% of Smith's are generated off a pass. Maybe Oladipo has more assists to Smith just because Smith tends to take a lot of assisted shots. Oladipo is the second-most prolific "assister" on the team, so we can examine how strong this relationship is by comparing him to the Magic's premier passer, Elfrid Payton.

Payton-Vucevic Payton-Smith
Assists 97 27
Minutes 1310 311
Possessions 2593 631

Payton has a much different relationship with the two Magic big men, dealing out many more assists in total to Vucevic than Smith. To use the same method as before, Elfrid assists Vucevic about once every 13.5 minutes, and to Smith once every 11.5 minutes. Smith does get assisted by Payton more frequently than Vucevic, but the difference isn't nearly as stark as with Oladipo's passing.

Naturally, having discovered this mysterious passing pattern within Orlando, I tweeted about it once and then forgot about it entirely.

Then Vucevic got hurt. Then Oladipo suddenly broke out of his months-long slump. And then I started to Oladipo really a different player when he plays without Vucevic?

Differences in Shooting

Oladipo looks like a long-range shooter when he plays with Vucevic, but turns into a close-to-mid-range shot-maker when he's on the court with Smith. It's not just a matter of shot selection, but also of effectiveness:

Oladipo's shooting
With Vucevic With Smith
% of shots FG% % of shots FG%
Close 29.4% 57.3% 33.3% 59.8%
Midrange 36.7% 38.1% 43.9% 48.1%
3-pointers 35.1% 35.1% 22.8% 26.8%

The numbers that jump out to me are in those mid-range and long range jumpers. It's striking how much better Oladipo shoots from mid-range while playing with Smith, but also how much worse he is behind the arc in the same situation. A lot of this is noise just from small sample sizes--that 27% 3-point shooting with Smith comes on only 56 attempts across the season--but I think there's enough of a difference to start forming a few ideas.

For example, one way to make sense of Oladipo's 3-point shooting is to see how often he's assisted by his teammates on those makes, the assumption being that he's going to be more accurate in those situations than trying to shoot them off the dribble. When playing with Vuc, over 85% of Oladipo's 3-pointers made are assisted, including 100% of his corner-3s. In contrast, only two-thirds of his long-range makes are assisted playing with Smith. Vucevic is actually a fairly prolific 3-pointer assister, with almost half his assists leading to 3-pointers, like this one:

Vucevic, who is one of the only Magic players that can draw double teams like in this play, takes advantage of the attention and hits Oladipo at his best long-distance spot, right around the top of the arc. Smith, in contrast, rarely assists 3-pointers, since he almost always shoots the ball after he catches it. Part of this trend also stems from Payton's influence, since he's playing in a greater share of those 'Dipo-Vuc minutes compared with 'Dipo-Smith.

Of course, that long-range effectiveness--or, well, let's say "competency"--goes away when Oladipo shares the court with Smith.

Instead, he trades many of those shots for mid-to-close range attempts, and he does well with them, too. One reason might be Smith's constant floor spacing, since he almost always pick-and-pops when he screens, while Vucevic is going to occasionally roll to the basket. That makes it a little more crowded around the hoop, lowering Oladipo's chances at taking those layups and dunks, and his accuracy when he does try them. The midrange stuff is a little harder to parse out. His accuracy from that range, or really from any of these ranges, might still just be a matter of random chance, given the small sample size.

Differences in Passing

When Oladipo and Vucevic share the court, Oladipo is an active part of the offense, but not a dominant part. By usage rate, Oladipo participates in about 22% of possessions (scoring, assisting, or turning the ball over), compared to about 24% with Smith.

Not a huge difference, but a difference nevertheless.

What changes is how he uses those possessions. We already know he's inclined to assist Smith on a lot of his shots, but what about in general?

Oladipo's passing
With Vucevic With Smith
Ast. Rate 5.2 8.0
Ast. % 15.5% 25.7%
Ast. % on 3s 25.9% 35.3%

To briefly explain what we're looking at here: Assist rate is just how many assists he gets per 100 possessions, and assist percentage is how much of his teammates baskets are assisted by him while he's on the court. Long story short, in both cases: bigger number=more assisting.

And man, does Oladipo do more assisting when he's with Smith. Bear in mind, these aren't just numbers assisting to Vucevic or Smith, it's for all of his teammates. The 3-point assist percentage highlights that fact in particular, since the two bigs are virtually never taking 3s. That shows how Oladipo ups his distribution game to all his teammates, not just to Smith.

Again, the reasons for these differences are complicated.

Part of it, again, is that a lot of this Oladipo-Smith time comes without Payton, who probably "takes" some of those assists that Oladipo might otherwise get. Part of this depends on some of the other players who are on the court during each of these times, where they take their shots and such. A big part, though, is that Smith's time on the court is going to lead to more screen plays, since Vucevic spends a lot of his possessions posting up. Those screen plays are going to lead to drives and dishes for Oladipo.

There's a tradeoff, however. As nice as all this passing sounds, the offense has been better throughout the season with the Oladipo-Vucevic combo (though the defense has been worse by a similar amount). Even if Oladipo's not distributing as much, it's more than made up for by what Vucevic offers as a shooter and post-up player. Remember as well that Oladipo was a long-range shooter with Vucevic.

The Oladipo in March

I noted earlier that this little investigation was prompted by Oladipo's recent standout play, so it's worth comparing how he's played in the games since Vucevic has been hurt to see if the Magic guard's success stems from that absence. The most important part of Victor's resurgence has been his hot shooting from all over the court:

Oladipo's shooting since Mar.7
FG% 53.2%
3PT% 42.1%
eFG% 57.9%

Needless to say, Oladipo's shooting in the last 12 games far outstrips his season-long numbers with either Smith or Vucevic. Breaking it down by distances tells the same story no matter where you look: he's shooting layups, midrangers, and 3-pointers better than any other point in the season. The most notable part of his shot selection is the large volume of midrange attempts, where he's taken nearly half of all his shots during this stretch (while making nearly 50% of them, too).

As far as his passing, his recent assist tendencies look very much like his time with...Vucevic, actually. In fact, they're nearly identical, when you compare numbers like assists per 100 possessions (5.2 to 4.8), percentage of teammates' baskets assisted (16.4% to 15.5%), or even his turnover rate (10.6% to 10%).  In other words, despite whatever improved passing habits he might have demonstrated playing without Vucevic before, they haven't carried over to these last few Vuc-less weeks.

What does it all mean?

I've alluded to it a few times, but this is as much a look into Oladipo's habits as it is about Vucevic's, Smith's, and even a bit about Payton. Vucevic is a guy who functions as a focal point of the offense when he's playing, who's going to catch the ball and go to work. He's going to take some of those passing duties onto himself, too. Smith, on the other hand, isn't going to move the ball around to the same extent, so it's on Oladipo to take on a greater passing load himself.

I think the most important takeaway is that Oladipo is capable of fulfilling multiple roles depending on what's needed. He can pass when he needs to pass, and he can shoot if he needs to shoot. That bodes well for his future, and suggests that regardless of the moves made around him, he should always have value for the Magic (or some other team, if they make the right offer).

There will always be questions about whether he develops an elite skill, but at the very least he looks like he's capable of enough different things that he'll continue to be a difference-maker.