TORONTO -- Near the end of practice last Thursday, Victor Oladipo and Cory Joseph engaged in a friendly game of H.O.R.S.E. as both players tried to outdo each other with one-legged bank shots from beyond the 3-point line. With each made shot, Oladipo celebrated by belting out tunes at a very high volume.
"He sings every single day," Thaddeus Young said. "He comes in [the locker room] and he's harmonizing. He always has some type of song going on and plays music all the time."
"He's actually really good," Joseph said. "If he was bad, we might have to tell him to shut the hell up. But he's actually good, so we let it slide."
The mood in the Pacers locker room this season is far different than last year, when the uncertainty of Paul George's future hovered over the team. "Paul was a great teammate and he was huge for us," Young said. "But it's a weight lifted off our shoulders now that we don't have to worry about whether our best player will be here or if he wants to be here. We're happy it's behind us and we can continue on with the guys that we have here."
After losing to the Cavaliers in the first round in April, George and his agent informed the Pacers he would opt out of his contract and sign elsewhere after the 2017-18 season. Instead of losing their star player for nothing, the Pacers traded George to Oklahoma City in the offseason, acquiring Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis in return.
The Pacers are not a franchise that wants to go the route of fully tanking. As general manager Kevin Pritchard put it this summer: "The Pacers don't start at the bottom." The last time Indiana won fewer than 30 games in a season was 1989. Because the Pacers aren't a major draw in free agency, to remain competitive, they have to draft well, develop their young players, nail their signings and win trades.
Trading George was a turning point for the Pacers, who have been on a downward slope since making back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals appearances in 2013 and '14. Losing a superstar can be catastrophic, and it can take years for a team to recover.
When LeBron James left the Cavaliers in free agency in 2010, they went from a 61-win team to a 19-win team. The Cavs missed the playoffs for four straight seasons. The Magic traded Dwight Howard in 2012 and have yet to post a winning season since then. The Pacers are hoping to avoid the same fate. The George trade was widely panned, but Oladipo and Sabonis have proven critics wrong so far this season.
In the offseason, Oladipo worked with trainer David Alexander and spent additional hours in the weight room while switching to a nutritional routine which featured lean protein and healthy snacks. Among the food he eliminated was Popeyes chicken. "Unfortunately," Oladipo says.
The hard work has paid off.
Oladipo is averaging 23.1 points, 5.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.2 blocks, and shooting 48.3 percent from the field and 44.0 percent from three. All of those numbers are career-highs. In October, he hit a game-winner against the Spurs at home. He had a career-high seven steals in a win over the Magic in November.
"He's been the scoring aspect that we need," Young said. "He fills a void on the defensive end for us by getting deflections and getting his hands on loose balls. He brings that confidence that we need on this team."
Head coach Nate McMillan has been learning about Oladipo's two-way impact. "He's helped us establish a tempo that we want to play with," McMillan said. "With his ability to get out in transition, we want to take advantage of his speed. He's shooting the ball with great confidence. He seems to be playing free and having fun."
Before he was drafted by the Magic in 2013, Oladipo spent three years with the Indiana Hoosiers, where he was a first-team All-American. A return to his former basketball home has helped him acclimate to his third NBA team in as many seasons. "It's definitely comfortable for me," Oladipo said. "This is kind of like my home. It's great to be back playing in front of people I played in front of a few years ago."
Last season, Oladipo played alongside Russell Westbrook, who set an NBA record with a 41.6 percent usage rate. Oladipo's usage rate has shot up to 30.2 percent compared to 21.3 percent last season. "My role is obviously a little different here," Oladipo said. In Indiana, the 25-year-old guard is showing capable of being the No. 1 option on a top-10 offense. Per NBA.com, the Pacers are ninth in offensive efficiency, scoring 107.9 points per 100 possessions. The Pacers have six players averaging double digits in scoring this season.
"Our togetherness is something that's been unexpected for a team that's just coming together," Young said. "We know we're going to have to use a by-committee approach to the game as opposed to having one guy that can do it by himself."
One of those players is Sabonis, who was in Orlando preparing to play a summer league game with the Thunder when he found out about the trade. He talked to his agent and his parents and arrived in Indiana early this summer to start playing pick-up with his new teammates. Sabonis heard the chatter that the Pacers didn't get much in return for George.
"It didn't really matter what people were saying," Sabonis said. "I knew this was a great opportunity."
In his second season, Sabonis has improved his scoring, rebounding and shooting from the field. The 21-year-old forward is averaging 12.5 points, 8.9 rebounds and shooting 53.2 percent from the field, compared to 5.9 points, 3.6 rebounds and 39.9 percent shooting in his rookie year. "Last year, I played a lot of minutes and gained a lot of experience," Sabonis said. "Once I see everything, it's easier the second time around. I know what to expect."
Sabonis is feeling comfortable in McMillan's offense. "The system puts me into a lot of pick-and-rolls," Sabonis said. "I can make decisions, I can pass, I can shoot, that helps me because that's what I do." Per NBA.com, both Sabonis and teammate Myles Turner are among the league leaders in points-per-possession as the roll man in the pick-and-roll.
The Pacers have just three players on their roster over the age of 30. The rebuild is underway. Oladipo is an All-Star this season. Sabonis has made huge strides in year two. Paired with Turner, Indiana has the makings of a core group it can build around. At 13-11 and having just started a six-game home stand with a win over the Knicks, the Pacers also have their eyes on the playoffs this season.
"A lot of people slept on us," Joseph said. "We're doing it as a unit. We have a lot of talented guys that people maybe overlooked because they weren't stars on other teams."