NEW YORK -- Making the transition from the college ranks to the NBA is an extremely difficult task. Teaching a shooting guard to play the point is perilous as well. The Orlando Magic are asking Victor Oladipo, their top pick in the 2013 draft, to do both at once. If he is overwhelmed by the task, he didn't show it, as he prepared for Friday night's game against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, his first time playing there at any level.
It hasn't been as easy as he made singing on television look on Thursday, blowing away Regis Philbin with his rendition of "Ain't No Sunshine". He didn't look like a 21-year-old kid, just months out of college. Then again, he's no stranger to singing, whether it's at Indiana or in church with his mother. Point guard, on the other hand ...
"Nah, I didn't have any experience at the point guard before here," Oladipo told me on Friday night, in the visiting locker room. "I would work on it a little bit at IU, in practice and stuff like that. But other than that, no." That is, until the Magic asked him to switch positions this summer. And after only a few Summer League games, some exhibition games, there's Oladipo, playing the toughest mental position for the first time at the highest possible level.
It hasn't all gone smoothly. There were nine turnovers (all in 28 minutes) in a loss to Dallas, followed by eight turnovers in a loss to Miami. Even as late as November 27, Oladipo turned the ball over eight times in a win over the Sixers. The past few games have been better, with flashes like this one, a ridiculous feed from Oladipo to Moe Harkless that required superior court vision and execution. He's turned the ball over just six times over the past three games.
On Tuesday night, facing Michael Carter-Williams and that same Sixers team, Oladipo posted a triple-double -- 26 points, ten rebounds, ten assists -- with just three turnovers in more than 51 minutes played. It was a dominant performance that, by itself, had to make the entire Magic organization salivate at what they might have. For his part, Oladipo didn't see the night as revelatory. He expressed frustration about losing the game, and added, "I don't know what you mean by breakthrough. I have a lot of work to do."
His coach Jacque Vaughn knows quite a bit about playing point guard in the NBA, having done so from 1997-2009. Still, he can't quite point to a parallel experience. For one thing, he was a hyper-efficient point guard at Kansas before he ever reached the league.
"I wasn't the number-two overall pick," Vaughn said before Friday night's game, standing outside the Magic locker room. "But I started in this league, I was a sixth man in this league, I was a 14th man in this league. So I've seen a lot along the way."
Vaughn saw Tuesday's triple-double less in terms of the numbers than as a sign of Oladipo's ongoing work. "Without a doubt, a byproduct of his process," Vaughn said. "He is great at coming the next day, wanting to learn, wanting to get better. Taking information and using it the next night, using it the next day. And you have to give him a lot of credit for that."
Where Oladipo ultimately will fit on an NBA roster is unclear, though the Magic, deep into a rebuild, have the luxury of playing him at an unfamiliar position, results be damned, and developing his game further. Could Oladipo be a solid rotation player in the league as a shooting guard? Almost certainly. The ease with which he gets to the basket, even at this level, is notable. Tim Hardaway Jr. just watched him get to the hoop late in the first quarter, too late to react. He's an opportunistic defender, averaging better than two steals per game, and a leaper capable of blocks like this on Carmelo Anthony. The perimeter game that allowed him to shoot 44 percent from three in his final season at Indiana, also very much a part of his skill set.
Without Nikola Vucevic on Friday night, though, Orlando went small, and Oladipo shared point guard duties on the floor with veteran playmaker Jameer Nelson. He wasn't the shooting guard -- that was Arron Affalo, whose emergence as a top scorer has complicated Orlando's long-term calculations with Oladipo as well.
So for one night, Oladipo returned to more familiar turf. His coach pointed out that's hard enough."
"I think the hardest thing is to play at this level," Vaughn said. "There's different terminology, sets, different way of thinking, a different player that you have to face every night, with a different scouting report. Managing teammates, managing time. Those things are more difficult than having the ball put in your hands, and being asked to run a ballclub. There's some instincts you have naturally as an athlete that he has, that take over in the course of a game. The other things are tougher."
But while it worked well on the court for the Magic -- on the offensive end, at least -- for one night, at least, the process of figuring out just who Victor Oladipo is was put on hold. It was more like watching Indiana's Oladipo, leaping into plays, coiled on the wing and ready to attack the basket -- yet not central to the action.
Oladipo acknowledged that the only way he'll become a point guard, and the Magic will figure out if they want him playing that position for years to come, is by doing it.
"I feel like I've gotten better, yeah," Oladipo said, when I asked if he saw a change in his point guard skills between Summer League and December. "I feel like I'm getting better every day. It's just experience, really. Experience from playing as many games as I have already. You know, just watching film, trying to slow it down. Trying to slow myself down, just adjust to the game."
I asked Oladipo if he'd spoken to anyone about the twin challenges of the NBA and point guard, or if there even was somebody to speak to about that combination. "Yeah, it's a challenge," Oladipo said. "But I've been faced with a lot of challenges in my life. So I'm just gonna take it head on."
Just like Regis?
"Yeah," Oladipo replied, laughing at the thought of that particular challenge, which he more than met.