Philadelphia 76ers: Victor Oladipo is a measuring stick for Markelle Fultz

(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images) /

In their first official matchup, Philadelphia 76ers fans will get a first-hand look at Markelle Fultz’s potential upside in high school alum Victor Oladipo.

Is there a player more polarizing to Philadelphia 76ers fans than Markelle Fultz?

Some fans will heartily cheer and throw up the ‘Skol’ anytime the second-year Washington guard even makes a solid pass, with others getting whiplash pulling out their phones to vilify their more optimistic counterparts on Twitter.

For every ‘#completetheBig3’ believer, there’s an equally passionate #buster who will quickly call Fultz a ‘ 6-foot-4 Evan Turner‘, one of the more hurtful comparisons a Philly guard can receive.

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But this isn’t new for a player like Fultz who struggled to find his footing after a, shall we say, challenging introduction to the NBA. No, he’s not even the first graduate of DeMatha Catholic High School to have this sort of reaction at the start of his NBA career, that would be current Indiana Pacers star Victor Oladipo.

Much like Fultz, Oladipo made a name for himself as a shoot-first combo guard with speed, athleticism, and an eye for the ball, leading to a score of college offers. And just like Fultz, Oladipo bypassed bigger named schools to instead take his talents to the Big 10, where he spent three years as the starting shooting guard for the Indiana Hoosiers.

Though his team didn’t make any sort of historic run, getting bounced from the NCAA Tournament twice in the Sweet Sixteen, he still showed enough promise to be selected second overall in the now-historically bad 2013 NBA Draft by the Orlando Magic, one pick behind Anthony Bennett, who went first to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Just for context, that was the year the Sixers selected Nerlens Noel sixth overall, and eventual Rookie of the Year winner Michael Carter-Williams 11th overall.

From there, Oladipo spent three seasons in the Magic Kingdom, where he never averaged more than 18 points, five assists, or 1.8 steals in a single season. While those aren’t necessarily lousy number for a starting shooting guard, even if shooting 34 percent from 3-point range is indeed not great, it never really helped the Magic escape their current place among the worst teams in the NBA. Why? Because he lacked that killer instinct to take over games and will his team to a close victory.

Needless to say, whispers of the dreaded ‘b’ word started to spread through the Magic’s fan base.

But, in one of the stranger moves I’ve personally seen in the NBA over the last half-decade, the Magic had apparently seen enough and decided to trade Oladipo and Ersan Ilyasova to the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for stretch four big men Serge Ibaka. A move that lasted all of eight months, as Ibaka was eventually flipped to the Toronto Raptors for Terrence Ross and a future first-round pick.

While this move should have been a fresh start for Oladipo, he got the unlucky honor of having to be Russell Westbrook‘s new wingman in his first season without Kevin Durant, a task that’s far easier said than done for any NBA player, let alone a struggling young guard on a rookie contract.

According to Vic himself, on a recent episode of HBO’s The Shop, even sideline reporters at the game would snicker whenever he entered the game, knowing fully well that he would be blamed for any miscues, and receive virtually no credit in a win.

Needless to say, this too was not a good situation, and after one aggressively mediocre season, Oladipo was traded to the Indiana Pacers alongside legacy Gonzaga big man Domantas Sabonis for Paul George in a move that initially looked incredibly one-sided.

Fast forward one year and no one can say that anymore with a straight face.

After signing a good-faith deal to remain with the club for less than max money, Oladipo went off for his best season as a professional basketball player, maybe as a basketball player at any level, averaging points, rebounds, assists, and steals in route to a slew of postseason awards including most improved player, 13 all NBA honors, and even the NBA’s steal king, to go with being named a replacement All-Star a few months prior.

Now the unquestioned leader of a surefire playoff team, Victor has transformed from a meddling potential bust combo-guard into a Kobe-lite shooting guard eager to take last-minute heroic shots to win games.

But could this also be the fate of Markelle Fultz?

On paper, Fultz and Oladipo are almost identical, standing roughly the same height with nearly identical measurables. Though Fultz would probably win in a one-on-one foot race, it’s entirely possible that the pair could theoretically fill very similar roles on their respective teams.

However, one thing Oladipo has always done and Fultz has been a little less eager to do is give maximum effort on the defensive side of the court.

As the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2013, Oladipo has established himself as one of the best two-way guards in the league, with his defense outpacing his offense for much of that stent. Even when his shot wasn’t falling early in his career, Oladipo still averaged almost 1.5 steals a game over his first four years in the league, way up from Fultz’s current clip of a single steal per game.

In a game where there are only so many possessions, stealing the ball, much like offensive rebounding, is one of the safest ways to secure a win, as it provides your team with an extra chance to score, and prevents the opposing team from doing the very same thing.

Since even the most optimistic fan would have to concede that Fultz’s shot is still a work-in-progress, improving his overall effort on the defensive end of the court has to be considered a priority moving forward.

Honestly, that defensive flexibility is a big reason why Fultz has received the nod in the starting five over J.J. Redick so far this season.

For how good J.J. is on the offensive side of the court, he’s among the worst defensive players in the league, period, regardless of position. This kind of defensive discrepancy is ordinarily easy to cover up for a team with a conventional starting backcourt, but because of Ben Simmons‘ mismatched fit on the defensive end of the court, Redick was often forced to cover much more athletic guards with regularity, resulting in easy buckets that often helped keep games a little too close for comfort.

While Fultz is probably the worst-shooting shooting guard in a starting lineup right now, he certainly provides the defensive upside to take on players one-on-one like John Wall, Russell Westbrook, or even Kyrie Irving; players who would breeze past Robert Covington on their way to the basket.

Need proof? Look back at last year’s Eastern Conference semifinals.

While it would be utterly unrealistic to expect Fultz to flip a switch and become Philly’s answer to James Harden, or even Victor Oladipo overnight, if he can learn a thing or two from his fellow DeMatha Catholic grad’s game, specifically on the defensive end of the court, it’ll go a long way in helping him find his place as a legitimate NBA player, while hopefully forcing outside observers to ease off the criticism they’ve shelled out at the 20-year-old over the last 18 months.

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It’s pretty safe to say no one is calling Victor Oladipo a bust anymore, and if the Philadelphia 76ers are smart, they’ll take a page out of Indiana’s playbook in Markelle Fultz’s continued development.