Picking Victor Oladipo could help Pelicans’ defense

NEW ORLEANS — With the style of basketball coach Monty Williams’ team plays, one can easily imagine Indiana shooting guard Victor Oladipo in a New Orleans Pelicans uniform.

That is, if he’s available at the No. 6 pick in the NBA draft Thursday night. Early on, Oladipo, a nightmare of a defender for college foes, was seen as a likely pick at anywhere from second to 10th. Now it appears he will not drop past the Phoenix Suns at No. 5, and he could go as high as No. 2 to the Orlando Magic.

“I think that in this draft, a lot of teams will pick according to their need” as opposed to the best player available, Pelicans General Manager Dell Demps said.

That helps make it one of those drafts where beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and Oladipo could be sitting pretty when No. 6 rolls around. Orlando is solid at shooting guard with Arron Afflalo, and both the Magic and Suns could use a point guard.

And there’s a big reason why Oladipo is a player the Pelicans won’t be able to overlook if he’s available. Shooting guard Eric Gordon has not proven to be the answer since being obtained in the trade that sent All-NBA point guard Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Clippers before the 2011-12 season.

Gordon’s injuries, missed games, big contract and inconsistent play have been well-documented. Sources said New Orleans tried to trade him last season.

Asked at a season-ending news conference if he would trade Gordon, Demps said diplomatically, “I would look at making any move that would improve this team.”

Williams stresses defense. And an excellent defender at shooting guard, where the NBA’s gunslingers abide, is invaluable. Oladipo, at 6-feet-5, has a 6-9 wingspan and plays with tremendous energy, Williams’ type of player. A first-team All-American and the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, Oladipo led the conference in steals at 2.2 a game and is known for disrupting opponents’ offenses with his deflections, getting 22 against Wisconsin-Green Bay last season.

“Defensively, starting with his freshman year, he was always a very athletic, impact guy,” said Michigan assistant coach LaVall Jordan, whose team went against Indiana twice a season in the Big Ten. “You almost had to stay away from him at times. Our kids knew not to relax around him.”

That’s not the only thing that’s a lot to like about Oladipo. A poor outside shooter as a freshman and sophomore, Oladipo was indefatigable in improving that aspect of his game. He shot 24 percent on midrange jump shots and 3-pointers his first two years combined, but made 44.1 percent from behind the arc as a junior, his last season.

“He never, ever takes a day off from getting himself better,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said. “He has made this his life’s calling on that court.

“His improvement was astronomical, but it wasn’t mind-blowing, because we saw it every day.”

Crean said it wasn’t unusual for Oladipo to begin working 1 p.m. on shooting and ball-handling, practice from 2:30 to 4:15, then attend a film session, only to be back on the court at 6:30 still working on his shot.

Still, he found more than enough time for his studies. Oladipo, who like Williams is from Washington, D.C., graduated after just three years of college on May 4, his birthday.

Before last season, Oladipo mainly scored on back-door cuts and slashes to the basket, drives and steals and dunks, with an occasional short jump shot or putback.

“Adding a consistent jump shot last year really expanded his game,” Jordan said. “As a sophomore, he had started doing more things off the dribble a little bit and getting more involved in the pick and roll. He added to his game every summer.”

As draft night approaches, playmaking, however, is said to be his weakness. But he is known for driving and finishing consistently and impressively.

Demps and Williams, modeling their team after the San Antonio Spurs, have put a premium on character in acquiring players for the Pelicans. Crean, who credits Oladipo for his leadership in Indiana winning the Big Ten championship, said he is the total package.

“It is an incredible thing to watch someone who is as good a person, has the charisma, the personality, the integrity, the character to just come alive with this second-to-none work ethic that he has brought,” Crean said. “It has helped transform our team. It has made everybody else in this program better.”