Victor Oladipo’s pick-and-roll defense inspires faith moving forward

Mar 23, 2016; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; Orlando Magic guard Victor Oladipo (5) attempts to steal the ball from Detroit Pistons forward Darrun Hilliard (6) during the third quarter at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Pistons win 118-102. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 23, 2016; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; Orlando Magic guard Victor Oladipo (5) attempts to steal the ball from Detroit Pistons forward Darrun Hilliard (6) during the third quarter at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Pistons win 118-102. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports /

Contrary to many fans’ beliefs, the Orlando Magic may not be a lost cause when it comes to pick-and-roll defense. And Victor Oladipo is a big reason why.

The following play is a great example of Victor Oladipo’s talent defending against the high ball screen. And this was from his rookie year, one of his first games.

On this play, Kevin Garnett comes over to set a ball screen for Deron Williams. Oladipo anticipates the incoming screen and moves early.

Seeing the anticipation, Williams tries to beat Oladipo to the screen, and in turn moves a bit too early for Garnett to successfully set a strong screen. Oladipo goes over, beats Williams to the spot, and steals the ball and gets an easy dunk.

The mixture of awareness and athleticism is shown on that play, and moments like that made Magic fans extremely excited about Oladipo’s potential even from the start of his NBA career.

The Magic have had a disappointing second half of the season after starting the year 19-13, and the slip in defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions) has been a big part of it. After spending November and December hovering in the top 10 in defensive efficiency, the Magic now rank 16th in the NBA in that category.

Beginning with the Jan. 1 meeting with the Washington Wizards, teams have used many ball screens against the Magic, and the team has not responded enough to the adjustments in opponent game plans in order to stay in the top 10 defensively.

Although the Magic have often struggled with defending ball screens, a paper written by Avery McIntyre, Joel Brooks, John Guttag, and Jenna Wiens that was presented at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference revealed Victor Oladipo has actually been effective in his career defending ball screens by going over them.

While the Magic’s defense has struggled overall, this seems to be a place where Oladipo thrives.

"Interestingly, pairs that defend well with one scheme do not appear dominant across all schemes (or simply do not run the same defense). From this, we can note the difficulty that arises when attempting to determine the overall defensive effectiveness of a single player. Our analysis suggests that the defenders vary considerably in their ability to thwart different ball screen actions by the offense."

This research can help the Magic coaching staff going forward with a game plan, as perhaps they will want to send Oladipo over screens more often against other teams’ primary ball handlers.

The writers used SportsVU data and manual tracking to examine how teams and players defend screens, and how effective they are at the main ways of defending them (going over, going under, hard hedging, trapping and switching).

In the past few years, the Magic have primarily gone over or under ball screens.

On a graphic that showed some of the top duos at defending ball screens by going over from the 2015 season, it was surprising to see the combination of Victor Oladipo and Nikola Vucevic on the list that contained notable star defenders such as Klay Thompson, Avery Bradley, Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut.

DuoPPP% going over
Avery Bradley-Jared Sullinger0.5658.7
Aaron BrooksPau Gasol0.5865.3
Klay Thompson-Draymond Green0.6151.7
Eric BledsoeMarkieff Morris0.6354.4
Darren CollisonDeMarcus Cousins0.6567.4
Stephen Curry-Andrew Bogut0.6665.9
Deron Williams-Brook Lopez0.6662.2
Jeff TeaguePaul Millsap0.6859.7
Tony ParkerTim Duncan0.6866.1
Victor Oladipo-Nikola Vucevic0.6960.9

The Oladipo-Vucevic duo had given up 0.69 points per possessions when Oladipo went over ball screens in 2015. In comparison, the league average was about 0.74 in 2015, and the two closest duos to them on the list were Tony Parker-Tim Duncan and Jeff Teague-Paul Millsap, both of whom allow 0.68 points per possession.

Those players are all notoriously strong defenders. For context, the best duo on the list was Avery Bradley-Jared Sullinger, who allow 0.56 points per possessions on those plays.

One reason that observation may be surprising is the inclusion of Nikola Vucevic, a player who generally is not known to be an elite defensive player.

Entering Friday’s game against the Miami Heat, he is 47th out of 78 qualifying centers in Defensive Real Plus Minus, ESPN’s analytic to measure a player’s on-court production.

His 105.1 defensive rating is significantly worse than the team’s average, and he has been coming off the bench recently in favor of Dewayne Dedmon, a stronger defensive player, while the team has won four of its past six games.

Vucevic generally does not hedge much on screens, but perhaps the communication and rotations he provides helps Oladipo defend the ball handler in ways fans do not pick up.

The success of the duo likely speaks a lot about Oladipo’s strength as a defender.

The Magic drafted Oladipo with the hopes he would become an elite perimeter defender, as well as an overall star, and he has shown that potential.

Entering Friday’s game, he is fifth out of all shooting guards in Real Plus Minus and 11th in Defensive Real Plus Minus.

It is a mixture of many aspects of Oladipo’s game that makes him an effective on-ball defender.

His athleticism is a huge asset to the team. He is extremely quick and was measured at the combine with about a 6-foot-9 wingspan.

His defensive awareness is very strong. He consistently keeps his hands active to frustrate ball handlers, and he anticipates his opponents’ moves, which allows him to get over screens as well as steal incoming passes.

His confidence as a strong defender is also a huge asset, as he is willing to step up and pressure the dribbler with the faith he will not get burned. This may be where Vucevic’s help sparks confidence in him that he can go strong over screens and believe that even if they get past him, his team will get a stop.

This play from a game earlier this season against the Houston Rockets is another example of Oladipo’s strengths defending screens. On this final play against the Houston Rockets, Oladipo goes over an off-ball screen set for one of the best offensive players in the league in James Harden.

The Magic likely knew the Rockets would design a play to free James Harden, and they looked to have Dwight Howard set a down screen to open up Harden for a potential game tying three.

That duo is hard to defend when setting screens, but Oladipo does an impressive job here.

He sticks with Harden at the beginning. He sees Howard coming, and makes the first move toward the screen.

He beats Harden to the spot, which allows him to get through the screen without getting stuck, and keeps his hands actively in the passing lane in order to prevent Harden from receiving a pass.

The Rockets had to adjust, and inbounded the ball to Marcus Thornton for a fade away three, which he missed. The Magic prevented the Rockets from taking a good game-tying attempt because of Oladipo’s strength going over a screen.

The NBA has shifted a lot offensively, and ball screens, specifically the spread pick-and-roll, are a heavy part of most teams’ offensive game plans.

Many plays in the course of the season have given the Magic reason to fear this transition, as they have often looked helpless defending ball screens.

Next: Orlando Magic reflect on what went wrong

However, the defensive abilities of Victor Oladipo have given the team reason to feel confident going forward.