Photo by Pablo Gamez for The Sports Capitol

Victor Oladipo coming for Kevin Durant's reign as the DMV's best

BY BEN STANDIG | MAY 14, 2018

The season in which Victor Oladipo blasted up the NBA hierarchy ended with a steely-eyed duel against LeBron James, basketball’s reigning ruler. That is unless Kevin Durant holds the unofficial distinction of best player. If Durant leads Golden State to a second consecutive championship, the answer may be definitive.

There’s another interpretive title Durant unquestionably holds and has since arriving in the league in 2007: The best active NBA player from the DMV. That’s not the same as NBA Most Valuable Player, which acknowledges the best player on the planet during that season. Durant won that award in 2013. Considering the striking names that held the best-of-the-best honors from greater Beltway area, best from the DMV is high praise.

But, KD should look out. Oladipo is now the clear No. 2 on the local list. He took a mighty cut at James’ reign in the first-round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, one that earned respect from the league’s best. He’s also coming for local title.

The Sports Capitol asked Oladipo in March if he was the NBA’s second-best active player from the D.C. area. “I don’t know,” the DeMatha grad said. “Like I tell everybody all the time, I’m chasing number one. Whoever number one is, that’s who I’m chasing.”

Taking his team to the top is the primary goal for the electric 6-foot-5 guard. Along the way, the personal accolades will come. Entering the season it didn’t seem conceivable that he or any other current NBA player who learned the game in the shadow of the Washington Monument could challenge Durant for local supremacy.

Considering Durant’s already existing Hall of Fame résumé while still in his prime years, chances of overtaking him for a title held by the likes of Elgin Baylor, Adrian Dantley, and Grant Hill appear limited. What Oladipo showed this season is why the task might not be impossible.

***

James, the four-time league MVP, eventually pushed his Cleveland Cavaliers past Oladipo’s insurgent Indiana Pacers in the first-round Eastern Conference series that went seven games. An NBA Finals staple since 2010, James used every bit of his super-human powers earlier than normal in the postseason because his teammates weren’t much help and the kid raised in Upper Marlboro kept coming.

Oladipo, 25, piled up stats and praise throughout the series. He dropped 30 points, 12 rebounds, six assists and three steals in Game 7, but Cleveland escaped with a 105-101 win. James showed respect when he immediately sought out, spoke to and embraced the rising star after the final buzzer sounded. Minutes later, Oladipo’s personal trainer used Twitter to share texts from his client. “When do we start? I’m ready to take it to another level.”

That’s a bold statement considering the emphatic campaign completed by the first-time All-Star. He arrived in Indiana, his third team in three seasons, following an offseason trade that sent All-Star forward Paul George to Oklahoma City and had the NBA community declaring robbery. Then the Pacers stunned with a 48-win season before they nearly chopped down James and the Cavaliers in the postseason.

“[Victor] being the main man, that’s his thing,” said Miles Rawls, one of the area’s noted basketball figures and historians. “He’s not a ball hog, but he needed his own team.”

***

Ask anybody with ties to the local basketball scene and they know where it began: Elgin. The man who became the NBA’s first sky-walker grew up inside the city limits and put D.C. hoops on the national map. He did so initially by taking Seattle University to the 1958 national championship game where Baylor was named Final Four Most Outstanding Player despite losing to Kentucky, before becoming the No. 1 pick.

Baylor’s 14-year career including eight finals appearances, 10 All-NBA first-team selections and limited television exposure. At one point, his 71-point game for the Los Angeles Lakers against the New York Knicks on Nov. 15, 1960, set the NBA’s single-game scoring mark.

Baylor first held the title as best local NBA player 60 years ago. He arguably maintained the belt in 1968, though Dave Bing’s ascension to the top was at least in motion. The former Spingarn High School standout averaged a career-high 27.1 points for the Detroit Pistons during the 1968 season.

Baylor first held the title as best local NBA player 60 years ago. He arguably maintained the belt in 1968, though Dave Bing’s ascension to the top was at least in motion. The former Spingarn High School standout averaged a career-high 27.1 points for the Detroit Pistons during the 1968 season.

Rawls, 55, is the commissioner of the Goodman League, which plays on the outdoor courts in the Barry Farms section of Southeast. He is old enough to have heard of Baylor’s exploits without an elaborate game of telephone. Rawls took over the commissioner duties in 1996. That means he witnessed the next great players throughout the decades before they hit the national stage, including Oladipo.

“I knew he had the hops,” Rawls said of Oladipo, who played at Indiana University before entering the NBA as the No. 2 overall pick by the Orlando Magic in 2013. “At Indiana, he was more of a defender. His offensive game went to the moon when he was in the NBA.”

***

Just as Bing’s dynamic 12-year career wound down in 1978, Adrian Dantley’s took off. He took the baton as the D.C. area’s best baller with him, one he kept at least through 1988.

This DeMatha legend twice led the NBA in scoring during his 15-year career and eventually followed Baylor and Bing into the Basketball Hall of Fame. His play inspired the next generation, including future University of Maryland star and 11-year NBA veteran Walt Williams.

“I could see his skill level, how he used to take bigger guys to the low block and just school them,” Williams told The Sports Capitol. “ “He had an array of moves. … I wouldn’t call him super athletic or quick. He just knew how to play. He had a cerebral approach and a feel for the game on how to school guys.”

“The Wizard” began his basketball life playing at Benjamin Stoddard Middle School in Temple Hills before starring at Crossland High School. Like many, Williams’ initial thoughts of the late-blooming Oladipo were not automatically of a future NBA All-Star.

“Remembered him on his AAU team. I don’t remember him starting. He was very scrappy. Played very hard on both ends.”

He still does. Oladipo led the NBA this season with 2.43 steals despite limiting his defensive gambling.

***

For most of these 60 years the “best player in the DMV” title lived on the northern side of the Potomac River. In 1998 that unofficial crown moved to the Northern Virginia suburbs because of Grant Hill.

“There were some solid guys, but Grant Hill was the number one guy,” Williams said of the seven-time NBA All-Star.

Before the smooth forward won two NCAA Tournament titles at Duke and was NBA co-rookie of the year in 2002, the Reston native grabbed headlines at South Lakes High School. Hill was inducted into the D.C. Sports Hall of Fame May 6 at Nationals Park along with Williams and the late Len Bias, whom Hill called a “hero.” The irony of such recognition wasn’t lost on the kid from Northern Virginia.

“There’s a real sort of pride that exists,” Hill told The Sports Capitol of being part of the area’s rich basketball history. “For me, from the basketball standpoint, in Reston, Virginia we always felt like we’re fighting for acceptance. When I was coming up it wasn’t the DMV. You’d say you’re from D.C. and they’d say where. You’re like ‘in Reston’ and they’re like, ‘aww, you’re way out in the country.’ To me this, finally full circle, there’s acceptance.”

Dennis Scott, current TNT and NBA TV analyst, began his hoops career further out in the region. The future 10-year NBA veteran was raised in Hagerstown before moving to his mother’s hometown of Leesburg. All the prep programs came calling. Because his mother did not like the idea of driving on the Beltway, Scott landed at Flint Hill, then located in Oakton, rather than traditional power DeMatha based in Hyattsville. Scott and his teammates trekked across the Key Bridge during summer weekends for various tournaments in the city.

“That was the beginning of me understanding what D.C. basketball was all about,” Scott told The Sports Capitol. “That’s when you said, ‘Oh my goodness. This is where all the best basketball is.’ Now you come a little closer to the city. Now you playing against every school. Now you know what making All-Met is about.”

Hill was named All-Met Player of the Year in 1990. On a day where he humbly accepted a spot among the best athletes from the D.C. area, Hill told The Sports Capitol he didn’t necessarily view himself the best player from the area at the peak of his powers.

“In ‘98 I was still in attack mode, still trying to achieve, trying to get to that point whatever that is. Yeah, I guess when you look back and reflect, there was a period where of all those guys… there was a sense of pride that I was able to maybe differentiate or separate myself a little bit.

“The beauty is when one of us does well we all feel connected. When Durant and Oladipo and those guys are excelling in the NBA now, there’s a sense of pride that they’re one of us. Their success is our success. Hopefully, that was the same when I was doing well back in the 90s.”

***

True national focus on the D.C. area hoops, specifically Prince George’s County, began during the era of Durant, who entered the NBA in 2007. The 6-foot-11 forward’s futuristic game at his size put his trajectory straight north.

“[Kevin] helped put the microscope back on the DMV and remind people how much talent has come from the DMV area and how much more is coming,” Scott told The Sports Capitol.

Durant wasn’t just the best player from the area. He was arguably the best, period.

Based on the population of Prince George’s County – approximately 904,000 in 2016 – in relation to the total national population and the number of American-born NBA players, there should be one NBA player from the county. Instead, there’s enough to stuff a roster. Durant and Oladipo were two of eight from PG County participating in the 2018 playoffs.

“Growing up in the area you knew the level of competition was just off the chain,” Williams said. “I realized that playing pick-up games in other cities it wasn’t the same as home. Recently we’ve been getting more publicity since KD, but I knew that way before then just playing in this area and playing in other places.”

 

Wizards guard Ty Lawson was another one of the PG County kids in the current postseason until Washington was eliminated in the first round. The Clinton, Md., native grew up idolizing Williams and another Terp, Steve Francis. He arrived on the NBA scene two years after Durant and became one of the league’s top point guards, though never quite ascended to the top of the D.C. area hierarchy. “Top five,” he said humbly.

Oladipo might just go all the way.

“Victor blossoming like this is huge for the city, this area,” Lawson said. “His name holds weight in the area. It’s good to see him doing well.”

***

Scott began hearing of Oladipo’s athletic prowess during the kid’s prep days. The two never met until the 2013 NBA Draft. Scott, who began his NBA career with Orlando, started tracking Oladipo close when the Magic selected him second overall.

“Then I learned [Victor] had an endless, tireless work ethic,” Scott said. “That’s when I said, ‘You’re going to be OK young fella.’”

The Magic traded Oladipo in the summer of 2016 to Oklahoma City, which meant joining the Thunder and Russell Westbrook. It didn’t mean joining Durant, who left OKC for a free agent deal with Golden State a few weeks later. Westbrook morphed into the league MVP. Oladipo never quite found his groove. Oklahoma City moved him to Indiana the following summer.

“Orlando obviously didn’t know what he had,” Scott said. “Then (he) had to go to OKC and deal with Russ and what was going on over there. I felt like he never got the right opportunity to be who he is. … [Indiana coach Nate McMillan] erased his brain from his previous experiences and said. ‘Look, here’s the basketball. Go be you, but you have to do it on both ends of the floor to be a great leader.’ I think that‘s why he had such a phenomenal season.”

***

The idea of Durant returning home to play for the Wizards consumed local fans for over two years. Durant’s thoughts lived elsewhere. He joined the Warriors as a free agent in 2016 after expressing no public interest in playing for Washington.

Nobody should start a VO2DC campaign anytime soon. Oladipo declined a pre-draft workout with the Wizards in 2013. Washington already had Bradley Beal occupying the two-guard slot. The Pacers have their star under contract through 2021. The kid who learned the game on the East Coast never says never about a return, but he is loving life in the Midwest.

“I don’t have [any] control,” Oladipo told The Sports Capitol in March. “Just control what I can control. I try to focus on my abilities and try to be the best me possible. When you’re growing up you kind of dream about playing for your home team. For me, I just dreamt about getting [to the NBA) anywhere. Like I said a few years ago, [the Wizards are] good here with John (Wall) and Brad. They’re going to be good for years. Hopefully, I’m a Pacer for the rest of my career, but who’s to tell? Just got to take it one day at a time and continue to get better.”

***

Other local kids ascended to the NBA, including Kermit Washington, Johnny Dawkins, Thurl Bailey, Roy Hibbert and Wizards assistant coach Sidney Lowe. Fred Hertzel and Austin Carr were the No.1 overall selections in the 1965 and 1971 drafts, respectively. Making it to basketball’s big stage is surreal. Only a select few ever can claim DMV’s best-of-the-best status.

The pipeline remains full. Another DeMatha kid, Markelle Fultz, was the No. 1 overall pick by Philadelphia in 2017. Josh Hart (Sidwell Friends), one year removed from winning a national title at Villanova, joined Fultz in the 2017 first round.

Durant will be pushing 40 in 2028, seventy years from Baylor’s NBA debut. By then someone other than the pride of Seat Pleasant likely holds that unofficial “Best NBA player from the DMV” title. Rawls puts his money on the Los Angeles Lakers’ Hart. No doubt competition will be fierce.

Don’t count out Oladipo. He will be 35 in 2028. Who knows what kind of legacy he builds by then?

Scott didn’t like the odds of Oladipo catching Durant. “Nah, it’s going to be hard,” Scott said. “Nothing against Vic. He’s going to do great things…Kevin Durant is just flat-out special.”

That Oladipo put himself into the conversation as an NBA player from the D.C. area and specifically Prince George’s County already puts him in elite company.

“All the time, all time,” Oladipo said of the constant discussions with his fellow local NBA players about the area’s legacy. “I consider those guys family, all the guys from the county. We’re all close, obviously. We have familiar friends, coaches. It’s a small area. It’s not really big. That’s what makes it so special about it. It’s always full of talent. It’s an honor and privilege to be a part of that.”

Ben Standig is a host, writer and co-founder of The Sports Capitol. This D.C. area native grew up rooting for all the local squads and dabbled in the professional media world after college before making a full shift to sports writing in 2005. Since, Ben has covered every team and big event in town for several outlets including the Associated Press, NBCWashington.com and Scout.com.

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