WASHINGTON — Because Kelly Oubre Jr.‘s self-confidence level rivals titans of industry and the entertainment world, it sometimes appears he thinks he has all the answers on the court. Watching the game tape or reading the stats reveals that’s clearly not the case.
Being benched the final two games of the playoff series against Boston solidified that belief. Posting photos on social media from his time at New York’s Fashion Week added to a style-over-substance perception and allowed for a different type of “stick-to-sports” discussion.
If the Washington Wizards are to take the next step in the Eastern Conference, appearances had better be deceiving. Chat with Oubre and you might believe they are.
John Wall is a four-time All-Star. Bradley Beal is poised to join his backcourt partner at that level. Otto Porter is among the NBA’s most efficient players. Markieff Morris provides attitude and two-way talent. Those players are 27, 24, 24 and 28 years of age respectively, all in or approaching their primes. They are why the Wizards are contenders.
The 21-year-old Oubre is why everything could go “next level”… or not. Washington needs gains from that aforementioned quartet. Such a rise is expected. None have room for growth, however, quite like the 2015 first-round pick. That doesn’t mean Oubre will ever be better than any of those players. It means he has miles to go before becoming a strong NBA player, but has the physical tools to get there.
With the Wizards battling the Celtics for a berth in the Eastern Conference Finals last season, head coach Scott Brooks couldn’t wait. Though Oubre was a key reserve all season despite shooting 28.7 percent on 3-pointers, he barely played in Game 6 and then just six seconds in the decisive Game 7.
“I was really upset in the moment,” Oubre said of not playing in those final playoff games. “I felt like I could help my team at least get a couple of stops or something,”
There was no mystery behind the benching. The Wizards needed liability insurance when Oubre played in the playoffs. According to NBA.com, his minus-112 wasn’t just the worst plus-minus for any player in last season’s playoffs, but the worst in the 21 years for which the league kept the stat.
Oubre lost his cool earlier in the series when he nearly KO’d another KO, Celtic forward Kelly Olynyk. That led to a Game 4 suspension. By Game 6 he had lost his role. In Game 7, Olynyk’s career-best performance helped knock out the Wizards.
“Also seeing [Olynyk] go off for 27 (points) in Game 7. That’s something that really stuck with me,” Oubre admitted. “I used it as fuel in the summer. It’s still on my mind. I won’t ever forget that because it was the turning point in my life. I feel like I could have done something to help my team out. I just hate that I’m not able to help out people that I love. That was on my mind all summer.”
Let’s be clear about this: Oubre wasn’t mad at Brooks. The anger went inward.
It drove him for another series of summer workouts with noted hoops trainer Drew Hanlen. They worked on tweaking Oubre’s shooting form so his dominant left hand didn’t block his vision upon release. Fixing his previously nonexistent right hand on dribble-drives focused on repetition.
“Making myself feel comfortable and confident. I’ve always had a right hand. I’ve just been scared to use it,” said Oubre, who did use his off-hand more in preseason games than the previous season.
Additional maturity should help his overall hoops IQ. Good. Brooks might not be as willing to overlook his young forward driving into a crowd of defenders or losing his focus defensively in his second year as Washington’s head coach.
“You don’t want to let a guy out there and experiment and be so into his game. He has to stay with the team concepts,” Brooks said on the eve of Wednesday’s season opener against Philadelphia. “I think he’s improved a lot over the year we’ve been together and the offseason. I don’t know how good he’s going to be offensively.
“He’s definitely improved. I’m going to give him the opportunity to make the right decisions and hopefully he continues to improve in that area. The defense is going to be his bread and butter and will keep him on the court.”
Off the court, the kid from New Orleans who resettled in Houston following Hurricane Katrina has been through plenty. The hits haven’t stopped. After Hurricane Harvey pounded his new hometown, the owner of two dogs donated $12,000 to the local American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).
As for his time at Fashion Week, the fashion-forward wasn’t simply indulging in his hobby. Oubre, who missed a chunk of the offseason following platelet-rich plasma injections in his right knee, woke up early for 7 a.m. workout sessions before hanging on the runways.
Brooks is giving Oubre the necessary clearance for his game to take off, especially with Morris sidelined early following hernia surgery. If the kid soars, the Wizards will go next level. If not, he’ll have a fashionable front-row seat for those big postseason moments.