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Kelly Oubre Jr. Might Be the Wizards’ Ticket to Elite Status

Washington boasts one of the best teams in the East, but also has almost nonexistent depth. The team’s hopes of taking the next step hinges on its talented third-year firebrand.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The training wheels are coming off for Kelly Oubre Jr. The Wizards have brought him along slowly over his first two seasons. He barely played as a rookie, and his role grew gradually over his second season. His immaturity showed in the playoffs. Oubre disappeared after throwing Kelly Olynyk to the ground in Game 3 of their second-round series against the Celtics. He played all of six seconds in Game 7. Depth has been Washington’s Achilles’ heel for years, and they collapsed at the worst possible time. Their starting five had a net rating of plus-19.8 in the Boston series. They lost because they got nothing from their bench. A more polished version of Oubre could change that this season. The Wizards’ ceiling depends on his improvement.

Oubre is up for an extension on his rookie contract at the end of the season, and his career can go in a lot of different directions. All he’s proved so far is that he’s a hot head with an inconsistent jumper. The good news for him is that Washington has recent experience grooming a young wing. Otto Porter went from playing 8.6 minutes a game as a rookie to 19.4 minutes in his second season and 30.3 in his third. Oubre has the same opportunity. The Wizards turned over their second unit in the offseason, but their additions were either journeymen or unproven young guys. Oubre doesn’t have much competition for shots or playing time. The only thing holding him back is himself.

Oubre came out strong on opening night. He had 14 points, eight rebounds, two assists, two steals, and two blocks in their 120–115 win over Philadelphia on Wednesday. There’s no reason he can’t play like that every night. At 6-foot-7 and 205 pounds with a monstrous 7-foot-2 wingspan, Oubre has every physical tool that NBA teams want in a wing. It’s easy to see why he was a five-star recruit in high school. Take a look at this putback dunk from the 76ers game:

Guys like Oubre are coveted because of their defensive versatility. He guarded nearly everyone on Philly’s roster on Wednesday, including Jerryd Bayless, T.J. McConnell, Markelle Fultz, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Robert Covington, and Ben Simmons. Oubre is only 21 years old and he’s already a stopper. He’s one of the rare wings with the speed to stay in front of Simmons, and the size to contest his shot:

There’s no substitute for length. Oubre shrinks the court. He gets his hands on balls most wings can’t, and he’s a devastating help-side defender when engaged. Few guys who can shadow opposing point guards can also protect the rim:

More than half of Oubre’s shots against the 76ers came from 3. Like most left-handed players, the ball looks pretty coming off his hands. However, that is not reflected in his shooting numbers going back to his days at Kansas:

Oubre’s Shooting Numbers

Season 3PA 3P% FTA FT%
Season 3PA 3P% FTA FT%
2014-2015 (Kansas) 2.6 35.8 3.1 71.8
2015-2016 1.3 31.6 0.8 63.3
2016-2017 2.4 27.8 1.3 75.8

The 3-point line is where his improvement has to begin. The better Oubre shoots, the more opportunities he will have on offense. The only pick-and-roll he ran on Wednesday came off a broken play. With the opposing big man backing off the screen, he buried a pull-up 3 off the dribble. Consistently making those shots will open up the rest of his game:

Oubre has a great first step. Defenders will have a hard time guarding his jumper and his drive at the same time. This play against Robert Covington, one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA, is a perfect example. He has to respect the jumper, which allows Oubre to get past him and draw an and-1 in the lane:

Scott Brooks is an old-school coach. He doesn’t like to stagger the minutes of his starters, which is why Washington had one of the most dramatic plus-minus splits in the NBA between its first and second units last season. Brooks will take all five starters out at the same time and leave his reserves to sink or swim. He doesn’t simplify the offense for them. Running complicated half-court sets with Tim Frazier and Jodie Meeks in place of John Wall and Bradley Beal is difficult enough in the regular season. It’s almost impossible in the playoffs, when the competition increases and defenses know every wrinkle in the playbook.

The Wizards don’t have a dominant post scorer or pick-and-roll guard to build their second unit around. It’s hard to generate shots without a player the defense has to overload to stop. Allowing Oubre to grow into that role would make them more dangerous in May and June. He isn’t just a straight-line driver. He can read the floor and has shown flashes of playmaking ability. Watch him find Mike Scott cutting to the rim in this sequence:

Oubre is still figuring out his game. He’s very young, turning 22 in December. He’s nine months younger than Kings rookie Justin Jackson. Oubre left for the pros after one year at Kansas. He is like a flamethrowing pitcher who jumped from Class A to MLB and struggled with his command. He wasn’t anywhere close to a finished product as a rookie. He was drafted on potential, not production. He was a fourth option at Kansas, averaging 9.3 points per game. Coming out of high school, the recruiting services had Oubre in the same tier as Justise Winslow and Stanley Johnson. He didn’t have the same opportunities they did in the NCAA, so they went in the lottery while he slipped to the no. 15 pick. The tables have turned in the pros. Johnson and Winslow are struggling with their roles on their NBA teams, while Oubre is being groomed for stardom in Washington.

The Wizards are all in on Oubre. They don’t have any other ways to improve their roster. Wall, Beal, and Porter are all on max contracts, so the franchise won’t have cap room for the foreseeable future. The other young guys on their bench are second-round picks (Tomas Satoransky), undrafted free agents (Devin Robinson), and guys who flamed out elsewhere (Chris McCullough). Barring a trade involving one of their Big Three, this is their team.

Few reserves on good teams will be counted on more than Oubre. He was in Washington’s most dangerous lineups last season. A five-man unit of Wall, Beal, Porter, Oubre, and Marcin Gortat had a net rating of plus-17.4 in 200 minutes. A small-ball lineup with Wall and Beal in the backcourt, Oubre and Porter on the wings, and Markieff Morris at center was plus-22.4 in 52 minutes. That’s five guys who can spread the floor, make plays off the dribble and guard multiple positions. Oubre is the final piece for Washington. If he can play at a high level for 30 minutes a game, they’ll take a big step forward. The Wizards have the star power to win the East. They just need one more player to round out their core. Kelly Oubre Jr. has paid his dues. Everything is set up for him to have a big year. Now he just has to do it.