The Kelly Oubre Enigma

The Wizards' third-year forward has shown glimpses of stardom, but he too often disappears when D.C. needs him most. At 22, Oubre is still in the developmental stage of his career, but he must evolve if the Wizards want to reach the next level of success.

Kelly Oubre, Jr., is an enigma. The Washington Wizards’ third-year forward flashes moments of greatness, but also disappoints with a propensity to disappear in the biggest moments. From fans in the District proclaiming, “Oubre is going to be a star,” to those same fans clamoring, “Come on, Kelly, play smarter,” Oubre defines what it means to be a frustrating young player on a team nearing the next level of success.

While Oubre tends to baffle fans with this oscillation from star to frustration, he has undoubtedly grown over his first three seasons in the NBA--and he’s only 22.

Per Game Table
Season Age Tm Lg Pos G GS MP FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P% 2P 2PA 2P% eFG% FT FTA FT% ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS
2015-16 20 WAS NBA SF 63 9 10.7 1.4 3.3 .427 0.4 1.3 .316 1.0 2.1 .492 .486 0.5 0.8 .633 0.4 1.7 2.1 0.2 0.3 0.1 0.5 1.6 3.7
2016-17 21 WAS NBA SF 79 5 20.3 2.4 5.6 .421 0.7 2.4 .287 1.7 3.2 .520 .482 0.9 1.3 .758 0.8 2.5 3.3 0.6 0.7 0.2 0.6 2.5 6.3
2017-18 22 WAS NBA SF 71 10 27.6 4.0 9.6 .418 1.6 4.5 .367 2.4 5.2 .462 .503 2.3 2.8 .838 0.7 3.8 4.5 1.2 1.0 0.4 1.1 2.9 12.0
Career     NBA   213 24 19.9 2.6 6.3 .420 0.9 2.7 .334 1.7 3.5 .487 .493 1.3 1.6 .786 0.6 2.7 3.4 0.7 0.7 0.3 0.8 2.4 7.5
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 3/24/2018.

Former Wizards' head coach Randy Wittman provided Oubre little chance to develop his rookie season (2015-2016), only sporadically calling him off the bench (10.7 MPG with a slew of DNP dates). Current head coach Scott Brooks grew comfortable providing Oubre more minutes (20.3 MPG) in his second season, but Oubre never gained Brooks’ trust in the playoffs (15.3 MPG in 2015-2016 playoffs). Oubre’s spat with Boston’s Kelly Olynyk, along with Oubre’s subsequent suspension, limited both his confidence and playing time.

Oubre now gets primary backup minutes (27.6 MPG, 12.0 PPG, 4.5 RPG) and is continuing to evolve as a dependable playmaker off the bench, but he still can’t find himself on the court during many of the Wizards’ bigger moments. Brooks clearly trusts Oubre more this season, but the coach isn’t quite ready to unleash Oubre’s talents when they matter most. This reluctance isn’t unique to Oubre. At 22 years old, Oubre is still in the developmental stage of his career--a project with a promising future.

Finding an Offensive Identity

All-Star point guard John Wall attacks the rim consistently better and more purposefully than anyone on the Wizards, but Oubre attacks the rim and finishes better than even Wall. Oubre uses his lanky athleticism to effortlessly contort his body and finish difficult drives close to the basket. Oubre’s shooting percentage from 0-3 feet is .667, while Wall’s is .628. If Oubre decides he wants to get to the rim more regularly, then his offensive efficiency (12.6 PER and 109 ORtg) will seemingly only increase. Oubre, however, is trying to prove himself an outside shooter, settling for threes and long jumpers.

Oubre has seen a decline in the percentage of his shots that are within three feet of the basket in each of his first three seasons. Correspondingly, Oubre has seen an uptick in the percentage of his shots that are beyond 16 feet (long two-point jumpers) and three-point attempts:

Shooting Table
                    2-Pt
      % of FGA % of FGA % of FGA % of FGA FG% FG% FG% Dunk
Season FG% Dist. 2P 0-3 16 <3 3P 0-3 16 <3 3P %FGA
2015-16 .427 11.6 .626 .417 .043 .374 .591 .000 .316 .109
2016-17 .421 14.0 .575 .330 .084 .425 .623 .405 .287 .106
2017-18 .417 14.8 .538 .246 .085 .462 .667 .281 .365 .069
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 3/24/2018.

The consequences of Oubre attempting to become a shooter could be significant for the Wizards once Wall returns from injury and Brooks shortens the rotation to eight players. All-star Bradley Beal and his fellow max-contract teammate, Otto Porter, compose the Wizards’ elite shooting talent. Marcin Gortat, Ian Mahinmi, and Markieff Morris make up the stable of bigs. Tomas Satoransky fits in as the backup facilitator and everyman. What do the Wizards need? Another dependable, fearless slasher to complement and alleviate the pressure on Wall (knowing that Beal and Porter can “do what they want,” including getting to the rim). This leaves Oubre as the perfect athlete to assume driving duties to collapse defenses when he plays without Wall (which is often). Drive and kick or drive and dunk could be Oubre’s calling card.

This desire for Oubre to drive to the basket more often doesn’t mean he cannot continue to develop his outside shot. Oubre can shoot threes, and should, when it’s the right shot. It’s evident, however, that Oubre is now looking to shoot threes and long jumpers first, instead of attacking the rim with the athleticism and skill he currently possesses. Until Oubre figures out that he can cash in at the rim on a regular basis, he’ll only continue to be a frustrating cog in a Wizards’ lineup desperately looking for players to find, refine, and keep in their roles.

Defensive Inconsistency

Regularly touted by fans and analysts as one of the Wizards’ best defenders, Oubre has produced many moments worthy of defensive praise. Blocking shots, diving onto the floor for loose balls, jumping up and down after important defensive stops, clapping hands in the face of opponents, and performing push-ups after physical play are just a few highlights of what Oubre can be on defense: an energetic irritant who disrupts opponents’ offensive effectiveness with unconstrained effort and animation.

However, simply because Oubre is long (6’7”), lean (205 lb.), jumpy, athletic, aggressive, emotional, and energetic, it doesn’t mean he applies all these qualities on a regular basis to yield positive defensive outcomes. In fact, Oubre rarely puts all these on display at once, adding to the frustration.

Oubre has a middling defensive rating (109) when compared to Brooks’ other defensive options. Both starting forwards, Morris (108) and Porter (107), allow fewer points per 100 possessions than Oubre. Rim protectors Gortat (107) and Mahinmi (107) also allow fewer points per 100 possessions. So, despite the narrative that Oubre is a great defender, Brooks more often turns to Porter and Morris when he needs defensive stops, or even leaves in his clunky bigs to affect shots in the paint. Oubre is often the odd man out of the clutch-time rotation.

It’s hard to hide Oubre’s youthful inconsistency on defense. A big block turns into a lazy rotation the next time down the court. The Wizards give up 110.6 points per 100 possessions as a team when he is on the court compared to 107.1 points per 100 possessions as a team when he is off the court--the Wizards are a better defensive team when he is on the bench. This gap in consistency and effectiveness is to be expected. Players tend to initially focus on their offensive development before exerting effort on their defensive game. With time and effort, Oubre can become the consistent defensive presence the Wizards need--an area in which they're lacking.

A Bright Future

Analyzing Oubre’s offensive and defensive game can be as frustrating as watching him effortlessly dunk over a defender one night and then foul a three-point shooter the next. While Oubre continues to be an enigma for the Wizards, his future is bright. A convenient parallel is Porter’s first three seasons--all defined by consistent and substantial growth. With time, Brooks’ blessing, and focused development, Oubre may also see a max contract in his future.

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