The Continued Intrigue of Kelly Oubre Jr.

Caris LeVert, Derrick White, Kyle Kuzma and Pascal Siakam are all considered significant young building blocks for their franchises. They are all on rookie scale contracts, all on teams with championship hopes and all have already received praise for their play.

All four are also older than Phoenix Suns wing Kelly Oubre Jr.

Despite what seemed like an eternity wasting away on the Washington Wizards bench, Oubre is a mere 23 years old. He’s oozing with potential as a Gumby-esque athlete that seems to stretch his limbs in supernatural ways. A walking defensive disruption, Oubre recently re-signed with the Suns on a two-year, $30 million deal that protects the franchise from his erratic inconsistencies and allows him to hit the free agent market when he’s 25.

There’s something about Oubre’s unique skills that makes me want to start a bandwagon and hitch it to him in Phoenix.

He’s a career 32.1 percent three-point shooter—not great, but good enough to talk yourself into liking him. He scored 20.6 points per 36 minutes in Phoenix after the trade deadline. He’s not a polished enough scorer or creator to be a top option, but certainly good enough to warrant some offense coming through him.

What sets Oubre apart is his defensive potential, however. Let’s especially focus on one night of action as a perfect example of this guy can be a legitimate stopper, a unique weapon and the type of piece that perfectly flanks star scorer Devin Booker.

Oubre suited up for two contests against the Houston Rockets as a member of the Suns and both of which were single-digit losses. He registered a positive plus-minus rating in each, including a team-high +8 on February 4th (our focus here) while drawing the top assignment on James Harden. In both matchups, Oubre was able to demonstrate why he can be an immense defensive weapon when he’s mentally dialed in and ready to contribute.

As part of their strategy, the Suns would have Oubre deployed tightly on Harden, denying him the ball once he gave it up and forcing him to work hard to get open. But Oubre’s insane length and wingspan make him the perfect player to blanket a scorer in deny position. When a backdoor pass was thrown, Oubre would extend those tentacles and poke it away to create a turnover:

That length only matters if he plays with his arms up. In isolations, using length to poke at the ball allows a defender to stand farther back, which prevents blow-by drives to the rim. When getting through ball screens, defenders that have their arms up are able to bother passing vision and make lanes appear smaller than they are.

Oubre did both against Harden and it made all the difference. The latter finished the night with six turnovers:

Oubre also converted defense to offense, stealing an errant pass and turning it into two points at the other end. That fourth quarter point gave the meager Suns the lead in Houston:

Turnovers were only part of the story, however. Harden was less effective in isolation against Phoenix, particularly when blanketed by their new defensive weapon.

The former Kansas Jayhawk was all over Harden like a cheap suit. A blocked shot in isolation that ricocheted off the league’s leading scorer was a huge momentum swing in the final few minutes:

Somehow the Suns were in this ball game despite the fact Devin Booker was an efficient 1-7 from three, the Suns committed 21 turnovers and both Dragan Bender and Troy Daniels drew the start. The Rockets should have mopped the floor with Phoenix on such a night.

Yet even in the final minute, the door was open. Down three with forty seconds remaining, Oubre was awaiting the arrival of Harden for what he (and everyone else in the arena) knew would be an isolation. Harden would dribble the clock down, wait until the last possible moment and unleash his step-back maneuvers.

The Suns were having none of it. They trapped Harden as soon as he caught the ball across half-court, trapping from his left as they executed a coverage called “double-weak” where the double-team comes from the defender closest to the offensive player’s dominant hand. In effect, that forces the ball handler to his weak side.

An instinctual defender with every physical tool, Oubre made the play of the night. As Harden dribbled away from the trap, Oubre picked his pocket, reaching around to his right hand and poking the ball loose. The turnover resulted in a Josh Jackson breakaway opportunity, on which he was fouled:

Jackson missed both free throws, drastically changing the trajectory of the game. Making both would not have provided certainty that the struggling Suns would win the game, but it obviously would have gone a long way. Nonetheless, Oubre’s defensive heroics gave them even a sliver of hope, despite their wretched offensive output and the continual blunders of teammates.

It was this night when I became a believer in Kelly Oubre Jr.

The rest of the year was the same, with flashes of insane defensive activity. His on-ball steals came in all varieties, swallowing smaller players attempting Euro steps or iso drives. He’d shoot through passing lanes and disrupt normal handoffs or two-man actions. He acts like a human Swiss Army Knife.

He even had some more clutch late-game defensive heroics, this time against the Milwaukee Bucks:

Truth be told, this isn’t a new development, either.

Oubre had already been deployed on some of the league’s top scorers while in the Washington Wizards’ rotation, forming a fantastic wing defensive duo with the also now-departed Otto Porter Jr. He’s shown up in the playoffs too, when it matters most, spending one playoff series against the Boston Celtics hounding Isaiah Thomas, getting under his skin and turning him for 94 feet.

The knock on Oubre has long been his basketball IQ. Instinctual players with natural talent and athleticism can sometimes over-rely on those traits. Since his collegiate days, there have been risk-reward gambles all over the place. When Oubre wins, he looks like a smart defender that makes plays happen. When he loses, he looks really bad.

As an off-ball defender, Oubre sometimes seems like the reincarnation of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde. The good news is that his head is always on a swivel, he can make off-ball steals from smart positioning and timing. All he needs is consistency.

If there’s one thing that’s been missing in Phoenix over the last few seasons, it’s been consistency. The Suns enter the season with Monty Williams as their fifth head coach in five seasons. The longest-tenured player on their roster is Devin Booker. Second? Sophomores DeAndre Ayton and Mikal Bridges.

For Oubre’s sake, the ship better steady soon. Fortunately, Williams is a player’s coach with a wealth of experience, a calm demeanor and a high defensive aptitude. If anybody can maximize Oubre’s God-given gifts, it’s him.

The Suns are in a unique position between impatient and maturing. Ownership wants to win now, but the young nucleus still needs seasoning, both individually and together. Oubre could force his way into that nucleus by living up to the promise he once held as a top-ten recruit leaving high school.

He has all the tools, and he has the opportunity in Phoenix. Count me in as one of the first to hop on the bandwagon.


Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of stats, basketball-reference or Synergy Sports Tech, and are current as of July 17, 2019.