The Washington Wizards were invested in bringing in Kelly Oubre Jr.; so much so, in fact, that they swapped their No. 19 pick in the 2015 NBA draft and two future second-round picks to the Atlanta Hawks for the 6-foot-7 small forward out of Kansas.
Like many soon-to-be 19-year-old rookies, Oubre isn’t short on confidence—telling Jody Genessy of Deseret News that he can be as good or better than Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard and James Harden.
— IndyStar Sports (@IndyStarSports) June 3, 2015
While it’s reassuring for team officials to hear that the most recent Kansas Jayhawk draft pick believes he can immediately contribute, there are areas the Wizards can best utilize his skill set. Although there a number of unknowns heading into the season—most notably, whether Paul Pierce will return and how many minutes Coach Randy Whittman will task his new rookie with—it’s worth considering what Oubre brings to Washington and how his skills can best suit what the franchise needs.
Further enhance Washington’s transition attack
Washington had no problem getting out on the break last season, totaling the fifth most transition points in the league on 1.17 points per possession, which ranked third in the NBA. Those numbers barely regressed in the playoffs—1.14 points per possession—despite losing John Wall for three games in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
The words “quickness” and “agility” are practically carved into every Oubre scouting report. He made a living running the fast break, and tomahawked his way into highlight reels. The writing was on the wall when he did this at the 2014 Nike Hoop Summit:
Very few in this year’s draft class, if any, can finish like Oubre above the rim.
What’s tantalizing isn’t just his thunderous ability in the air, though—Oubre has the acumen to get baskets out of transition opportunities. Highly touted small forwards Justise Winslow and Stanley Johnson, who were both selected ahead of Oubre, averaged more turnovers per 40 minutes than the Findlay Prep alumnus. While the Wizards have had their hands full with Otto Porter Jr.’s development, they can be assured that Oubre, if nothing else, is capable of handling the ball on the break, and quick enough to get the ball to the hoop.
Bolster Washington’s perimeter defense
Whittman’s squad was a middle-of-the-road team defensively on the perimeter in 2014-15. The defensive void left by the loss of quintessential 3-and-D player Trevor Ariza was hardly patched by Pierce: The Truth finished in a three-way tie for third place in most clear-path fouls amassed, but otherwise had an uneventful defensive season.
Defensive progressions were noticeable in the postseason: the Wizards held opponents to 31.8 percent shooting from the perimeter, the lowest percentage from a non-NBA finals team. Although they were abysmal at taking care of the ball, Washington surprisingly held opponents to one of the lowest effective field goal percentages on defensive transition plays, and allowed the fourth fewest total points of any team in the league on those plays. The team had a top 10 scoring defense during the regular season, and ranked in the top five in defensive efficiency throughout both the regular season and the playoffs.
There aren’t copious structural flaws in Washington’s defense. However, room for improvement can be found on the perimeter, and Oubre can supply it.
He finished second on Kansas in player efficiency rating, among players who logged more than 500 minutes last season, but that metric heavily favors offensive metrics. Perhaps more impressive than his latent offensive game, is Oubre’s ability to envelop his matchup. He averaged 2.20 steals per 40 minutes—putting him fifth in the Big 12 in steals percentage, according to data from kenpom.com that was cited by Sports Illustrated. His 7-foot-2 1/4 inch wingspan at the NBA combine is one of the 26 longest measurements for a small forward since 1987, according to Draft Express.
For a team that ranked No. 20 in the NBA in steals per game — a 10 percent regression when compared to 2013-14 — a savvy, long defender, with the ability to guard three different positions can improve the situation.
Develop a jump shot; improve ability to generate free throws
No team is going to respect his shooting until it becomes more consistent. The intensity on defense will only make things more difficult for him to get open looks, and—although he attempted fewer shots than many of the players selected in the first round—only making a tepid 35.8 percent of your perimeter shots in college isn’t necessarily the greatest sign. With 38.3 percent of his attempts coming from beyond the arc, it’s clear that he’s looking to develop the shot, and will need to do so in order to stretch opposing defenders.
Washington ranked sixth in the league in team field goal percentage, but finished No. 27 in three-point field goals attempted and made. Whittman’s club did rank in the top 10 in three-point field goal percentage, but it’s hard to see that figure improving without knowing how Oubre’s stroke from the perimeter will translate to the much longer and faster defenders he’ll see.
Despite never being involved in the hack-a-player discourse throughout the offseason, the Wizards were particularly bad at getting to the stripe and hitting shots when they did. The team ranked No. 21 in the league in free throw percentage (74.2), and Oubre’s marks from the line (71.8 percent) don’t appear reassuring. However, he did post a respectable 44.4 percent free throw rate, which takes into account the number of free throws attempted by a player per field goal attempt. Oubre’s shooting will open more avenues to the basket, which can help him get to the line or get his front-court teammates involved. If he’s willing to put in the time to improve his shooting ability, the opportunities for free throws will be glaring.
The collegiate transition wasn’t easy for Oubre, who had to earn his starting spot late in the season after acclimatizing to the elevated level of play, but he performed well as the season came to a close. There are numerous uncertainties heading into the 2015-16 season, but if Washington’s new rookie’s skill set bedazzles as much as his shoes did Thursday night, the Wizards could be taking a much-need step in the right direction.
Josh Planos has been published at the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the Guardian, the Pacific Standard and VICE, among other publications. He has been heard on CBS Sports Radio, Fox Sports Radio and ESPN Radio. Planos is currently a Digital Editor at KETV NewsWatch 7 and a freelance writer.