When Washington Wizards swingman Kelly Oubre Jr. walks into the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, he recognizes the jazz legends on the walls. Down the hallway, he hears the beautiful disorderly sounds of an orchestra tuning up and as he enters the third-floor classroom, with the flyer advertising rehearsals for “The Bluest Eye,” he sees a circle of eight gifted students. Every time he comes here, Oubre also sees himself.
“Peek your head into a classroom, that’s me,” Oubre said. “Things in this school would be out of my comfort zone but if you look at it as a whole, fashion, art, music, dance, all of those are the creative things that make me happy inside.”
This season, Oubre has made periodic visits to the school, jumping into classes alongside students. As they studied fashion design, Oubre worked on his croquis drawings. As they practiced guitar, Oubre brought along his ax, too, and strummed along in a jam session. And as students in spandex went through a modern African dance, Oubre in his ripped, skinny jeans also tried to pick up the choreography.
On this March afternoon, the Wizards canceled practice and so Oubre returned to the school to pass out $1,000 college scholarships. He folded his leggy 6-foot-7 body in a recliner that resembled an arts project. But with his funky look — wild hair, a red and plaid lumberjack coat and a Death Row Records T-shirt — Oubre fit in with other young artists. The 21-year-old Wizards player belonged with this group — until you noticed the basketball trainer sitting in the back of the room and waiting to put Oubre through a workout on his day off.
“That’s why I’m here for right now,” said Drew Hanlen, who flew in from Los Angeles to squeeze in time with Oubre before the team’s five-game road trip, “to make sure he continues to buy in, accept and excel on the defensive end and then also continue to grow on the offensive end so that he can become that two-way player.”
While Oubre — he’s still the youngest player inside Washington’s locker room — has found an expressive outlet at Duke Ellington, in his second year in the NBA he has needed to squash his creativity to fit in with the Wizards (45-28).
Oubre often spends his free time inside a gym, any gym — just ask the pickup-game players at a Dallas YMCA. He wants to blossom more as a basketball player. At times, the desire to show these skills has become too much to hold within himself.
“I had moments during the year when I get frustrated, for sure. I’m not going to say I haven’t but it’s natural,” Oubre said. “Everybody’s going to get frustrated when something doesn’t seem to be going their way, when they know they can do more. That’s my only issue. I know I can do more to help this team.”
However, the Wizards have needed Oubre to find his groove by simply focusing on one task.
“Who don’t want to score 20 points a game?” Markieff Morris asked. “But for this particular team, we need him to be a defender because he’s a great defender. We have scorers. He’ll realize that. He has to just keep working on his game. Right now, he’s got to do what we need him to do and not what he wants to do. Coach told him the other day, if you want to play, you got to defend.”
With his 7-2 wingspan, Oubre can be a dog of a defender. Also, he seems to perpetually ride a sugar high — before every game, Oubre looks as if he’s having a seizure while doing the Dab. “Oh, my God! I cried laughing,” Bradley Beal said, recalling the first time he saw Oubre go crazy with dance.
These qualities make Oubre a natural choice when Coach Scott Brooks wants to infuse the game with defensive energy. Brooks has no problem pitting the young Oubre against speedy point guards like Boston’s Isaiah Thomas or matching him with one of the toughest covers in the league, LeBron James.
“When he competes defensively, and [is] active with his hands, and involved, and his feet are moving,” Brooks has said, “he has the ability to be an elite defender.”
Even so, at times throughout this season, this defensive focus has appeared to waver and Brooks has come down hard on Oubre. Earlier this month in a stretch of five of six games, Oubre appeared for 10 minutes or fewer on the floor until receiving a ‘DNP-CD’ (Did Not Play — Coach’s Decision) on March 15.
“When I wasn’t playing well … I just knew it was more that I can be doing, so that’s the only thing that got me frustrated,” Oubre said. “I just love being on the court. I love having the opportunity to play.”
If the limited minutes didn’t deliver the message clear enough, then Oubre certainly received it directly from Brooks.
“Coach is on his A-S-S all the time,” Beal said of Oubre. “He understands what his position is and he understands how valuable he is to the team and how he needs to play energetic and play with passion … every game.”
Beal respects the way Oubre responds to the tough coaching — “He probably handles it better than a lot of us,” Beal said — and even more so, praises his young teammate for performances like he had on Saturday night in Cleveland. Oubre logged nearly 26 minutes, his most in more than a month, and hit 7 of 8 shots from the field simply by being active and outworking players near the rim. After six solid games in a row, Oubre appears to not only be accepting his role but learning how to express himself within its confines.
“I can do some things on offense if I get the free will to, but that’s not my job right now,” Oubre said. “My job is to help this team win, and to help this team win, I have to be a defensive stopper and an energy guy.”
Back at the school, there are no limitations. Oubre spends more than an hour with the students. When a 17-year-old wants to share a rap he has written, Oubre pulls up a chair and listens as Tyrese Rowe spits lyrics in his left ear. Oubre nods his head then congratulates Rowe for the piece. But eventually, he must leave. The gym awaits. Still, Oubre has found himself inside these creative walls.
“That’s a little bit of me,” Oubre said. “That’s the non-basketball side of me. This is me right here.”