Long before Kelly Oubre Jr. came to the Washington Wizards, he was a scrawny kid who believed he belonged on the same court with NBA players. Melvin Hunt, now an assistant coach with the Dallas Mavericks, first met him at a Nike camp in Las Vegas. Every high school player in attendance was elite and heading to some dynastic Division I college program, but Oubre stood out: the unfortunate blond dye job that made his curly hair look orange, the flashy sunglasses he chose to wear, and that swagger. No one oozed more than Oubre, even as he matched up with NBA players.
“I was like, ‘This kid isn’t scared at all,’ ” Hunt said. “He looked good out there.”
Though the confident young player couldn’t shoot, he could make plays. As Oubre showed up at the Kevin Durant Skills Academy in Washington, Hunt noticed another side. Though brimming with self-assurance, Oubre showed the vulnerability beyond the vanity: staying after the camp, seeking advice and getting extra shots up.
“Kelly kept coming around,” Hunt said. “I could see in his face. He wasn’t sure. He thought he was good, but he wasn’t arrogant or cocky. . . . He had the cool daddy glasses, you could tell he had some confidence, but he wasn’t sure.”
Over the years, Oubre’s swag has soared — but so has his game.
In his third NBA season, Oubre has played in all 49 games for the Wizards and has already surpassed his scoring total from last year. While Oubre, who is averaging career highs across the board, is carrying added responsibility as a second-unit spark plug playing seven more minutes per game and averaging nearly six points more than last season, his greatest gain has come from beyond the arc. Over the last 10 games, Oubre has averaged 5.3 three-point attempts and is knocking them down with 45.3 percent accuracy.
A workout addict, Oubre sees this season as a continuation of his drive for improvement.
“My rookie year, the second year, my third year, I’ve always tried to get better,” Oubre said. “I never really switched up my routine and wavered who I was. I feel like that’s why that consistency is just now coming to the light.”
The Wizards have noticed Oubre’s development.
“He’s worked on his game,” Coach Scott Brooks said. “You want all your players to come back better, and he’s definitely come back better this year.”
Around the league, he is also gaining respect.
“Oubre’s game has taken a quantum leap in the last several weeks,” Mavericks Coach Rick Carlisle said before his team faced the Wizards on Jan. 22, “and you could easily project him as a starter on a lot of teams in this league.”
While Carlisle only shared complimentary words, Oubre delights in having a more rugged reputation. He was suspended in last year’s playoffs for bulldozing then-Boston Celtics forward Kelly Olynyk. This year, he earned an undercover censor from the league for wearing a faux fur coat with not-safe-for-work words printed on the back. (He later explained the message was for his haters.)
When recently asked what he thinks his standing is around the league, Oubre didn’t miss a beat.
“Crazy,” he said. “I’m a crazy individual, but I mean respectfully so. If you look at me, and you don’t really know me, the instances that I’ve been in, in the league, in the media, they seem kind of crazy. But at the end of the day, it’s all for my team. Everything I do is for my team. I just try to win. That’s who I am. I’m a crazy [expletive].”
Before the dye jobs and R-rated chic coats, however, Oubre was not viewed as a prospect destined for stardom. He was an afterthought with his Houston middle school AAU team. The roster featured current NBA players Justise Winslow and Justin Jackson, as well as Tony Upchurch, who plays wide receiver for Texas Southern. Oubre, a transplant from New Orleans, was a bystander.
“We were the kids that were on the end of the bench,” said Stanley Johnson, who now plays for the Detroit Pistons. “It was a bunch of hitters, and we were the odd men out for some reason.”
Through this growth period, Oubre and Johnson built a lasting friendship. Bonded by their time on the bench, Oubre credited Johnson for instilling his strong work ethic.
“He’s actually the first person who kind of introduced me to hardcore training,” Oubre said. “As far as getting into the gyms for hours and hours and getting better and loving the game.”
The more Oubre worked, the more his confidence grew. Those Nike camp scrimmages with the pros grew to his standard now, when Oubre is known to fly in his trainer, Drew Hanlen, to get in extra work during the Wizards’ season. Over the summer, Oubre even turned a pleasure trip to New York Fashion Week into a grind with Carmelo Anthony’s trainer.
“We actually worked out at 5 a.m., and that was his request,” said Chris Brickley, who recalled how Oubre contacted him through Instagram direct message. “That was the only guy all summer that wanted to work out that early. I knew he was taking things serious by doing that. Not many guys request something like that, and he was one of the most energetic people that I worked with all summer.”
In New York City, Oubre encountered Anthony in star-studded pickup games. Though the two spent little time together, the 10-time all-star saw Oubre’s greatest strength.
“His confidence,” Anthony said. “The biggest thing in this league is confidence. If you come in here and you have a low level of confidence, this league will eat you alive. It’s good to see him with his level of confidence and playing well. He’s a big, big part of what the Wizards have going on over there. I enjoyed playing against him this summer in pickup. We trash talk a little bit, and I like that.”
During the Wizards’ recent road trip, Oubre let the trash talk flow with a glint in his eye. On Jan. 19, as the Pistons routinely cheated off him defensively, Oubre advised the Detroit bench of its mistake.
“Don’t leave me open!” Oubre remembered shouting until, according to his account, he heard Pistons assistant coach Tim Hardaway Sr. retort, “Yeah, we’re going to leave you all day.”
Oubre got the last laugh by hitting a three-pointer in front of the bench, his fifth of the game, while getting fouled in the fourth quarter. As he lay on the court, Oubre placed his hands on his hips, turned and smiled at Hardaway.
It has taken years, but the shot finally matches the swagger.
“For Kelly, it’s always been about basketball,” Hunt said, “and I think most of the guys around the league have grown to respect him because he plays hard and he’s producing. And it’s not just sizzle and no substance. There’s something to him.”
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