As Wizards aim for conference finals, X-factor Kelly Oubre eyes breakout year
If the 21-year-old wing takes the next step, Washington could be much more dangerous this time around
NEW YORK -- According to Kelly Oubre, the Washington Wizards are not trying to flush the memory of being eliminated by the Boston Celtics in the second round of the playoffs. They thought they were the better team. They thought they put up more of a fight against the Cleveland Cavaliers. They never got the chance, thanks to a shaky bench and a 26-point explosion from Kelly Olynyk in Game 7. They don't want to forget how it felt because they never want to feel it again.
"Each and every day we go out and play, we try to get better because we know we almost had it," Oubre said at shootaround before a recent preseason game. "But almost is not enough. We're trying to get to the Eastern Conference finals."
Unlike the Celtics -- and other contenders like the Cavaliers, Houston Rockets, and Oklahoma City Thunder -- the Wizards did not have a crazy summer. Rather than revamping their roster, they merely reworked it a little bit, adding feisty guard Tim Frazier, stretch forward Mike Scott and sharpshooter Jodie Meeks. They are relying on continuity and internal improvement. That is where Oubre comes in.
Washington knows what it has with its star backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal. If versatile forward Otto Porter simply maintains his 2016-17 production, his season will be considered a success. Veteran role players Markieff Morris and Marcin Gortat should stay solid. Entering his third year and still just 21, Oubre is the classic X-factor -- everybody knows he has room to grow, and the team needs him to do so. Coach Scott Brooks wants him to have a deeper understanding of defensive schemes and opposing personnel, and he thinks he has earned the opportunity to be a bigger part of the Wizards' offense.
"I'm super excited, man," Oubre said. "That's what I work hard for each and every day. I hone in on my handles and my playmaking ability. But my main deal is defense. [Brooks] also told me as long as I'm playing defense at a high level, playing smart, competitive defense, that I would be able to do things."
Oubre looks the part of a disruptive defender. He is 6-foot-7 with a 7-foot-2 wingspan, the dimensions of a prototypical modern wing who can hang with shifty guards and slide down to the 4 when necessary. In his first two years, however, he averaged 4.7 fouls per 36 minutes. "I was being too aggressive, falling for pump fakes and just doing undisciplined stuff," he said, adding that he plans to find a better balance between trying to shut his man down and trying to stay on the court. In Game 3 against the Celtics, Oubre lost his cool and plowed into Olynyk, earning a one-game suspension. In Game 6, he picked up three fouls in seven minutes. In the deciding game, Brooks only used him for six seconds.
"I don't want to keep going out there and getting quick fouls," he said. "That's not what the game is about. The game is about playing hard defense, but not fouling. That's the next step for me, just playing aggressive but playing smart as well."
If Oubre is going to raise Washington's collective ceiling, then he also needs to become a more consistent shooter. He has only made 29.6 percent of his 3-pointers in his career, and he spent much of his offseason working on his mechanics -- instead of shooting with his elbow in, blocking his vision, he now shoots with it out, to the side of his body. His goal is to shoot 40 percent from deep this season, which would put him in an elite club alongside Porter and Beal.
Should Oubre reach that goal, it would help him as a creator. His athleticism already makes him dangerous attacking close-outs; ideally, he will also become a threat running pick-and-rolls. Oubre barely got a chance to do that last year, and he was not particularly effective at it. Given how poorly the Wizards' second unit performed and how limited their offense was when the ball wasn't in Wall or Beal's hands, they would surely welcome another option.
Oubre, of course, cannot wait to demonstrate that he is up to the task. He still isn't over the fact he fell to No. 15 in the 2015 draft, saying he has "a fire burning in his heart from that." That attitude fits perfectly in Washington, where the players seem permanently peeved that their peers get more attention. Oubre said the Wizards are always aware of what's going on around them, and they believe they are being underestimated yet again.
"Well, shit, if you look at it, they always have the Wizards last, man," Oubre said. "On all ranking sites and all websites, they always put us last. I understand we have the last letter in the alphabet as far as teams in the league, but you have to show some respect when respect is due. We've been putting in the work over the years, man, to be appreciated. And I feel like a lot of people look over us -- even the NBA. But we're going to show people wrong. It's just fuel to the fire, man. We're coming. D.C. is on the rise."
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