- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 28, 2015

Pronouncements of his skill since being drafted June 25 have been frequent. The night of the draft, Kelly Oubre Jr. said he was a “jewel” in this year’s draft class, a piece of luster overlooked when drafted just outside the lottery. In a conference call later that night, Oubre explained he didn’t think there were 14 players better than him in the draft. He continued the verbal flexing the next day, when he reassembled stylistic wear for the cameras inside Verizon Center, then again during a final chat with a small batch of reporters.

“I’m motivated,” Oubre said. “I’m fired up, man. A lot of guys that went in front of me, I know I’m better than. I’m pretty confident in saying that.”

His arrival in Washington was a surprise. Wizards senior vice president of basketball operations Tommy Sheppard texted Oubre’s agent, Nima Namakian, once the draft entered the early teens. Their window to move up was narrow. Sending the 19th overall pick, plus two second-round picks — one in 2016 and another in 2019 — was enough to convince the Atlanta Hawks to hand over the 15th pick. The Wizards landed Oubre, a player they thought they had little chance to obtain.

“We knew the Wizards had some interest,” Namakian said. “We didn’t know if the Wizards were going to be able to execute the trade to get up.”

The two sides merged after little interaction and a draft-night scramble. Grunfeld had talked to Oubre at the NBA’s draft combine. Wittman watched tape of his 36 games at Kansas. Despite the availability of multiple players who they had worked out, the Wizards distributed three draft picks to land the emboldened Oubre, who had not visited their practice floor. He had worked out for teams in the No. 7 to No. 16 range.

“We don’t have this type of player on our roster, someone who really moves up and down the floor and gives you a lot of versatility,” Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld said.

Developing an attitude

Oubre’s mother and two siblings stayed in New Orleans when he and his father relocated to the Houston area after Hurricane Katrina. Oubre was in fourth grade. When he was 7, Oubre was taking karate lessons, not shooting baskets. His father encouraged him to stick with karate until he received his black belt. Oubre wanted to quit and hoop. His father felt a push until achievement would be a future reference point. It worked.

“It kind of helped to this point, because I would always refer back then,” Oubre Sr. said.

After three years at George Bush High School in Fort Bend, Texas, Oubre moved to Las Vegas to join Findlay Prep, one of the nation’s dominant high school basketball programs. His father had met the coach, former Georgetown star Jerome Williams, at the NBPA Top 100 camp. Their relationship developed swiftly enough that Oubre spent the next year in Las Vegas.

There, Williams received a player he said never was a problem. Did his school work. Was not in the wrong places off the floor. Was ambitious. And, of course, confident.

“I wanted him to keep that confidence because in the NBA, you’re going to need that type of mentality,” Williams said. “In general, those are the types of players that tend to feed off of that confidence, but also it fuels their work ethic and other things. As confident as he was, I wanted him to utilize that edge he had in terms of driving what it was going to take to play a long time beyond his college years.”

Williams is 42. He was not nicknamed “Junkyard Dog” when he played at Georgetown and then nine more seasons in the NBA because of a soft touch. When he joined his teenage stars on the floor, he banged them around, hoping the contact would be enlightening.

Kelly was pretty much the one guy on the team, he’d step up to the challenge,” Williams said. “If you hit Kelly, he’d hit back. That’s when I knew he was going to be an NBA player because he didn’t back down.”

Williams also leans toward the high-end when assessing players. He said Oubre’s shooting range, length and defensive potential remind him of a former teammate.

“It’s all based on work ethic and the right situation,” Williams said. “But, I definitely see him as a potential Scottie Pippen.”

The next move was to Lawrence, Kansas. Oubre played four minutes in the Jayhawks’ opener. He did not shoot. The McDonald’s All-American jersey he wore prior to arriving in Kansas was not relevant to Kansas coach Bill Self. In the first nine games, Oubre did not play more than 17 minutes. Five times he played less than eight minutes. According to Oubre, Self wanted him to be a “two-way player.”

“He kept harping on that,” Oubre said. “Once I pretty much just bought in and realized that’s going to help me get money at the next level, that’s when the tables started to turn for me. He emphasized that pretty tough. I got the memo pretty quick. It was always good from there.”

Oubre said he did not pout when he was not playing. He described Self as a coach who would “get in your face,” but also one who was great with a winning history that showed his way worked.

“He handled it great early on,” Self said Sunday. “He just wasn’t quite ready, wasn’t quite comfortable. He was thinking instead of reacting, and he needed to get comfortable. It was also his first time really playing on the perimeter. There was an adjustment period for him. You know, he got it, and when he started playing a lot, of course, he just took the ball and ran with it.”

In his 10th game, Oubre became a starter. The rest of the season, he played off the bench just once. For the year, he averaged 9.3 points. He shot 44.4 percent from the field and 35.8 percent from behind the 3-point line. He was 10th in the Big 12 in player efficiency rating and turnover percentage. Always in tow, even when he sat, was his confidence, something Self believes is not decoration.

“He’s been taught right, he understands the value of work, there’s no free lunches,” Self said. “He gets all that. But, on the flip side, he’s very confident. He believes in himself. He’s one of those kids that may come across sometimes as being ultra-confident, but he really believes it to be true in his heart.

“I would say that most times in his life, it has played out to be true — what he believes. When he says he’s the ‘jewel’ of the draft, he honestly believes that and it will play out that he’s one of the jewels of the draft. I do believe that.”

Putting it all together

Older, sturdier, perhaps more NBA-ready players were available with the 19th pick. If the Wizards had kept it, Delon Wright, a long, slashing, defensive point guard from Utah, was available. So, too, were former Notre Dame point guard Jerian Grant, who they actually drafted before flipping him in the trade, as well as Arkansas power forward Bobby Portis. Georgia State shooter R.J. Hunter and Virginia small forward Justin Anderson. All had worked out for the Wizards. All could be immediate help for a team that was an odd John Wall fall away from likely advancing to the Eastern Conference finals.

Instead, the Wizards took a hard swing with Oubre. Grunfeld explained it could take two or three years for Oubre to be ready. Wittman, known for his enjoyment of veteran players, said it’s up to Oubre when he gets on the floor. Wall and Bradley Beal played 37.8 and 31.2 minutes per game, respectively, in their rookie seasons. That was out of necessity. Oubre will not be weighted with burden of resurrection the way those two were.

“If he’s ready to play, he’s going to play,” Wittman said. “If he’s not, we’re going to work with him and get him to a situation where he is. That’s not the make or break of what this kid is going to end up being, what he does his first year in the league.”

Should Oubre approach the longshot level of Pippen’s ability, his brashness would be vindicated. The Wizards’ move up four spots would be lauded. If Beal signs a long-term extension this summer or a multi-year deal following the season, the Wizards would have a trio of progressing young, guard-oriented players to work around for years.

Until then, Oubre is a teenage project who will be gaining a better understanding of the word tattooed across his upper abdomen: Sacrifice.

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