Kelly Oubre Jr. basked in the spotlight as he seized the stage in a pair of sparkling, spike-studded slippers after being selected No. 15 overall in the NBA draft in June. More than five months and 19 regular-season games later, it remains the Washington Wizards guard’s most noteworthy moment as a professional.
Oubre, who turned 20 on Wednesday, shares this reality with the majority of his rookie classmates, some of whom have been relegated to the D-League in the time since. Meaningful minutes are few and far between. It’s something that most players experience when they enter the league, and it’s not always easy to cope with.
“It was difficult,” Toronto Raptors forward Demarre Carroll said. “When you come into the league, you were the best player on your team in college. You expect so much.”
When the Washington Wizards forked over two future second-round draft picks to acquire Oubre from the Atlanta Hawks this summer, they didn’t do so with expectations that he would make an immediate impact. Instead, they saw the 6-foot-7 forward’s vaulted ceiling of potential, buttressed by superior athleticism and a 7-foot-2 wingspan.
Oubre played sparingly at the beginning of his one-and-done season at Kansas, averaging just 10 minutes and never topping 20 in the team’s first nine games. Coach Bill Self granted Oubre his second starting nod in the Jayhawks’ 10th game. He responded by exploding for 23 points and 10 rebounds in 25 minutes. The performance entrenched him in the starting lineup for the rest of the season.
Wedging his way into the Wizards’ rotation, however, has proven to be a much more onerous task. The competition has been whittled down, and he now finds himself on a team in a league that is saturated with the world’s top talent. For the majority of players, the transition from college to professional basketball is an arduous process of trial and error. Each mistake is an indicator that a certain area of a player’s game requires fine-tuning.
Oubre has seen less court time with the Wizards than he did in the early stages of his collegiate season. The opportunities to test new additions to his basketball repertoire in live game scenarios are scarce. When he does get the chance, he is surrounded by full-time scholars of the game eager to exploit his weaknesses.
“I have to pay attention to more details,” Oubre said. “Now that there are a lot of better guys in the league … you have to make sure you’re on point in everything you do. If you’re not, your weaknesses will show.”
Coach Randy Wittman has called Oubre’s number in 13 of the Wizards’ 20 games. In the majority of those games, the New Orleans native has hardly been able to stretch his legs. He played less than two minutes in six of the 13 contests and has averaged less than seven minutes overall.
Finding a rhythm under such circumstances requires disciplined syncopation, an art form that teammate Jared Dudley has mastered during his long career — stretches of which he left the bench for his defense, much like Oubre will be asked to do.
“It’s very tough, but you get used to it. We’ve all been starters our whole lives,” Dudley said. “He has to know that when he gets in there, defensively, he has to make his mark. That’s how he’s going to [get playing time] this year because he’s arguably one of our best on-ball defenders.”
Perhaps no player is better suited to speak to the challenges of adjusting to the NBA than the Raptors’ Carroll, whose career path spans six states and two countries since entering the league in 2009. In his first four years, Carroll played in roughly the equivalent of two seasons worth of games. He averaged 13.3 minutes in the process.
Then, something clicked for Carroll in his fifth season, his first with the Hawks. He started in every game he played and averaged more than 32 minutes per contest. The small forward clung to the starting role in Atlanta the following season, and his gritty play helped the Hawks finish in first place in the Eastern Conference by a seven-game margin.
“It clicked in my head when I realized that I wasn’t being the junkyard dog, the guy who got me into the league,” Carroll said. “I started trying to be somebody who I wasn’t. I think that clicked in my third or fourth year.”
There is an undeniably high threshold of athleticism and size most players must meet in order to make it into the NBA. Having those traits, however, only makes the odds slightly less astronomical. Dreaming big and, more importantly, putting in the requisite work to make it a reality are the controllable variables.
“For everybody that was in the draft, it was a dream come true,” Oubre said. “We’ve been wanting to get into the league our whole lives. That’s the one day that you can pretty much just stamp that, you know? ‘I made it.’”
Plenty of work remains for Oubre and his fellow rookies in order to make an impact and stay in the league after their contracts expire. Carroll spent six years hustling and fine-tuning his game before being rewarded this offseason with a four-year, $60 million contract. The experience left him with valuable advice for the league’s youngsters.
“The key in this league is understanding who you are and being a realist,” Carroll said. “Everybody can’t be Kevin Durant or LeBron James. You have to find your niche.”
“Once you find your niche,” he added, “then it opens doors for other avenues to experiment with.”
Oubre’s route to more minutes is simple enough — play to his strengths while not overextending himself — but obstacles are bound to arise, some of which have already presented themselves.
“He has to be smart in not letting his aggressiveness let guys get to the free throw line,” Dudley said. “If he can do that, and occasionally hit a jump shot, he’ll play a little bit more.”
Aggressiveness and confidence are the most common words that Oubre’s teammates use to describe his game. Both traits will serve him well in the league, but he has yet to fully harness them, as evidenced during the Wizards’ 108-104 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers last week.
Washington was unable to find an answer for Kobe Bryant from the moment the ball was tipped. Wittman deployed a number of players throughout the game in an effort to slow the 37-year-old, all to no avail.
Oubre got his chance with 5:22 remaining in the second quarter and the Wizards trailing, 49-34. It was the first time Oubre had stepped on the court since pregame warmups, and he found himself in a “dream-come-true” scenario.
“I got out there — I was like a dog that just got out of the cage,” Oubre said. “I was just so amped. Everybody could tell.”
Everybody including Bryant, who entered the league when Oubre was just seven months old and has been a basketball fixture ever since. For Bryant, each year brings a new group of young players affected by his presence. He knew exactly how to take advantage of the matchup with Oubre.
“He got me on the pump fake. He got me,” Oubre admitted. “He’s one of the greatest of all time, so I’ll chalk that up as that, but it was a great memory.”
Oubre has a long way to go in his development, but he’s showcased a number of promising talents, particularly his defense, which has gained notoriety among his teammates.
“He has a chance to be an elite wing defender,” Dudley said. “His on-ball skills of lateral quickness, guarding the ball, getting steals on the ball and blocking shots on the ball from the weak side are very rare for a wing player and he possesses that.”
To Carroll’s point, though Oubre’s sporadic minutes suggest he hasn’t yet found his niche with the Wizards on the court, he seems to at the very least have it firmly pegged conceptually.
“Coach Self did a real good job last year of, early on, letting me know what I needed to do to be great,” Oubre said. “I had to go through some bumps and bruises to find out what that was but after a while I figured out that … I have to be a defense-first player.
“I feel like that’s my identity — just being a defensive stopper that can get out and score the ball. And, that’s a plus, but, you know, defensive-minded first.”
Oubre has accepted his limited role with the Wizards and just tries to “stay ready” for when Wittman decides to put him in. Oubre always feels that he has something to prove, that people are constantly “looking over” him, “not really believing” in his abilities. He appreciates that feeling.
“I like that because it keeps me motivated,” Oubre said. “It keeps a fire in my heart for me to keep working and keep doing what I need to do.”