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Energetic and blossoming Kelly Oubre injecting life into Wizards

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Jerome Williams – who played for the Pistons, Raptors, Bulls and Knicks during a nine-year NBA career – scrimmaged his high-school players a few days per week while coaching Findlay Prep, a basketball factory near Las Vegas. As assistant then head coach, Williams worked with several future NBA players, including Avery Bradley, Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph. In those scrimmages, Williams often wanted to show his young charges what it was like to play against a professional.

But as he neared 40, Williams needed advantages. So, he subtly steered practices toward sprints before entering scrimmages.

Kelly Oubre Jr. was the first to notice Williams’ trick.

“Kelly would be like, ‘Yeah, you’re just trying to wear us down, because you know you’re getting ready to get it,'” said Williams, now 44. “He’d always come back with something to just let me know he’s seeing what I’m doing and it wasn’t going to work. He was intense.”

Then, the games started, and Oubre again separated himself from all the future pros who passed through Findlay Prep. He went hard at Williams, unafraid to foul or even play with anger toward his coach.

“Kelly was, by far, the most intense,” Williams said. “Other guys would have it in spurts. But for a whole season, every day, he was looking forward to the challenge.”

Oubre has carried that attitude to the Wizards, who badly need it. He’s a young, athletic, energetic, feisty, developing bright spot in Washington’s malaise of a regular season.

He’s also the Wizards’ most valuable trade chip with the deadline approaching. And he’s eligible for a contract extension next summer, though his new deal would begin in 2019-20, when John Wall, Otto Porter, Bradley Beal and Ian Mahinmi are already due a combined $107,593,645.

Does that leave room for Oubre long-term? Short-term, in a year the Wizards hold lofty playoff aspirations, would they prefer someone more polished?

Those overlapping questions will dictate the forward’s future in Washington.

“If I worried about the money, man, my heart wouldn’t be in it,” Oubre said. “So, I’m not worried about anything about the money. I’m just happy I’m on this team.”

The Wizards are happy to have him.

The story of their season: With an established core, they’re coasting. Washington is an underwhelming 26-21 with numerous disappointing showings against bad teams. Effort ebbs and flows, particularly rankling coach Scott Brooks, who stuck a decade in the NBA as a hustle player.

In this environment, Oubre stands out.

“He brings it every night,” Brooks said.

Oubre’s teammates appreciate the spacing his improved 3-point shooting provides. After making less than 30% of his 3s his first two seasons, Oubre is hitting 40% this season. That’s the biggest improvement from prior years to this year in the NBA. Here are the leaders with prior 3-point percentage on the left, current 3-point on the right and difference in the middle (minimum: 100 attempts in both prior seasons and this season):

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That plus incremental improvement elsewhere could land Oubre on some Most Improved Player ballots. His defensive awareness has gotten better, but he’s still prone to getting lost. He attacks closeouts more often, but running him off the 3-point arc lowers his efficiency considerably. He looks to make more plays for his teammates, but that has led to more turnovers.

Oubre has certainly improved, but there are still too many rough edges in his game for me to call him one of the NBA’s three most improved players. However, the growth he’s showing appears to be part of the messy process of a player pushing his boundaries as he develops into a genuinely good player.

For now, Sixth Man of the Year votes could be more attainable. Oubre is tied for seventh among eligible players in win shares:

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That’s plenty of potential accolades for someone who seems to appreciate the attention. Oubre has described his eye-catching fashion style as, “I think I’m a rock star.”

“When he wears his clothes and outfits, he swears he’s the swag champ,” Wall said.

Wall said he usually doesn’t see Oubre’s game outfits until arriving to the arena, because Oubre is always on the first bus – going early to put in extra work.

Even his fashion flows into someone who plays with an edge. Oubre’s fiery has already shown several times during his fledgling career.

“He’s not satisfied. He’s not content. He doesn’t feel entitled. He wants to get better,” Brooks said. “I like that about him.”

Brooks also likes Oubre’s fit with Wall, Beal and Porter.

That four-man unit has outscored opponents by a whopping 19.2 points per 100 possessions. Only a Warriors foursome (Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and Zaza Pachulia) has performed better while playing so much (315 minutes).

The Wizards’ quartet has excelled with Marcin Gortat, Markieff Morris or Ian Mahinmi at center. The lineup is stretchier and switchier with Morris, but it’s just a matter of degree. Wall and Beal are Washington’s best players, and they belong on the court. As versatile, semi-interchangeable forwards, Oubre and Porter spread the floor offensively and allow more switching defensively.

“It’s just a matter of helping the big out on the boards,” Beal said. “We’re all tough and take pride in our defense.”

The Wizards might sometimes be lethargic, but these players take pride in their toughness. It’s almost as if these lineups bait the idle players into a higher gear.

For Oubre, it’s the opposite challenge. Many of his mistakes are born of over-aggression. That’s why he started meditating 5-10 minutes daily.

“I’ve slowed down,” Oubre said. “I’ve been moving at my own pace. I’ve kind of just taken everything that came at me.”

But make no mistake: Oubre isn’t losing his edge.

“That’s who I am,” Oubre said. “I have a lot of energy 24/7. I’m just blessed that I do.”

Three Things to Know: Bulls’ Coby White is red hot — and the latest Jim Boylen controversy

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday during the NBA regular season we are here to help you break it all down. Here are three things you need to know from yesterday in the NBA.

1) Bulls’ Coby White is red hot — and latest Jim Boylen controversy. Will Jim Boylen be the coach of the Bulls next season? Current management — the Gar/Pax team — has his back and loves his old-school ways, but that duo has already lost some power (Gar Forman has seen his role reduced) and John Paxson is about to. A new GM (or whatever title) is coming in this summer — talks have started, and there was a lot of buzz about that around All-Star weekend — and you can bet that person will want a say in who coaches his team.

Bulls players are reportedly not Boylen fans. Bulls fans are with the players and there is a long list of grievances from his heavy-handed practices to the odd (read: poor) use of late-game timeouts.

Now add Coby White to that mix.

White, the rookie backup point guard for the Bulls, is on fire. He had consecutive 33-point games coming into Tuesday night, but White’s mentor and former AAU coach, Chris Paul, promised an end to this trend.

That’s not what happened. White dropped 35 on the Thunder, shooting 13-of-21 overall and 6-of-9 from three (in another Chicago loss).

The last Bulls rookie with three 30+ point games in a row? Some guy named Michael Jordan.

As noted by K.C. Johnson at NBC Sports Chicago, White and Zach LaVine have each scored 30-plus points in consecutive games, and the last Bulls’ teammates to do that were Bob Love and Chet Walker in 1969. Beyond the stats, White brings a level of dynamic play and energy to the Bulls nobody else on that roster seems able to.

For the last three games, White and LaVine have formed an electric offensive backcourt. Starting point guard Kris Dunn is out for the season. A lot of people are calling for White to get the call and start games.

So coach Boylen, is it time to make White the starter?

No. Boylen is going to keep White coming off the bench (and play his veterans, in general), rather than move White into the starting lineup.

“I keep getting this question and I’m just going to answer it one more time,” Boylen said. “Coby’s in a good place. We’re going to keep him in a good place. Let’s let Coby keep playing and lets let him keep developing.”

Don’t change what’s working is a good philosophy.

If it’s actually working. Which, in the big picture, is the real question in Chicago.

John Paxson will remain the Bulls president and he fully buys into Boylen’s style. Normally that would mean Boylen is safe, but the ground is shifting in Chicago with front office changes coming. How much they change remains to be seen, but any GM coming needs to have new ideas and bring change — otherwise what’s the point of bringing him in — and that will include on the coaching front. The ground is shifting in Chicago, and that makes it difficult for Boylen to remain standing.

2) Zion Williamson comes to Los Angeles but LeBron James steals the show, drops season-high 40. Zion Williamson made his debut against LeBron and the Lakers — and he did some very Zion things. Like dunk.

And show off the kind of hops where he can grab a rebound away from Dwight Howard.

Despite that, Tuesday night was the LeBron James show — the MVP candidate got whatever he wanted. Wherever he wanted. The results was a season-high 40 points (and a 118-109 Laker win).

Los Angeles has won six in a row and is in control atop the West.

New Orleans is now four-games behind Memphis in the loss column in the chase for the eighth seed — and the right to face the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs.

3) Bucks remind everyone they own the East. The Milwaukee Bucks have been the clear best team in the East — rather, the best team in all of basketball — this season. It’s not up for debate. The calendar hasn’t even flipped to March yet and the Bucks have 50 wins.

If you want more evidence, take a look at the Bucks schedule. Last Saturday, Milwaukee dismantled Philadelphia (largely without Ben Simmons, but still).

Then on Tuesday night, on the second night of a back-to-back (and the team’s third game in four days), Milwaukee went into Toronto and took care of a red-hot Raptors team. It was a balanced attack. Giannis Antetokounmpo had 19 points and 19 rebounds (plus eight assists), Khris Middleton had 22 points, Eric Bledsoe had 17, and Brook Lopez had 15 as the NBA-leading Bucks won their fifth straight and 18th of 20.

Antetokounmpo said yes, he was motivated by the fact Toronto is where the Bucks lost in the playoffs last season — you have to love that attitude.

We keep talking ourselves into teams that will challenge the Bucks in the East — right now the Celtics are trendy on that list — but then you watch the Bucks play and realize it is them and then a big gap to everyone else.

Lakers, Dion Waiters reportedly to talk March 2

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It has always been easy to connect the dots that would bring Dion Waiters to the Lakers. Waiters’ former agent is Rob Pelinka, who is now the Lakers’ GM. Waiters’ current agent is Rich Paul, who reps both LeBron James and Anthony Davis. That gets your foot in the door.

After Memphis bought out Waiters, it was rumored he and the Lakers would talk. That is now set to happen on March 2, next week, something Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports reported Tuesday night on TNT during the Lakers win against New Orleans.

The Lakers have been active in the buyout market — they signed Markieff Morris, who made his debut for the team Tuesday night — looking to add playmaking and shooting. Waiters can shoot — 37.7 percent from three last season and 38.6 percent on catch-and-shoot threes — but is not much of a playmaker (he can put the ball on the floor but only to create for himself). The Lakers need to decide if he’s a fit, they have Avery Bradley and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope at the two-guard spot already. Waiters has played a fair amount at the point in Miami, but he’s not the kind of playmaker the Lakers are seeking to go with Rajon Rondo.

Waiters clashed with coaches and management in Miami, but with a strong, LeBron-led locker room culture the Lakers aren’t worried about that impact.

Waiters is available because Miami used his salary to balance out the money in the Justise Winslow to Memphis/Andre Iguodala trade. Memphis did not want a distraction, plus they are deep at the two-guard spot with the just extended Dillon Brooks, De'Anthony Melton, and Grayson Allen. So the Grizzlies waived Waiters, as was expected.

The only question is does he upgrade the Lakers roster?

What we do know is he has the connections to at least get in the building and make his case.

Grizzlies’ rookie Brandon Clarke will be out at least two weeks with thigh bruise

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Fans tune into Memphis games to watch Ja Morant, the dynamic rookie point guard who has led the Grizzlies to the playoff chase in the West (the Grizzlies currently hold down the eighth spot and final playoff slot).

Those same fans often come away saying, “who is that No. 15?”

It’s Brandon Clarke, another Memphis rookie, this one out of Gonzaga. Clarke is averaging 12 points a game shooting 62.3% from the field, and he’s been a solid part of the Memphis rotation.

Now, he’s going to be out a couple of weeks with a thigh bruise.

It’s another tough blow for a Memphis team trying to hang on to the eight seed. The Grizzlies also are without Jaren Jackson Jr. due to a sprained left knee.

 

LeBron James scores season-high 40, leads Lakers past Zion Williamson, Pelicans

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — LeBron James had 40 points and eight rebounds in his first career meeting with Zion Williamson while leading the Los Angeles Lakers to their sixth straight victory, 118-109 over the New Orleans Pelicans on Tuesday night.

Anthony Davis had 21 points and 14 rebounds to remain unbeaten in his three meetings with his former team this season.

In the Lakers’ first game after an emotional memorial service for Kobe Bryant at Staples Center on Monday, James opened up a close contest with back-to-back buckets at the rim with about three minutes left. Danny Green sealed it for Los Angeles with his fifth 3-pointer with 51 seconds to play.

Williamson had 29 points and six rebounds in his first career showdown with James and Davis, his predecessor as the Pelicans’ centerpiece. In his 13th NBA game, Williamson scored at least 20 points for the ninth consecutive time, but managed only one field goal in the fourth quarter.

Brandon Ingram had 34 points against his former team, but just six in the final period as New Orleans lost for only the second time in seven games.

Williamson was still injured for the Pelicans’ first two meetings of the season with the Lakers, but the No. 1 overall pick’s delayed debut in Hollywood was as entertaining as everyone hoped. Williamson had several impressive dunks in his usual fearsome floor game, and only six missed free throws kept him from surpassing his career high of 32 points.

Davis is the leading scorer and rebounder in New Orleans franchise history, making six All-Star teams during his tenure. He went just 6 for 21 from the field in this meeting, failing to score 40 points against the Pelicans for the first time.

Lonzo Ball had 10 points, eight assists and eight rebounds, and Josh Hart scored three points in their second return to face the Lakers, who traded them to New Orleans along with Ingram last July for Davis.

The Pelicans also got three first-round draft picks in their princely haul for Davis, who had requested a trade. Davis has been just as good as the Lakers hoped in propelling them back to NBA championship contention, while the Pelicans are getting an All-Star season from Ingram alongside Williamson in an increasingly potent core.

James scored 11 points in less than two minutes early in the third quarter to stretch the Lakers’ lead to 14 points, but Ingram scored 10 in the period to keep it close.

Alex Caruso provided the Lakers with his usual injection of energy in the fourth quarter, particularly with a stunning block of Ball’s shot at the rim that left Ball flat on his back. Caruso finished with eight points and eight assists.