Rob Carr/Getty Images

Energetic and blossoming Kelly Oubre injecting life into Wizards

Leave a comment

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):

image

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:

image

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.”

Report: Tim Connelly rejects Wizards, staying with Nuggets

AP Photo/David Zalubowski
Leave a comment

Nuggets president Tim Connelly could have led the Wizards’ front office, worked close to his native Baltimore and presumably gotten a raise from his reported $2 million salary.

Instead, he’s stay in Denver.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

This is a huge win for Denver and even bigger setback for Washington.

Connelly has put the Nuggets into a great position. They’re young and good in a combination rarely seen in NBA history. Connelly drafted Nikola Jokic in the second round then built around him a short time later. This season, Denver won 54 games and reached Game 7 of the second round with 24-year-old Jokic flanked by Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Paul Millsap.

More decisions always lie ahead – notably Millsap’s $30 million team option for next season. But the Nuggets’ core is already in place and mostly under team control.

The Wizards need far more work. John Wall‘s contract is arguably the NBA’s worst. Ian Mahinmi and Dwight Howard are also roadblocks. Several key players will be free agents this summer. If he makes an All-NBA team this season, Bradley Beal be eligible for a super-max extension – a tricky decision for the club.

It would have been great for Washington to entrust Connelly with all that. He has proven excellent at his job.

Troy Weaver, Danny Ferry or Tommy Sheppard might do well for the Wizards. But they’re candidates who offer far less certainty.

Kawhi Leonard tries to downplay leg issue, “I’m good”

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Toronto won a gritty Game 3 at home — and are back in the Eastern Conference Finals — because of Kawhi Leonard.

From the opening tip, he was the man guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo (although in a game with a lot of switching plenty of others also got their shot). It was the biggest adjustment Toronto coach Nick Nurse made — and it worked. Antetokounmpo had 12 points on 16 shots in the game and, according to ESPN’s tracking, was 1-of-9 when guarded by Leonard. On the other end, Leonard had 36 points, nine rebounds, and played 52 critical minutes. He was the MVP of Game 3.

And he did it all through a noticeable limp.

He landed awkwardly on a first-quarter layup and all game this clearly limited his mobility.

When asked about it after the game, Leonard shrugged it off.

For much of the season, whenever Leonard was mentioned so was with the phrase “load management.” He had missed all but nine games the season before with quadriceps tendinopathy — the treatment for that, and whether it was a muscular injury or not, was at the heart of Leonard’s discord with San Antonio — and in Toronto he missed 22 games in the regular season to help keep that issue at bay.

That may not be related to what is bothering him now, but the Raptors and Leonard had gone to great lengths to get him rest during the regular season so he would be ready for the playoffs. He has responded, being the best player in the East through the postseason so far. That includes hitting the game-winner to send Philadelphia home, then on Sunday keeping Toronto alive against the Bucks by force of will. But he has played a heavy load of minutes — physical, playoff minutes — to get there.

Will that slow Leonard Tuesday night in Game 4?

It can’t if they want to even this series. Milwaukee will play better in Game 4, keeping Antetokounmpo bottled up may be near impossible, and other Bucks had off-games as well (they shot 37.3 percent as a team in Game 3). Toronto will have to play better to keep pace. Marc Gasol will need to continue taking and hitting the threes (shots the Bucks dared him to take in the first two games), Pascal Siakam will have to have another big game, as will the Raptors’ bench.

But mostly, Leonard needs to be the best player on the floor again, the guy doing this:

If not, Toronto’s season will be on the brink.

After coaching search, Minnesota reportedly settles on owner-favorite Ryan Saunders for job

Getty Images
1 Comment

“I think he has a good chance [to get the job]… I would just say I really like him as a person. I have known him since he was a young man, and I am really pleased with how he is starting out coaching this team.”

That was Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor on his interim coach, Ryan Saunders, a statement made with about 20 games to go in the season. The Timberwolves reportedly negotiated the outline of a contract with Saunders, but when Gersson Rosas was brought in as team president, he was given the freedom to run a full coaching search.

He has settled on the guy the owner wanted, a story broken by Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic.

Rosas interviewed other candidates and ran a legitimate job search for the position, but it seems the smart political move for the guy new on the job to hire the guy the owner wanted, and the guy the star player bonded with.

That’s not to say Saunders is a poor choice, he earned this chance. Saunders was thrust into the big chair after Jimmy Butler‘s sabotaging of the team’s season led to coach/GM Tom Thibodeau being shown the door. Saunders quickly developed a strong relationship with Karl-Anthony Towns, who played much better under Saunders the second half of the season. There were other signs Saunders was up to the task and would be a good hire, not just a prudent one.

Now it appears Saunders has the job.

The real task for Rosas is to give Saunders a team that can live up to Towns’ potential. It will not be easy with a capped out roster and some anchor contracts (Andrew Wiggins).

Report: Cavaliers hire J.B. Bickerstaff to John Beilein’s staff

Getty
Leave a comment

The Cleveland Cavaliers are still trying to figure things out. LeBron James left for the Los Angeles Lakers last summer, and now the team has hired John Beilein to be its head coach. The team doesn’t have a top pick the way it has in years past, and barring any trades they will select 25th overall in the 2019 NBA Draft.

But at least they are figuring out there coaching staff Issues.

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Cavaliers have hired former Memphis Grizzlies head coach J.B. Bickerstaff to be its top assistant coach. Bickerstaff was apparently also in talks with the Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, and Sacramento Kings.

Via Twitter:

Bickerstaff previously headed the Houston Rockets from 2015 to 2016, and was the top man for the Grizzlies over the last two seasons after the team canned David Fizdale.

This is a solid hire for the Cavs. Bickerstaff has been a respected assistant in the league for the past decade-and-a-half, and he should give some veteran NBA oopmh behind Beilein, who most recently coached at Michigan for 12 years and is headed into his rookie season.