Kelly Oubre Jr.’s success should come as no surprise

Philadelphia 76ers guard Kelly Oubre Jr. (9) dunks the ball over Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (22) and center Bam Adebayo (13) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Thursday, April 4, 2024, in Miami. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

At this point in the Sixers‘ season, it seems fair to say that Kelly Oubre Jr. may be the team’s third-best player after Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey. In 30 minutes per game, the 28-year-old is averaging 15.2 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 1.2 steals.

Since the All-Star break, Oubre has only had two games where he put up single-digit points; in every other game since then, he’s scored no fewer than 17 points. And this past week was especially stellar for him – he put up a season-high 32 points on Sunday against Toronto and had a dazzling two-way performance in Thursday night’s much-needed win in Miami. It’s no wonder there’s already significant buzz about bringing him back with a pay raise this offseason.

Philadelphia 76ers guard Kelly Oubre Jr. (9) goes up for a basket past Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard (2) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, March 24, 2024, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Oubre wasn’t exactly brought in to be the third guy when the team signed him this past year. The 6’7″ shooting guard was signed to come off the bench and upgrade their sixth-man slot left behind by Shake Milton. While getting him on a veteran minimum contract felt like a steal, Oubre was not seen as the dominant, two-way force that he’s become this season.

But should Sixers fans really be surprised at his progress? While Oubre’s had up-and-down scoring numbers and turnover issues for years, he’s always been a strong, athletic wing capable of out-hustling the competition.

Philadelphia 76ers guard Kelly Oubre Jr., center, loses his footing between Golden State Warriors guards Stephen Curry, left, and Brandin Podziemski (2) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/D. Ross Cameron)

Even as his minutes per game are razor-close to his years as a starter with previous teams, none of Oubre’s game statistics this year are the best of his career. His points per game are actually the lowest they’ve been since the 2018 season. But his efficiency, utilization, and perhaps even his confidence have skyrocketed, and he’s become much more than a rotation piece – he’s a critical part of their offense who other teams need to account for. And while Joel Embiid’s extended absence was largely a miserable affair, a glimmer of light was that it allowed Oubre to flourish in his defensive responsibilities.

Oubre’s development shouldn’t then be that big of a shock – he’s simply been able to maximize his strengths and make some progress in overcoming weaknesses. In fact, two of Oubre’s career-best games have come while playing against the Sixers.

While playing with the Charlotte Hornets, Oubre put up a 29-point, three-rebound, two-steal game in the Wells Fargo Center in December 2022. Before that, he had a whopping 35 points, five rebounds, three assists, four steals, and one block in a game while the Sixers were visiting in December 2021. Granted, Joel Embiid scored 53 and 43 points in those two games, respectively, to lead the Sixers to victory, but Oubre’s dominance put up a legitimate barrier.

Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid, left, dunks past Charlotte Hornets’ Kelly Oubre Jr. during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, Dec. 11, 2022, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Kelly Oubre has performed extremely well this season – but it’s not like he had a sudden mid-career spurt that put him leaps and bounds ahead of previous years. Rather, he’s being utilized (and coached) efficiently, fine-tuning his game, and growing his defense. Perhaps the difference is that Oubre is finally playing for a team who, for years, have needed precisely what he specializes in – a physically imposing wing, unafraid to attack the basket, and with some shooting capabilities to boot. Here’s hoping he’ll continue to provide that in Philadelphia for years to come.