Before you can begin to evaluate the early returns of Kelly Oubre Jr’s time with the Golden State Warriors, you must first acknowledge the unique circumstances from which their relationship originated.
A mover in the trade that sent Chris Paul to Phoenix, Oubre expected to begin the 2020-21 season with the OKC Thunder. On a retooled team prioritizing player development, the stakes were low, which meant the opportunity to produce numbers ahead of free agency would be there.
Alas, Klay Thompson’s Achilles had other ideas, keeping the other Splash Brother sidelined and forcing Golden State to frantically determine how best to move forward.
Oubre could not shoot like Klay or defend like Klay. But to salvage whatever title legitimacy remained, the Dubs played their trade exception, hoping to find a way to make Oubre’s undeniable physical traits work for them over trotting out a poorly-constructed facsimile of Thompson with whatever they could find on the roster.
It’s been a rough start to Kelly Oubre Jr’s time with the Golden State Warriors, which is what makes his 40-point outing feel so much more rewarding.
Oubre has often looked lost finding his place in Steve Kerr’s offense, accidentally cluttering next to teammates or failing to see the next step in a developing play. It was a painful lesson on the limitations his natural talent could have. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Warriors were 14.4 points worse per 100 possessions with him on the court through their first 21 games.
A historically bad shooting slump in which he started the season 7-of-51 from beyond the arc (13.7 percent) certainly didn’t help Oubre build confidence elsewhere. But sympathy was in short supply.
Irrelevant was Oubre’s fit alongside three other non-shooters in the starting lineup or the time he would theoretically need to grow comfortable in a new and intricate system.
“I always feel like coming to a new team is difficult,” Kerr said following Golden State’s win in Chicago back in December. “So Kelly’s shooting struggles right now really aren’t that surprising. I know it’s going to turn.”
Kerr could preach as much patience as he wanted. There was no escaping Oubre’s struggles that were magnified by the $80 million luxury tax bill his presence rang up. And while the Warriors were trying to establish early playoff positioning in the unforgiving Western Conference, that number hung around their neck like an albatross.
Is that a fair evaluation of Oubre’s first chunk of games? Not really. Once again, this pairing of player and team was born out of desperation that looked the other way when it came to fit. Just imagine the damage Oubre could do finding open lanes to the rim while defenses try to keep Steph or Klay from launching threes.
The criticism is simply the unfair reality of the situation Oubre has been dealt, where that alternative scenario won’t be possible until next season at the earliest and perhaps never if he signs elsewhere in free agency.
This incredible weight on Oubre’s shoulders is what makes his most recent outing against the Dallas Mavericks not only special but perhaps significant in its potential to serve as a turning point that could ease a good chunk of that tension.
40 points are the most Oubre has ever scored in an NBA game. He did so on 14-of-21 shooting from the field while canning seven of his 10 3-point attempts in a little over 36 minutes of a 147-116 blowout victory in Dallas.
“Obviously for Kelly, it’s been a rough first quarter of the season,” Kerr said after the game. “And yet within that span, he’s had some excellent games for us. He’s played very well at times; he’s just had some really poor shooting nights during that span that people have locked in on, but Kelly’s getting more comfortable.”
This new journey in Golden State, though relatively short, has proved arduous in ways he has never experienced since being drafted back in 2015. Oubre’s entire NBA tenure up to this point has been spent with the Wizards and Suns. Synonymous with failure and chaos for most of the last decade, neither franchise has done much to ingratiate the winning habits Oubre needs to thrive with his new team.
Maybe a career-best outing isn’t as big an indicator as it might otherwise be against a team with one of the league’s worse defenses that has lost seven of its last eight games.
This isn’t the first positive performance Oubre has had since becoming a Warrior. He had 20 points on nine shots in a win over Minnesota a little over a week ago. 23 points on 50.0 percent shooting helped take down the defending champion Lakers at Staples Center on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
But the good times for Oubre have been a bit few and far between this season. So when they come back around, you can’t help but relish slightly more knowing the depths from which they emerged out of and hope they’re the beginning of more to come.
“Guys in the locker room love him and want to help him continue to get comfortable,” said Kerr. “And this was obviously a great night for him and for the whole group.”