David Murphy: Kelly Oubre can help the Sixers, but he'll need to be a player he's never been

David Murphy, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Basketball

PHILADELPHIA — There was a time not too long ago when the idea of signing Kelly Oubre for the veteran minimum would have gotten you laughed out of the building. One of the rites of passage of the NBA offseason was listening to someone predict a breakout year from the former No. 15 overall pick. At a long 6-foot-7 and a quick-twitch 205 pounds, Oubre has always looked like a guy with the potential for much more than he’d shown. His frame and physical skill set seemed so tailor-made for life on an NBA wing that it almost hypnotized people into ignoring what he did on the court.

At Kansas, he was the face of one of those Bill Self flameouts, scoring 9.7 points per game as one of the nation’s most coveted recruits and then shrugging off a Sweet 16 loss to Wichita State by declaring for the draft at 19 years old. Fittingly, he landed with the NBA’s version of those Jayhawks teams, going No. 15 overall eventually to the Beal-Wall Wizards, where he spent 3 1/2 seasons looking like the player he had been in college. But, then, all illusions have shelf lives. Oubre’s was eight years.

Coming off a season in which he averaged a career-high 20.3 points for the Hornets, the 28-year-old will look to rebuild his value on a one-year, $2.8 million veteran minimum contract from the Sixers.

There is no such thing as a bad minimum deal. In that context, this counts as a good signing. It could turn into a great one if Oubre recognizes and accepts the kind of player that he needs to be in order to play a significant role on a contending team. But that will require him becoming someone he has never been, an off-the-ball menace who pours his energy and focus into the defensive end while making the most of what comes his way on offense. Defense, rebounding, transition, finishing — Oubre has the physical tools to improve the Sixers in each of those departments. Combine that with the 41% he shot on corner 3-pointers last season and he’d be a guy who outperforms his salary by a significant margin.

Becoming that guy will require Oubre to renounce the one he isn’t. He isn’t a guy who should be taking 17.1 shots per game, as he did last season for the Hornets, or even 13.0 per game, as he did the previous three seasons. He isn’t a guy who should be taking 3-pointers in bunches: the 33.5% he’s shot since 2020 is only untenable at high volumes.


It didn’t go well the last time Oubre tried not to be that guy. When the Warriors acquired him as an offshoot of the Suns-Thunder Chris Paul trade back in November of 2020, they may have had visions of a younger Andre Iguodala. Within six months, they were trying to trade him, to no avail. After signing a two-year, $24 million deal with the Hornets the following offseason, Oubre said he felt limited by his role with Golden State.

“I want to continue to show all the things I’m capable of and not be put in a box,” Oubre said on the HoopsHype podcast in 2021. “I felt like the universe was trying to put me in a box last year. It’s something that always clashes because it’s a big deal whenever I’m trying to be put in a box, because I can’t be put in a box.”

Therein lies the tension inherent in Oubre. He hates the box. But he kind of needs it. It will be interesting to see if Nick Nurse can find a comfortable one for him.

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