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Kelly Oubre Jr.’s emergence is not only bringing questions about the starting lineup, but long-term roster construction

Oubre Jr. should soon be a starter, but his ideal fit within Igor Kokoskov’s system means it’s time to talk about that million dollar wing question.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Indiana Pacers Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Kelly Oubre Jr. seemed to be the Suns’ Plan B after their Dillon Brooks debacle in a previous trade negotiation involving Memphis and Washington, but he’s starting to really thrive within his new role with them. Not only has he helped lead the Suns toward being No. 1 in steals and deflections since joining the rotation on Dec. 19, but Oubre Jr. is truly becoming an energy spark this team has missed dearly.

Oubre Jr. has averaged 13 points, 4.2 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.9 steals, and 0.8 blocks on 44.2/32.5/76.6 shooting splits in a Phoenix uniform but the bigger numbers involve his overall efficiency and usage. The fourth-year wing out of Kansas is currently carrying a true shooting percentage of 56.0 with a career-high usage rate at 22 percent. Both of these career-best numbers point to fit playing a major factor in Phoenix, as Oubre Jr. has really started to cut down on his low-percentage shots we often saw in Washington alongside John Wall and Bradley Beal.

Currently, Oubre Jr. is doing well within his sixth man role but the constant slow starts from the Suns should point to an upcoming starting lineup change soon. The obvious candidate to fit the billing is their newest member of the team, because he’s now had a few practices under his belt while also learning Kokoskov’s system even further.

Over the past four games — including two Suns wins — Oubre Jr. has put together a stat line of 20.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 2 steals, and 1 block while also holding a true shooting percentage of 59.7 and attempting 5.5 free throws in 29.2 minutes. Three of these outings were without Devin Booker in the starting lineup, as correlated by his usage rising more than five percent to 27.6.

We can’t take away the improvements Oubre Jr. seems to be making in Phoenix, though, as evidence by his all-around improvements in almost every statistical category. His upcoming restricted free agency could be an underlying factor — around half the league will have max cap space so plenty of money will be flying around — but, again, I really think he might have found a great match stylistically with Kokoskov’s pass-happy offense.

Another area that should be examined under an even more intense microscope lens is how all four of the Suns’ wings fit next to their two building blocks named Booker and Ayton. Over the long run, that absolutely matters and the clock has began to tick on keeping all four over the next year. With Oubre Jr.’s upcoming free agency — and Jones seemingly intent on keeping him around past this year per his interview on Arizona Sports’ Burns & Gambo earlier this month — the dreaded long-term wing question finally needs to be brought up.

When trying to build a sustainable contender around Booker and Ayton, two subpar defenders at this stage of their careers, you need as much multi-positional versatility around them possible. That qualifies as strong defenders who can create for themselves offensively but also hit open jumpers and be smart when the ball is in their hands. Luckily for Oubre Jr., he checks most of these boxes well for Phoenix and figures to be a long-term mainstay in the Valley depending on how his free agency goes.

Since Oubre Jr. was acquired around three weeks ago, here’s how the Suns’ wings have fared in net rating when playing with either Ayton, Booker, or both at the same time (Oubre Jr.’s minutes were tracked from 12/19, everyone else is whole 2018-19 campaign):

2-man NetRtg with Ayton:

Oubre Jr.: +0.3 (167 minutes)

Bridges: -3.6 (800 minutes)

Warren: -7.4 (858 minutes)

Jackson: -8.4 (518 minutes)

What stands out here, albeit in a very small sample size compared to his counterparts, is Oubre Jr. seemingly has performed next to Ayton. Of course, net rating is not the end-all be-all statistic, but it provides a clearer picture for how lineups should be worked. If this production were to be stretched over a full season, Oubre Jr. looks like he would land near the top of the scale where Bridges checks in at.

Jackson’s horrific first few months of the season tanked his overall number, but what’s worrisome here is how low Warren’s is. Playing power forward next to Ayton, you have to be a plus defender and rebounder with quick-twitch athleticism. Does Warren fit that criteria?

2-man NetRtg with Booker:

Jackson: +0.4 (299 minutes)

Bridges: -0.3 (553 minutes)

Oubre Jr.: -6.0 (136 minutes)

Warren: -9.0 (775 minutes)

I’ll admit it surprised me a little bit when Jackson topped this list with Booker, but it’s not a surprise when you Booker is usually the best setting him up and vice versa. Bridges remains steady with near-positive production, while Oubre Jr. and Warren finish at the bottom.

This Warren number raises the alarms even more for me. If you’re in the Suns’ front office, you have to wonder if the trio of Warren/Booker/Ayton is a sustainable way to start games, especially on defense. Having three negative defenders together seems like a recipe for disaster. It’s early, but Oubre Jr.’s arrival and early success could be pushing Phoenix’s wing decision in an easy direction if these numbers continue to maintain throughout the rest of the season.

3-man NetRtg with Ayton and Booker:

Oubre Jr., Ayton, Booker: +1.1 (98 minutes)

Jackson, Ayton, Booker: +0.1 (165 minutes)

Bridges, Ayton, Booker: 0.0 (478 minutes)

Warren, Ayton, Booker: -9.0 (607 minutes)

We might have just stumbled into the tell-all big number here, folks. Everyone else except Warren is a positive, with the three younger wings all at or above 0.0.

What I’m trying to get at with this exercise is that Oubre Jr. might be taking Warren’s role away from him right in front of our eyes. Oubre Jr. not only is the better defender than Warren, but he’s also a better rebounder and instinctual passer even though admittedly both are lacking in that department. Simply put, Oubre Jr. fits the identity of hustle and versatility this team is trying to build around their pillars in Booker and Ayton better than Warren.

Oubre Jr. is tied for first with Bridges among the Suns’ main rotational wings in defensive rating allowing 109.1 points per 100 possessions since 12/19. The 23-year-old wing with a 7’3” wingspan also has the best offensive rating of any Suns wing over the past three-plus weeks at 106.3.

Phoenix’s starting lineup is in need of a shake up after falling in another massive hole early that they were unable to climb out from, but the question now should start to be asked when the decision will be made on what happens with this wing quartet. There seems to be mutual interest from player and management on wanting to bring Oubre Jr. back for multiple years. How does that factor into the future for players like Warren or even Jackson?

Before we even get to that step, Oubre Jr. would need to be retained through restricted free agency first. Many up-and-coming teams with oodles of cap space will come calling for a wing who carries a prioritized skill set. I could easily imagine Oubre Jr. drawing interest from the likes of Indiana, Brooklyn, Detroit, Sacramento, Dallas, and San Antonio as July 1 approaches. The worry here is that one of those destinations could poison pill an offer sheet for Oubre Jr. either heavily front-loading or back-loading his new contract.

If the Suns were able to get through the first week of July unscathed when it comes to Oubre Jr.’s salary, they should be in the clear to bring him back. Then, the question now turns to Warren immediately after. Warren’s improved shooting has made his contracts one of the most team-friendly for production around the NBA, maybe similar on the scale to Robert Covington in that sense. Is it possible Warren could help fetch Phoenix their longstanding need of a starting-caliber point guard? It’s a question that needs to be analyzed further between now and July, that’s for sure.

During the four month stretch of basketball where we’ve watched the Suns go 11-34, the 3-man defensive rating of Warren/Ayton/Booker is horrendous. In January, it’s not even a season-worst 121.5 as October had it clocked in at 123.6 points allowed per 100 possessions. Overall, the Warren/Ayton/Booker defensive rating is 119.0. Wow, that’s not good, and if Warren doesn’t want to be a sixth man in this league, he might not be a great match next to Booker and Ayton when compared to Oubre Jr., Bridges, and Jackson.

The above numbers painted a story that Oubre Jr. is way more of a snug pairing next to the Suns’ true building blocks rather than the longest mainstay on their roster since 2014. These next few months might easily decide what direction they end up going in after mid-April.

It’s time for a lineup change, but it’s also time to prepare for the beginning of the end with keeping all four of these wings long-term for proper team building purposes. The question is, who will be the odd man out? At this moment, it sure doesn’t look it will be Oubre Jr. as he positions himself even further to become a new member of the Suns’ starting lineup.

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