Offense becomes easier when you ask players to simply execute what their skill set inherently allows of them. Some of the most intuitive offensive coaches around the league (think Quin Snyder, Gregg Popovich, Alvin Gentry or Mike D’Antoni) simplify players’ responsibilities and reap the benefit of basic execution.
Kelly Oubre Jr. was miscast throughout his career. In Washington, D.C., Oubre was basically a spot-up shooter and transition finisher. With the Suns for half of the 2018-19 season, Oubre had the ball in his hands far more than you’d want at this point in his development as a scorer. So when Monty Williams — a guy we previously wouldn’t put into the group listed above — took over in Phoenix, he set about sculpting a role in which Oubre could flourish.
“Coach’s system is really good, so we’ve got to continue to buy in and get better in it,” Oubre said.
The 23-year-old is a unique player with incredible athleticism, long arms, and confidence that could help him walk across water if he set his mind to it. Within Williams’ point-five offense, taken from coaches like Popovich and Snyder, Oubre’s job is just to get to the rim at all costs.
During his last full season with the Wizards, just 4.5 percent of Oubre’s possessions came off a cut. So far this season, that number is up to 11 percent, per Synergy Sports. A good portion are still coming in transition and spot-up situations as well, but cutting to the basket has become Oubre’s bread and butter, especially with his deep shot still not falling consistently this year.
As a team, the Suns are using cuts on 9.2 percent of possessions. That’s good for third in the NBA.
“It’s gonna get better from here on out, with our chemistry, when to cut, when to backdoor, when to come off and get it,” Devin Booker said. “I think right now, we’re just playing guys that don’t know each other but know basketball, but once we figure out both of those, we’ll be in tune even more.”
With some Suns, intuition off the ball on offense was expected. Yet for Oubre, the transformation was harder to see coming. This is a guy who would have benefited tremendously from cutting through seams in the defense when he played alongside John Wall and Bradley Beal. Instead, it is the trust of his Suns teammates and coaching from Williams that have turned Oubre into a player defenses have to account for even when the ball is not in his hands in the halfcourt.
Oubre is always ready to reposition himself and misdirect the defense. His eyes are always up. And his shake as a ball-handler helps him in these situations as well, because he is comfortable taking a dribble or two to find a shot that is even more open than the one that appears first.
The added emphasis on getting to the rim has materialized when Oubre handles the ball on the perimeter as well. After a tough matchup against Rudy Gobert and the Jazz on Monday night, Oubre is down to 59 percent at the rim on the year, per Cleaning the Glass. But Synergy data shows he is scoring 1.07 points per pick and roll ball-handling possession, still a strong mark.
With long arms and long strides, Oubre can get a good shot up at the basket nearly any time he wants. His current 52.6 effective field goal percentage would be the highest of his career. He’s still far better with his left hand than his right, but altogether, focusing on that part of his game has made him more efficient.
The plays you’ll notice watching Oubre, though, are still his fast break smashes. They rev an arena’s engine. They energize the bench. And they have been a real weapon for the Suns this year, as the team’s possessions have typically lasted less time than league average.
Oubre has hunted steals like a hound this season, picking up where he left off last year, and the result has mostly been beneficial. The Suns are competitive, right? Williams wants to see him be more measured with his aggressiveness in passing lanes, but will take what Oubre gives.
“I’ve talked to him about being disciplined, staying down on pump fakes, not going for steals all the time, even though I know he can get some of them,” Williams said.
But the coach knows it’s part of what keeps Oubre engaged and gets him in rhythm.
“From my perspective, I just want him to be 80-20 discipline to instinct,” Williams added. I don’t think you can take it away from guys, especially when they have that kind of ability. But for me, it’s his discipline mixed with some of his instincts makes him a good defensive player.”
Those transition finishes helped change the tide of the game for the Suns against Utah.
As Booker and numerous players on this team have reiterated, the team is learning one another. Confidence and comfort will bring another level on both ends, and as the team gets its full roster later in the season, roles will change. Still, after a big pay day in the offseason and questions about how he would fit in a starting lineup full of ball-dominant players, Oubre has found a niche quickly.