Following the much-needed week off with the All-Star break, Suns head coach Igor Kokoskov decided to tweak his rotation. Instead of Mikal Bridges starting at small forward, which he had the previous 45 games, Kelly Oubre Jr. is getting his opportunity now to prove his worth long-term in Phoenix.
During the Suns’ last 10 games before resetting the batteries, which included no T.J. Warren as he continues to recover from a bone bruise in his right ankle, Oubre Jr. averaged 17.2 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.5 steals and 1 block in the fewest amount of minutes amongst the young wing rotation.
This also gives the Suns a true litmus test to gauge whether or not Oubre Jr. is actually a vital piece for next season and beyond. After acquiring him in a straight up swap for Trevor Ariza on Dec. 15, Phoenix assumed his restricted rights. The former Kansas Jayhawk has a restricted qualifying offer of $9.6 million, which the Suns can use to match any deals once July 1 hits. With around a third of the league having enough flexibility to offer him a compelling contract, things could get interesting this offseason with the man known as “Tsunami Papi”.
Restricted free agency can become a tightrope to walk, as we’ve most recently witnessed with Chicago and Sacramento involving Zach LaVine last summer. LaVine signed the Kings’ offer sheet of 4-year, $78 million before the Bulls matched the big payday, but would Phoenix be comfortable forking over between $12-15 million a season to keep Oubre Jr. around for three to four more years? That’s likely what it will take, if I had to guess, and he probably wants to take the leap from athletic wing off the bench to valuable day one starter here soon.
Simply put, signing a bench piece to that amount of money isn’t smart. If the Suns match a bloated offer sheet for Oubre Jr., it’s probably because they believe in his long-term starting potential as a valuable buffer between Booker and Ayton.
“Yeah, 100 percent,” Oubre Jr. said to Suns.com’s Lindsey Smith about whether he takes pride in being a starter. “You know, like, I’m 23 years old. I’ve been coming off the bench for the majority of my career, and now it’s time to put myself in the light of being a starter and moving up the ranks. So, it’s a blessing to be put in this position, especially in Phoenix.”
That sounds like someone who definitely is ready to graduate from bench piece to proven starter. The rest of this season, the 6’7” wing with a 7’3” wingspan will have the chance to not only prove to Phoenix but other teams around the league his true worth within his new role.
What’s fascinating is that ever since Oubre Jr. first donned a Suns uniform, he’s created plenty of separation between Bridges, Josh Jackson and T.J. Warren when it comes to producing alongside the franchise’s two main building blocks in Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton. In the 226 minutes that Oubre Jr., Booker and Ayton have shared the floor this season, this 3-man lineup combination has a plus-0.3 net rating.
And when you go head-to-head swapping out each wing next to Phoenix’s dynamic inside-out duo, it definitely shows through with per 100 possession productivity over the past nine weeks.
3-man lineup of Oubre Jr., Booker, Ayton: OffRtg = 112.9, DefRtg = 112.6, NetRtg = +0.3
3-man lineup of Jackson, Booker, Ayton: OffRtg = 105.0, DefRtg = 116.0, NetRtg = -11
3-man lineup of Warren, Booker, Ayton: OffRtg = 107.3, DefRtg = 121.7, NetRtg = -14.4
3-man lineup of Bridges, Booker, Ayton: OffRtg = 103.3, DefRtg = 118.2, NetRtg = -14.9
Oubre Jr. has the Suns’ best offensive and defensive ratings amongst the wing quartet when playing with Booker and Ayton, and it hasn’t really been close. These numbers can fluctuate either direction, especially with two subpar defenders in between, but this gives us a good indication of why Kokoskov changed up his starting unit.
When going through the minute distribution between the Suns’ wings since Oubre Jr. joined, it paints an interesting picture. Also, when Warren went down with his ankle injury last month, Bridges and Oubre Jr. have flipped minutes during that span.
12/19-1/20 with all four wings playing together:
Warren - 35.4 minutes
Bridges - 30.1 minutes
Oubre Jr. - 26.3 minutes
Jackson - 24.3 minutes
Initially, Oubre Jr. stayed within the role we saw often with the Wizards playing around 25 minutes per game. Warren, who has continued be the minutes leader alongside Booker throughout this season whenever he’s on the floor, is the runaway leader here. You will see in the next stanza how Warren’s absence has impacted their rotation.
1/24-2/16 with Oubre Jr., Bridges, Jackson (No Warren):
Bridges - 34.9
Jackson - 31.8
Oubre Jr. - 31.2
The previous 10 games before the All-Star break, Kokoskov and Co. have had to juggle their rotation by playing their three young wings over 30 minutes without Warren. Bridges was the minutes leader for the team most nights, even over Booker sometimes. Jackson and Oubre Jr. had the same amount of run, but the Suns’ No. 4 pick from the 2017 draft got the starting nod at power forward.
Something I’ve noticed throughout the season is that Kokoskov seems to view Bridges and Oubre Jr. as 3s while Warren and Jackson are 4s. That’s probably why Oubre Jr. didn’t start even after Warren went down. Personally, I would’ve started the two longest wings together to create havoc but Jackson’s secondary playmaking is still needed.
Last two games, sans Warren:
Oubre Jr. - 38.0
Bridges - 29.1
Jackson - 22.8 (benched after 16 minutes against Atlanta following technical foul)
As Warren continues to remain on the sidelines, with his return hopeful for the Suns’ upcoming 4-game home stand beginning Friday versus New Orleans, the prolonged break in action led Oubre Jr. and Bridges switching spots. In Cleveland, Bridges was inexplicably the 10th man in the rotation, but that corrected itself early on Saturday.
When factoring in the technical and subsequent benching Kokoskov gave Jackson last game, it skews the numbers a tad but it probably winds up how it did in the previous column. This time, it would be Oubre Jr. as the lead dog in terms of minutes with both Bridges and Jackson still receiving plenty of time at around 30 each.
Now, the big question will be what happens once Warren is back in his usual spot next month.
Projection once Warren returns from ankle injury:
Oubre Jr. - 35
Warren - 30
Bridges - 30
Jackson - 25
With these final six or so weeks being about evaluating the roster, it makes sense for Oubre Jr. to remain the leader starting at small forward while Warren then hops back in at power forward. This means Bridges and Jackson would then be the wings leading Phoenix’s bench mob flanked by De’Anthony Melton and Richaun Holmes.
Co-Interim General Manager James Jones said earlier this month on 98.7 FM’s Burns & Gambo that they’re hopeful to keep Oubre Jr., Warren, Jackson and Bridges all around next season, but he admitted the restricted free agency factor for their newest addition will play a role in how the chips end up falling.
Amidst the constant losing, crucial decisions need to made on this roster moving forward. The wings will be the deciding factor with the NBA Draft Lottery on May 14 and Oubre Jr.’s incoming free agency playing huge roles.
Since joining the Suns, Oubre Jr. is averaging 15.6 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.2 steals and 1 block while converting on 31 percent of his catch-and-shoot three opportunities. Booker and Jackson are also the only ones ahead of Oubre Jr. in usage rate since the trade, with his clocking in at 23 percent.
Whatever direction the Suns decide to go with their lanky and fashionable wing, it will be at the mercy of another team. Whoever throws him a sizable offer sheet will then put Phoenix on the clock immediately. Not only will it put the pressure on the front office, but this decision could lead to a domino effect with one or two of their other wings if he’s brought back to the Valley long-term.
The 2019 offseason for the Suns will be critical to trying to fix up this rebuild attempt, and it all begins with their decision on Oubre Jr.
Should the Suns match an offer sheet in the $12-15 million range for Kelly Oubre Jr.?
This poll is closed
Yes, he’s a crucial piece to the Suns’ future
No, let him walk