Will he or won’t he?
Scratch that. Will they or won’t they? That’s the more accurate question here, as the Phoenix Suns weigh their options with Kelly Oubre Jr. this summer. The 2015 No. 15 pick will be a restricted free agent this summer and his price tag has been a subject of much speculation basically since the day he arrived in Phoenix.
After averaging 16.9 points, 4.9 rebounds, 1.4 steals and a block per game with the Suns, Oubre could get expensive. He’s played in the playoffs and his 3-and-D skill set (plus the upside for more shot creation that he flashed in Phoenix) is very en vogue right now. The Suns could be forced to match a salary they weren’t expecting. Or, they could say screw it all.
“It’s out of my hands now,” Oubre said at a presser before Wednesday’s matchup against his old team, the Wizards.
“I’m gonna just sit back and continue to rehab my hand and get better every day, get back to being in the gym. … It’s in god’s hands.”
Oubre has certainly done plenty to earn a big raise. He improved his finishing, taking 42 percent of his shots at the rim and knocking down 62 percent. That’s an area he’ll have to keep getting better in, but Oubre gave the Suns a taste of what his prime could look like.
He’s an intensely physical player, swallowing ball-handlers with his long arms and wide frame. He snatches steals out of the clutches of defenseless playmakers who feel contact and expect a foul. Oubre stole the ball on 2.3 percent of opponent possessions as a Sun — a career-high — but the overwhelming nature of his game intensified his impact more than numbers show. Oubre also became the team’s best weak-side rim protector, and as the Suns toyed with switching Deandre Ayton onto the perimeter more often, Oubre’s quick instincts and athleticism made it possible.
He was vital to what the Suns did on both ends, handling a larger role on and off the court than ever before.
“I was getting better in every aspect,” Oubre said. “Finishing, my 3-point percentage, it was me in the gym countless hours and putting extra work in.”
Oubre certainly looked like the work payed off. The situation in Phoenix also suited his game better than Washington’s regimented pick-and-roll attack.
Coach Igor Kokoskov’s system opened up the floor for Oubre to attack off ball reversals and in transition. Electric highlights dot the internet that show the newly invigorated Oubre in attack mode. He upped his usage rate to 22.6 percent in non-garbage time minutes and put up 1.113 points per shot attempts as well as a 55.5 true shooting percentage — all career highs.
Through great relationships with Suns teammates and a system that simplified his game, Oubre broke out.
“(Kokoskov) has a lot of energy, he has a lot of knowledge for the game as well,” Oubre said. “All his plays, the things he draws up out of timeouts are really strategic and great and they work. It’s really up to us to continue to stay disciplined.”
Beyond the numbers or the names, Oubre seemed to find joy in Phoenix. He said repeatedly Wednesday that he’s always been the same guy, despite tribulation in Washington and the discomfort of a trade. His glow-up in Phoenix was not about changing but about integrating his game with his young teammates’.
If the Suns believe his success was key to their improved play, the decision is easy. They will spend what it takes to keep him. In this regard, the numbers don’t lie. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Suns were 8.6 points better per 100 possessions while Oubre was on the court. The lineup that helped the Suns win six of ten before Oubre’s injury, with Oubre joining Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Tyler Johnson and Mikal Bridges, was even better, posting a net rating of plus-11.2.
It’s likely all five of those players will be back next year, and the rest of the roster will likely be upgraded as well. Phoenix can use Oubre’s cap hold to maintain flexibility and add talent in free agency, should they come to terms quickly and convince Oubre to eschew the open market. There are positive underlying signs beneath the losing.
Oubre also said he has developed a good relationship with interim general manager James Jones, whom he competed against as a player early in his career. After just 40 games, Oubre seems happy in Phoenix. At one point during his press conference, Oubre also referred to what he and his teammates hoped to accomplish next season. Guys who plan to leave don’t say things like that.