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Kelly Oubre Jr. is settling in as a reliable secondary option for Suns

Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton are the primary long-term building blocks, but players like Kelly Oubre Jr. are vital to sustainable success.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Dallas Mavericks Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

A little over 13 months ago, the Phoenix Suns sent disgruntled veteran wing Trevor Ariza packing as soon as possible via trade on Dec. 15. Little did Phoenix know they were getting back possibly their long-term answer at small forward. In a one-for-one swap involving Ariza and Kelly Oubre Jr., both Phoenix and Washington cut losses on players who weren’t in their plans past the 2018-19 season.

Right when Oubre Jr. arrived in the Valley, his infectious energy radiated for the Suns both on and off the court. It helped bring a young locker room closer together, too. Oubre instantly bonded with Phoenix’s two young stars — the duo they expect to help carry them to huge heights — Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton.

During his initial 40-game stint with the Suns last season, Oubre saw his career-highs in every category rewritten all over again, averaging 16.9 points, 4.9 rebounds, 1.4 steals, and 1 block per game. Whether it was being the much-needed spark off the bench or eventual boost of energy alongside Booker and Ayton, Oubre usually answered the call with flying colors.

Oubre’s instant production in the Suns’ purple and orange heading into restricted free agency helped him net a two-year, $30 million extension. This deal allowed Phoenix not only more time to evaluate Oubre as a potential long-term piece of their core, but provided their new wing a golden opportunity to become an unrestricted free agent during his prime years.

Even though the former Wizards wing adjusted beautifully alongside the likes of Booker and Ayton, there were still flaws that needed to be straightened out over the next two years. First up were efficiency and phasing out bad decisions.

On those fronts, so far, so good in Year One of the extension, as Oubre has seen his turnover percentage dip (10.7 TOV% to 9.0 TOV%) and true shooting percentage rise (55.5 TS% to 56.1 TS%). In the process, Oubre’s usage rate also witnessed a small dip in favor of more opportunities for new players, but it hasn’t mattered, as his numbers continue to maintain or improve from his first stretch in Phoenix last December.

It would be naive to say I expected Oubre to step into this type of role when he first arrived in Phoenix, but it sure seems like the Suns stumbled blindly into a gem. From all indications, Oubre is well on his way to cementing his place in Phoenix alongside Booker and Ayton, especially if you monitor how the trio has produced over the past month in which the Suns are playing .500 basketball.

Booker: 31.7 points, 4.4 rebounds, 6.4 assists on 66 TS%

Ayton: 17.9 points, 11.9 rebounds, 1.3 blocks on 57.3 TS%

Oubre: 20.8 points, 7.7 rebounds, 1.3 steals on 57.8 TS%

That’s right, the Suns’ trio is combining for just over 70 points per game on an above-average true shooting percentage clip the past 15 games. Those are super impressive numbers, and it shows these three are really starting to gel together. Over that same span, Booker has a usage rate over 30 percent, but Ayton (22.0 USG%) and Oubre (22.5 USG%) are nearly identical.

Booker will always be the Suns’ primary option, but it’s very promising the way Oubre and Ayton are feeding off each other as secondary scorers. When Ayton is going, Oubre channels more of his energy on defense and rebounding while capitalizing off cuts to the basket via Ricky Rubio. Meanwhile, when Oubre gets hot, Ayton becomes a monster on the glass, gobbling up rebounds left and right.

That harmonic balance takes time to create, but the Suns’ young trio already working out these types of kinks should have fans giddy for what could be coming soon enough. And if it wasn’t for Suns GM James Jones landing Oubre instead of Dillon Brooks in the Ariza trade, which was the original plan before the Brooks’ fiasco went viral, who knows where the Suns would sit in their longstanding rebuild.

It’s already been proven that when Oubre does well, Phoenix usually comes out on top. The Suns are 10-9 when Oubre logs multiple steals in a game, and 11-8 when their flamboyant wing scores at least 20 points.

The pieces are starting to fall in place for this Suns team after five years toiling at the bottom of the NBA with no progress. Booker and Ayton are developing into the cornerstones Phoenix needs for sustainability in the Western Conference, but unearthing a gem like Oubre was pivotal to this improvement over the past calendar year. Not many forwards around the Association can drop 18-20 points nightly while also creating absolute havoc on the defensive end.

Phoenix’s trio of Booker, Ayton, and Oubre are outscoring opponents this season by 13.1 points per 100 possessions. This is up from only 2.9 points per 100 possessions in 2018-19 when Oubre unpacked his bags from Washington, D.C.

If this trajectory upwards continues for Oubre, which should be the expectation for the 24-year-old, he’s going to make himself plenty of money during the 2021 offseason. Anywhere between $20-25 million as a young and versatile wing on the open market should be the expectation for annual contract value. Luckily for the Suns, they will have first dibs when that time arrives next summer.

If not for the player they call Tsunami Papi in Phoenix, the Suns are nowhere close to the spot they currently sit in the loaded West. Fighting for a playoff spot this late in the season for the Suns falls a lot on the shoulders of their superstar scorer Devin Booker, but don’t forget about Kelly Oubre Jr. as the glue that helps put it all together.

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