At Kansas, Kelly Oubre Jr. blossoms into go-to player after slow start
LAWRENCE, Kan.—The Marines came to Kansas on a Thursday. Invited by the Jayhawks’ men’s basketball staff, the ex-military officers were on campus in late September to put the team through Judgment Day, a program aimed at fostering trust and honing communication for one of the country’s greenest rosters. Through the first afternoon and evening of work that lasted until after dark, players carried teammates on their backs and did push-ups in unison, starting anew if someone so much as flinched out of rhythm. By 5 a.m. the next day, the Jayhawks were in the Robinson Center pool, wearing their hoodies.
For Kelly Oubre, one of Kansas’ two All-America recruits, this was only a minor problem. As swimmers go, the 6’7” Houston native was in no danger of earning a spot on an Olympic medal stand. But he could stay afloat so long as he didn’t panic, so that is what he focused on: Remaining calm, trying to offer what help he could to others like fellow freshman Cliff Alexander, who needed teammates to act as life preservers. It did not help, though, when the Marines instructed everyone to remove their sweatshirts—while in the water. “A lot of people thought they almost died that day,” Oubre says months later in the refuge of Allen Fieldhouse, only half-kidding.
By now, Kansas is accustomed to pursuing success with gifted freshmen that must dive in but not go under. So it was last year with Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, who respectively became the No. 1 and No. 3 picks in the NBA draft. So it was supposed to be with Oubre and Alexander this season. Their assimilation has been more complicated, though, especially with Alexander now sidelined indefinitely during an NCAA eligibility probe. Oubre, meanwhile, battled through limited minutes early to become a reliable cog on offense, defense and on the glass, critical contributions with Alexander idled.
The Jayhawks are 24-7 and have clinched an 11th straight Big 12 title, despite having the nation’s 16th-least experienced team, according to StatSheet.com. They have a high ceiling and Final Four aspirations. To facilitate that, Oubre must continue his steep ascent on the court. “We need it bad,” Kansas coach Bill Self says. “When things go bad, sometimes nobody steps up and tries to rally the troops. We’ve got guys that try but it’s not in their personality to actually do so. He’s the one guy that doesn’t care. It doesn’t matter who he gets on or who he praises—it doesn’t make a difference. He’s comfortable in his own skin to be a leader.”
Oubre was not so at ease during the Orlando Classic tournament in November. There, he got the dose of high-level college competition he anticipated. His vantage point—the bench—was less expected. In the first nine games of his college career, Oubre would amass 91 total minutes on the floor.
“I was like, ‘Yo, is this really happening to me?’” he says.
It was stunning for a McDonald’s All-American who averaged 23 points per game after transferring to powerhouse Findlay College Prep in Las Vegas, which followed three standout years at Bush High in Richmond, Texas. Though, in truth, he had endured worse.
[daily_cut.college basketball]Nine years earlier, Oubre, his father and then stepmother packed into a 2001 Toyota Sequoia to leave their New Orleans home for the Houston area. Kelly Oubre Sr. was already disenfranchised with what he saw as bad schools and decaying infrastructure in Louisiana. With Hurricane Katrina bearing down on the city, he had no intention of returning.
The storm hit the day after the Oubres left. Thus the family began a new life at a Motel 6 in Texas. “It was interesting to say the least,” Kelly Sr. says. “One bed. First-floor deal, wide-open parking lot, typical fleabag inn.”
The younger Oubre watched television reports about the storm, asking after friends he wouldn’t see again. (His mother, Tonya, stayed in New Orleans and still lives there, but they’ve maintained a relationship since the move.) He was enrolled in a new school, Stafford Elementary, despite initially living out of the motel. He stayed quiet among all the new faces that, even at that age, had established their own friend groups. “I was like an outsider,” Oubre says. That sense of not belonging forged an edge he carried for years. And he certainly had help sharpening it over time.
His father put him in karate at age 6 as part of a plan “to season my son and get him ready for whatever.” Kelly Jr. earned a black belt two years later. When Rivals.com at one point ranked him the No. 56 prospect in the Class of 2014, Oubre took it as an affront; he wrote “56” on a dry erase board that he hung from his bedroom door. Every time he moved up in the ratings, he replaced the number on the board. At Findlay Prep, he used a similar method to motivate his team: He wrote their ranking on a locker room board, or how much the team had lost by, or just a single word like “Underdogs,” to remind his teammates to show everyone how good they could be.
Something, though, softened upon his arrival in Lawrence. “People always say I play with a chip on my shoulder and I lost that chip coming into college,” Oubre says. “I got a lot of notoriety coming in. It humbled me, brought me back to earth, like I’m not really anything.” Self, his coach, diagnosed it as a confident player suddenly thinking too much: Am I in the right spot? Does coach want me to shoot this? Do I front the cutter here? “Sometimes the harder he worked, the less he got done,” the Jayhawks coach says. “He was a thinker, because he wanted to please, and not a reactor, so he looked slow.”
Early in the season, Oubre saw that a friend and former AAU comrade, Arizona freshman Stanley Johnson, hadn’t elevated into the starting lineup for the Wildcats. When Oubre reached out on FaceTime and asked what was going on, Johnson lamented that he just couldn’t get it in practice, that the coaches saw him doing his own thing instead of doing what they wanted. Oubre almost had to laugh: That’s exactly what I’m going through, he told Johnson. So the scuffling Kansas freshman resolved not to think at all. He’d simply absorb every coaching point, apply it and strive to get the details right. I’m going to practice like a pro, Oubre told his father.
A breakthrough—23 points and 10 rebounds in a Dec. 20 win over Lafayette—followed. It was Oubre’s first double-figure scoring effort. “It was going to be hard as hell to contain him based on the little crumb you gave him,” Kelly Sr. says. “Because he’s been eating crumbs his whole life.” From that night forward, Kelly Jr. averaged 11.3 points and 6.3 rebounds while amassing 32 steals in 22 games. He also established more night-to-night consistency by the end of the regular season, posting 12 points or more in six of his last seven outings and capping the year with a 12-point, 10-rebound double-double at Oklahoma on Saturday.
He has become the player he and Self had envisioned—not necessarily a scorer like Ben McLemore, who averaged 15.9 points in his lone season at Kansas, nor as otherworldly as Wiggins, who averaged 17.1 points for the Jayhawks last season. Instead, Oubre is a versatile wing who can find his own shot when required or clear the glass or mark the opposition’s best player. Or all of the above.
“We’re going to run plays for Ben,” Self says. “He’s going to score more points, because that’s what he was. Kelly was a little bit of everything. That does excite me, because I think he can do a little bit of everything, and I think he’s improving on all those things.”
Or, as junior forward Perry Ellis puts it: “He’s all over the place on the floor.”
What Kansas requires most of all in March, though, is Oubre’s assertiveness, which is lacking elsewhere on the roster. Ellis may well wind up as the Big 12 Player of the Year, and players like point guard Frank Mason have elevated their game in order to keep the Jayhawks humming. Still, Self says visitors have mentioned how generally quiet his practices are. Oubre, meanwhile, is the talker whose voice cuts through any silence.
The Marines indeed cited the freshman as one of the group’s emerging leaders in September. Oubre also got ticked off any time the former soldiers labeled anyone else as a “lion,” a primary leader, in any of the exercises. “I was like, that’s kind of BS,” Oubre says. "I don’t like when people underrate things I can do. I tried to work to be more of (a leader). Not a lot of people listen to the freshmen, but I had to make them listen.”
He’ll pull his teammates to the side now, telling them to keep it going, to get done what needs to get done. It was probably only a matter of time before he seized that role—time for Oubre to adjust to what was asked of him, time to gain the staff’s trust, and time on the floor to use that edge like he always had.
“I expected it to click for me from the beginning, but apparently it didn’t work that way,” he says. “Everybody follows the process differently. I’m just glad the process hit me like it did.”
In Embiid and Wiggins, Self knew he had potential No. 1 picks on hand, whether it took one year or two years to reach that level. This is why the Jayhawks coach believes comparing two classes of stud Jayhawks freshmen is a bit superficial.
“Kelly has been awesome, he’s been terrific,” Self says. “He has played his way into being a high draft pick. I think Cliff will be a pretty high draft pick, too. But the whole thing is, neither one has probably produced how you would anticipate a top 5 pick to produce. But: neither one were probably going to be that. I do think both of them will have an opportunity very, very soon, and probably after this year, to be in that category. But it hasn’t been an automatic for them.”
For what it’s worth, Oubre says he purposefully avoids viewing mock drafts. Any time the NBA arises, his father says, Kelly Jr. changes the subject. There are more pressing concerns.
Of course, Oubre can’t replace the paint-patrolling presence that Alexander can provide when the 6’8”, 240-pound Chicago native isn’t tormented by his own inconsistencies or sidelined by the eligibility questions. He can simply fill in as he always has, offering a little bit of everything and offering his team with a quiet self-assurance that speaks volumes.
“We’ve gone through a lot of ups and downs,” Oubre says. “I feel like that’s helped mold us to be great.”
The next month will judge how right he is.