Kelly Oubre Jr. gets a prominent chance
The Wizards already popped a player into the MRI machine on the second day of the regular season. The outcome of the magnetic resonance imaging of Jason Smith’s right shoulder was positive. There is no structural damage. It’s just sore.
Though, that soreness quickly eats into Washington’s depth and vaults Kelly Oubre Jr. into a key spot early in the season. Wizards coach Scott Brooks did not confirm that Oubre would start in Smith’s place Friday night against the Detroit Pistons, but hinted at its likelihood. Smith was only in the starting lineup in Wednesday’s opener because Markieff Morris is still recovering from late-offseason sports hernia surgery. Replacing them with Oubre is swapping rhinos for a cheetah. There are benefits to both, depending on the situation.
Smith is listed as 7 feet tall. Morris is 6 foot 10 and ornery. Oubre, who was admirably described by Wizards center Marcin Gortat as a “hot-head” at times is slender and rangy. He is also much faster than either Morris or Smith.
“There’s definitely a possibility [that Oubre starts],” Brooks said. “I’m not making that decision on how he played [Wednesday]. He played great. I’m going to make that decision [Friday based on] how it can help us win the next game.”
A look at the aforementioned first game shows a strong evening for Oubre. He scored 14 points on 10 shots, which is marked efficiency for a young player who has shot poorly in his lone two NBA seasons. Oubre also found a way to eight rebounds, a key line in the stat column if he is going to help replace part of the Wizards’ missing girth.
But, Oubre made mistakes in the game. He went 1-on-3 on a fastbreak which ended with his shot being blocked and a wide open teammate on the opposite wing trying to get his attention. After a late-game rebound, he passed the ball to Gortat, the worst free-throw shooter on the floor. Those tactical errors were countered by flashes of good help defense, including a cover-up block after a teammate was beat, and his usual high level of energy.
“Kelly’s Kelly,” Gortat said. “Volcano of energy. Obviously, sometimes he’s a hot-head. We love what he do. He’s just to understand, with the starters, he’s got to play a little bit different way than when he’s in the second unit. But he’s doing tremendous job. We love what he’s doing.”
The “different way” Gortat is referring to remains anchored in what Brooks has tried to draw from Oubre in the last year-plus. Brooks is asking for defense, rebounding and effort foremost. He thinks Oubre should average seven rebounds a night. Scoring, particularly with the starting group, remains a bonus. If he is on the floor with the bench players, Brooks will provide Oubre more offensive leeway.
“He’s been fine with that second unit,” Brooks said. “He’s handling the ball better. He’s shooting the ball better. He’s making better decisions offensively. So, it gives him more opportunities to do that in the second unit.”
Oubre’s work may soon be restricted to the second unit since Morris continues to move forward quickly in his rehabilitation. Thursday, Morris participated in all of Washington’s non-contact practice. He went through each drill with his teammates during the standard day-after-game focus on structure and details and less on slamming bodies together. Morris’ original timeline for a return to games from the sports hernia surgery Sept. 22 was 6-8 weeks. Almost four weeks after the surgery, Morris is close to returning to practice.
“He looked good,” Brooks said. “He’s getting better day-by-day. I don’t know when he’s going to come back, but I know he’s going to come back soon to practice.”
The absence of Morris, and possibly Smith, influences the roster beyond Oubre. Sliding Oubre into the starting lineup also moves Otto Porter from small forward to stretch four. That bumps Mike Scott into a role as the first bench replacement in the frontcourt. Brooks would typically prefer to play a nine-man rotation that is occasionally expanded to 10. Instead, injuries to his power forwards have caused him to move deep into his bench players to start the season. Washington absorbed the issue Wednesday night in its season-opening win. It may be able to deal with Friday against the Detroit Pistons, too, though Porter or Oubre will be giving away 30 pounds to Pistons force Tobias Harris, who had 27 points and 10 rebounds in the opener.
Long-term, the Wizards need Morris and Smith back as soon as possible.