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Grading the Suns’ last offseason: The looming decision on Kelly Oubre Jr.

Kelly Oubre Jr. #3 of the Phoenix Suns during the second half of the NBA game against the Portland Trail Blazers at Talking Stick Resort Arena on December 16, 2019 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Trail Blazers defeated the Suns 111-110. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The Phoenix Suns will be back for at least eight games, but even then, they are 65 games in and certain declarations can be made about the moves they made before the 2019-20 season.

Empire of the Suns will take a look at the most significant moves from last offseason, the first in which general manager James Jones and senior VP of basketball operations Jeff Bower were in charge on a permanent basis. Both Kevin Zimmerman and Kellan Olson will be giving their own grades, and we’ll also post the results from a Twitter poll.

Kellan Olson: B-

Kevin Zimmerman: A

Twitter: A – 71.4%, B – 23.4%, C – 4.2%, D/F – 0.9%

Kelly Oubre Jr. on the Phoenix Suns isn’t a one-way street and we need to get across a few different points.

First things first, he entered last year quietly being closer than you thought to being a very good NBA wing, a rarity across the league.

At the same time, Oubre was due for a contract extension, the one we are grading: a two-year, $30 million deal.

And even further out, the Suns might have to eventually pick between Oubre and Mikal Bridges, with Bridges eligible for a contract extension next summer, the same offseason Oubre will be an unrestricted free agent.

In the small sample size put out to a chunk of Suns Twitter, fans are split on the two.

The most logical assumption on the two-year deal was that the Suns didn’t want to pay Oubre $15-plus million a year on a long-term deal, and Oubre wanted to get paid, as he should.

Oubre was a 22-year-old role player in Washington but had yet to prove he held starter equity on a good team prior to his arrival in Phoenix, where he quickly earned it. The short sample size likely made the Suns rightfully a bit wary of the long-term commitment.

This deal seemed like a fair middle ground. Both sides could check in this summer and potentially next, if Oubre feels inclined to do so.

Like the acquisition of Oubre itself, even if this fell into their lap, the Suns still deserve credit for bringing back Oubre and how much better he has gotten in Phoenix. It was also a bit foolish, if not out of their control, to not get him on a long-term deal and potentially set themselves up to get screwed in 2021.

After establishing that context, let’s start with his improvement.

As discussed in that aforementioned piece, if Oubre cleaned up some correctable stuff in his game from an already career year in Phoenix after the 2019 trade deadline, he would be a certifiable great player at his position.

The big three problematic areas were his efficiency and proficiency scoring, odd turnovers and lacking off-ball defense.

We can put a checkmark on the offense as a whole. On defense, he still gets lost a bit. He can still be much better there.

Oubre scored 20 points or more in 24 games last season, out of only 56 games mind you, doubling his previous career total of 23 games.

That was thanks to an improved three-point shot at a career-high 35.2%.

In the six games Oubre hit at least four threes last season, he averaged 29.3 points per game. That confidence of seeing a few go in had him reach another gear, particularly getting in the zone with his movement to shoot off the catch.

Here’s the dagger a few will remember from Portland.

Moving away from his shooting pocket, back and to the right, as the pass is coming, is a difficult attempt to square up. But he slows himself and is still able to get off a good release even with the pass a little bit behind him.

In a trend we saw last summer, Oubre’s numbers were actually down where life should be the easiest: catch-and-shoot looks.

Last year, there was a strange downtick to 31.1% with both Phoenix and the Washington Wizards. He improved this year to 34.4%, what he was around in the 2017-18 season with the Wizards.

In another example of Oubre working, his pull-up three accuracy is at an all-time high of 37.9% on just over an attempt a game, a similar attempt rate he had the season before.

So, it’s not something he was forcing necessarily but was more comfortable taking.

Notice in this clip the way Oubre angles his body right on the dribble to get ready to shoot and does so with a mini-hop.

This is hard work paying off.

Oubre shot 45.2% from the field, and if he’s able to increase his finishing around the rim in the 60s after going 57% last year, now he’s flirting with 50% overall.

With that, his turnover percentage rising to 11.7% off career-high usage in Phoenix for the 2018-19 season dropped to 9.0% on similar usage this year. That might not sound significant, but it takes Oubre from the “meh” 41st percentile among forwards to a strong 86th.

He’s turned himself into a valuable offensive weapon, far away from just being limited as the pesky, athletic energy wing he was with the Wizards.

And you’re still getting that guy in Phoenix, too.

You can’t go too long discussing Oubre before mentioning how he’s the vibe king of the locker room. He’s the personality that connects multiple sections of the group.

Ricky Rubio wore Oubre’s practice jersey out pregame on the day the team found out the news of his meniscus injury.

Oubre started a mosh pit for the huddle following starting lineup introductions and will chase you down if you try and avoid the hype.

By the way, that’s Mikal Bridges also getting a hand on Booker, a relatively quiet player from afar that Oubre said became “the ring leader” of the mosh. Bridges took Oubre’s place as the master of ceremonies for the pit when Oubre got hurt.

Booker will imitate Oubre’s head bop.

Oubre will even briefly entertain Deandre Ayton’s admiration of his own fashion choices.

There was a clear, noticeable change in the demeanor of the team after Oubre’s arrival in December of 2018.

The team goes as he does. Phoenix was 1-9 in games Oubre scored under 14 points, and 10-9 when he got over 20. His value to the team is undeniable.

Beyond the development of young players, namely Ayton, the biggest potential shift for the latest rendition of the Suns’ rebuild over the next 14-ish months is what they do with Oubre.

All indications are he wants to stay and see this out. Oubre has said as much, continuously speaking on the importance of being present for the start of something and enjoying the growth from that point.

If the Suns progress next season in the same fashion they did this past year, they will have done everything they could to prevent Oubre from being too enticed by possibilities in free agency.

The big question is not if the Suns want to keep Oubre, because of course they want to. It’s more about what the price point is where they feel he’s asking too much of them and they’re OK with moving on.

But if you had to bet on whether the Suns could get a player as good for them as Oubre with the money they’d be paying him, would you?

All statistics via NBA.com/stats and Cleaning the Glass


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