Through four games, the Sixers have gotten standout play from a brash lefty with tons of swag.
Sorry, didn’t mean to confuse you. James Harden is actually gone.
This story is about Kelly Oubre, Jr., who has quickly become a fan favorite in Philadelphia — and it somehow makes no sense and a lot of sense at the same time.
The 27-year-old wing isn’t what you think of when you imagine the prototypical Philly athlete. That title would go to someone more like Patrick Beverley, whose play style, zero-effs-given attitude and pandering are already playing well here.
To look at Oubre, you’d think fashion model before NBA player in one of the grittiest sports cities in the country. The man known as “Tsunami Papi” has movie star looks, is covered in tattoos, has facial piercings, paints his fingernails and speaks as if he’s operating on a different plane of existence than the rest of us. It’s some combination of Dennis Rodman meets Hansel from Zoolander meets Bruce Lee.
He’s a different dude.
“All love, man,” Oubre told reporters Friday about his relationship with Philly fans. “It’s the city of love, city of brotherly love. The fans are amazing. Best fan base that I’ve played for. They’re very loud and proud to represent the 76ers, man, and it makes you go out there and give it your all. Even if you get tired, it makes you kind of go into that reserve tank because the fans are always loud. So it’s love.”
Oubre is what the kids would call a bucket. He averaged over 20 points a game last season in Charlotte, a career high. The Hornets were ravaged by injuries and Oubre was thrust into his largest scoring role yet. It wasn’t the most efficient season, but still, you would’ve thought the nine-year veteran could’ve parlayed that into a decent payday.
Alas, Oubre’s best opportunity was to take a veteran minimum deal with the Sixers. It’s only been four games, but it’s easy to see where he fits here. The Sixers have been devoid of athleticism on the wing basically since Jimmy Butler left. They also haven’t had a bench scorer like Oubre since ... maybe Lou Williams?
The fit has been seamless.
“He plays so hard on the basketball court, does all the little things — cutting, defending,” Tobias Harris said after the Sixers’ win over the Raptors Thursday. “He’s active, and he’s an electric scorer. He can go out there and get buckets at a high volume.”
It’s very early, but Oubre is averaging 20 points a game on 67.9% true shooting as a Sixer. On top of that, he’s optimizing his physical tools to be a disruptive defender, averaging nearly two steals a game. His energy and activity levels are apparent — and much needed.
The shooting variance has been wild. Oubre went 5-for-6 from three in the first and fourth games, while going 0-for-10 in between. The key to Oubre’s success thus far has been his ability to find other ways to score and help the team when the deep ball isn’t falling.
“He’s been really good,” Nick Nurse said postgame Thursday. “He scored 20 points a game last season … so the capability to drive and shoot is there. Again, I think his athleticism — and he’s got a high compete level. He’s competing at both ends.
“I thought he made some kind of interesting plays tonight. When we needed a little boost here and there, he made some plays to keep the momentum rolling our way or turn it back our way. He’s been a good pickup, that’s for sure.”
For years it’s felt like something was missing here. Even as the team has had varying levels of success, it’s almost like there’s been a disconnect between the city and its basketball team. The tide might be turning with the impending stardom of the charismatic Tyrese Maxey, a player like Beverley providing a ruggedness that’s often been missing, and, frankly, Harden no longer being here.
In the Sixers’ first two home games, Oubre has received a rousing ovation from the fans every team he’s introduced. On Thursday, he really rewarded that support in the third quarter. With things sort of teetering back to Toronto’s favor, Oubre played the entire period and dropped 10 points. In an unlikely turn of events, it was Oubre and Beverley, two guys signed to veteran minimum deals, that sort of took the game over.
Throughout the early going we’ve heard multiple players talk about feeling like they all had something to prove — Joel Embiid needing to prove himself in the playoffs, Maxey proving he can be a point guard, Harris proving he’s still a pretty darn good player. Even Nurse proving he’s still one of the best coaches in the league.
Oubre hasn’t spoken in too much detail about his offseason and his discussions with other teams. He’s subtly hinted many times that there’s a sizable chip on his shoulder.
“I’m starving. So yeah, I would say so,” Oubre said ahead of the opener about the Sixers being hungry. “That’s give or take, right? You’ve got a lot of highs and lows in this sport and it’s about being consistent, figuring out that middle ground and silver lining. But I’m starving. I ain’t going to say too much about that. I think a lot of people will see that.”
One of the things Oubre has done well is play off Embiid. Oubre got the start Thursday night and continued to show how effective he can be cutting and finding gaps when opponents choose to double team the reigning MVP.
It’s been an adjustment for Oubre, but an exciting one.
“It’s different because I’ve never played with anybody of this caliber,” Oubre told reporters Friday. “But at the end of the day, it’s fun. I lick my chops whenever I see people get double teamed because that means somebody’s got to be open, right? And I want to be that person. It’s fun and I’m excited to continue to grow.”
And the eccentric wing continues to grow on the fan base.
Oubre seems like a complex person. Perhaps slightly misunderstood. Certainly not afraid to be vulnerable or acknowledge his imperfections.
“It’s a love-hate relationship,” Oubre said in a recent interview with Stadium. “Some people love me, some people loathe me. But at the end of the day I’m human, man. I’m learning and I’m growing. I’m still 27 so I have a lot of life to learn and grow from.”
In that sense, Oubre might actually be perfect for Philly.