Kelly Oubre Jr.

Oubre's been playing like a positive X-factor for Sixers — and not just scoring 

The Sixers wing has done more than get buckets during his strong month of March.

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Kelly Oubre Jr. was very happy to field a question about his defense Monday evening.

“Yeahhh,” Oubre said with a grin when he heard the words “four-block night.”

Thanks to a successful challenge by head coach Nick Nurse, Oubre was ultimately credited with five rejections in the Sixers’ victory vs. the Heat, which set a new career high.

Scoring is still his calling card, but he’s made plenty of important, encouraging plays besides bucket-getting with Joel Embiid sidelined by a left meniscus injury.

Defensively, Oubre’s often blended his agility, length (wingspan a shade over 7-foot-2), and ball-hunting instincts well lately. He was stellar in the Sixers’ March 10 win over the Knicks and All-Star guard Jalen Brunson, who shot 2 for 9 from the floor with Oubre defending him.

Against Miami, Oubre showcased his ability to be disruptive without needing to rely on rash gambles. His blocks ranged from an off-script swat on Thomas Bryant to a final-minute stonewall of Jaime Jaquez Jr. in the post. 

“Timing, not fouling as much, and just trying to be in the right spots,” Oubre said. “A lot of times I’m a good on-ball defender, but helping and being off the best players on the other team is where I lapse at. So I’m trying to be focused and be there for my guys no matter what. If somebody gets beat, I’m there to help. 

“We have to make extra efforts. It’s just effort and energy, that’s all defense is. I’m just trying to be really focused on that.”

Those efforts have impressed teammates like Tyrese Maxey, who's of course also appreciated Oubre’s 20.7 points per game thus far in March. 

“Kelly’s been great,” Maxey said. “He’s had so many different roles this year. He’s come off the bench, he’s started. He’s had to sometimes be the second option, third option, fourth option. You’ve got to cut, got to iso, got to make threes, got to guard the best player. He’s been guarding really well this year. Shout out to Kelly, man. He’s been great for us and we’re going to keep needing him to do that, especially toward playoff time.”

With 14 regular-season games to go, the Sixers hope Oubre’s passing can keep trending up, too.

Throughout his career, Oubre’s been an unequivocally shot-centric, low-assist player. He’s only posted more than five assists in a game once and his season-high is four. However, Nurse thinks that the 28-year-old wing’s been improving a bit at making sensible, controlled passes and capitalizing on all the attention he draws. 

“He’s got a great first step, man,” Nurse said. “It’s hard for a single defender to keep him in front. And then you kind of tell him, ‘These guys watch film, right? So if you’re going to beat everybody all the time, they’ve got to send people. And they’re sending a lot of people now, so you’ve got to make the next move.’ 

“My favorite thing he’s doing is he’s getting to six, eight feet and he’s getting himself on balance. So he’s able to get that pass out. … But even if that (pass) isn’t open, he can regather himself and maybe make some type of on-balance shot — or pump fake, or try to draw a foul or something. So we’re trying to get him to be able to (drive) in there and make several decisions. And we’re making some progress there.”

Oubre made a clutch dish on March 3 in Dallas with the sort of poised approach Nurse likes to see. He jump stopped in the paint, briefly paused, and recognized Kyrie Irving had left Tobias Harris open in the corner. 

“We watch a lot of film, we break down a lot of plays,” Oubre said. “(Assistant coach) Coby Karl is one of the guys who I give credit to for helping me — just talking to me, pulling me aside. He’s not my main shooting coach or anything like that, but he’s a guy who talks to everybody, makes sure we’re all good mentally and physically. And also (assistant coach/player development coach Fabulous Flournoy). We’ve been just watching film all year and it’s kind of paying forward now.” 

As the NBA world knows, the Sixers’ postseason hopes ride largely on Embiid and Maxey. But before he suffered a fractured rib in November and missed 11 games, Oubre had looked like a non-star player who could perhaps swing a playoff series. 

That idea again doesn’t sound ludicrous. 

“He’s getting there,” Nurse said before Monday’s game. “I was concerned, after the injury, that he was never really finding his feet again. But I think he’s found ‘em and then some. I’m happy with where he is right now.”

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