Watching Kelly Oubre make the walk from the team bus to the locker room is a little like being transported from the arena to front row of a fashion show. Roughly three-and-a-half hours before game time, with reporters and cameramen milling about, Oubre enters the scene.
Dressed in head-to-toe black, the red accents on his pants and sweater match the red-rimmed sunglasses he is wearing—despite a mid-April afternoon ice storm beating down on Toronto outside. Phones raise, camera flashes pop and the concrete walls seem to recede into the distance, becoming the backdrop for a 22-year-old’s casually confident stroll toward the Wizards’ locker room.
Once he enters the locker room, the only tangible evidence of his fashionable entrance hang from the hooks in his locker stall. For the rest of the night, he is wearing #12, serving as reserve swingman for the Washington Wizards. Two days later, prior to Game 2 in Washington’s first-round series against the Toronto Raptors, Oubre does the walk once again. Keeping with the same red and black color scheme, this time he opts for a red Washington Capitals hockey jersey.
“I always vowed to be confident, no matter what. Obviously I love doing what I love to do, so I have to have fun with it. That’s the only reason I go out there and try to put my own little creative style on the game.”
Despite these fine sartorial choices, the Wizards leave Toronto trailing the Raptors 0-2 in their best-of-seven series. Oubre was limited to just three points and 16 minutes in a Game 1 loss. He scored 16 points off the bench in Game 2, playing 30 minutes. Although there is disappointment in not being able to steal a game on the road, the Wizards are calm heading back to Washington.
Though Oubre’s added flair on and off court—“that’s the fun part of basketball, you can put your own style on it”—can draw the ire of detractors and opponents alike, his carefree spirit has been important for the Wizards. After grinding out a rollercoaster regular season and entering the postseason as the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, confidence is crucial in the NBA’s second season. Coincidentally, confidence is something Oubre hasn’t ever been without.
“I always vowed to be confident, no matter what,” he says. “Obviously I love doing what I love to do, so I have to have fun with it. That’s the only reason I go out there and try to put my own little creative style on the game.”
In three seasons, Oubre has seen his minutes jump from 10.7 per game to 20.3 per game to 27.5 per game. His scoring averages have increased as well, starting at 3.7 points in his rookie season, nearly doubling at 6.3 in his sophomore season, to a career-high 11.8 points per game this year. Making the transition from college to the NBA is always an adjustment. Young players need to go through their first NBA season, they have to get used to the physicality, the size, speed and strength of their opponents, as well as learn tendencies and coverages.
“You go from college, playing 32 games a season, to playing 82 games,” says Oubre. “Now I’m in my third season. It’s a lot, but as an NBA player you have to be mentally tough. You have to take care of your body, you have to eat right, you have to sleep. You have to do the proper things to help you get over that curve and be great.”
Oubre’s increased role and production hasn’t happened by accident. He has made changes to his daily routine, the biggest being how he prioritizes sleep. While other 22-year-olds might be fresh off four years of pulling all-nighters in college, Oubre is focused on maximizing his resting hours to help his body recover from the rigors of the NBA.
“Utilizing my downtime [has been the biggest change],” he says. “Really focusing on sleep. Sleep is very important for me because as a 22-year-old, I can try to be up all night, try to take over the world, but at the end of the day that’s not what’s going to help me on this basketball court.”
When the Wizards were without John Wall for half of the season due to injury, backcourt mate Bradley Beal stepped up in his absence to lead the Wizards. It has been Beal who has served as Oubre’s mentor, in addition to being one of his closest friends on the team, teaching him the ropes of being an NBA player and showing him how to be a professional.
“He’s been through it all,” Oubre says of Beal. “He’s 24, I’m 22, I get to watch him every day, see him putting in work, be great, be who he is. He’s shown me the ins and outs of the game and I look at him as a big brother and nothing less. I respect him.”
While others focus on Oubre’s showman tendencies, missing the improvements he has made to his game, Beal has been there for it all. He delights in discussing how his teammate has grown since being drafted by the Wizards in 2015.
“His maturity, learning how to handle the lifestyle and how to handle being a pro [has been the biggest change],” says Beal. “He can be really special, but he has to make sure his mental is always right. I’m somebody that always challenges him, pushing him to be the best he can possibly be. He’s a special kid. He’s young, he’s athletic, he’s constantly growing each and every year. The sky is the limit for him. He’s somebody I want to see have great success in this league.”
In a long, sometimes grueling season, teammates who help to keep things light make coming into practices easier during the tough stretches. Beal encourages Oubre to be himself, knowing how it can help the rest of the guys on the team.
“Whenever he’s positive and has energy, we feed off that,” says Beal. “His spirit and his emotion—I tell him, bring it all with you. Sometimes people don’t like it, people think we’re too emotional, but you’ve got to bring it on the floor and have fun.”
Beal isn’t the only one preaching the importance of Oubre’s energy, particularly of the defensive end of the floor.
“Whenever he’s positive and has energy, we feed off that. His spirit and his emotion—I tell him, bring it all with you. Sometimes people don’t like it, people think we’re too emotional, but you’ve got to bring it on the floor and have fun.”—Bradley Beal
“Coach is on his A-S-S all the time,” Beal told Candace Buckner of the Washington Post. “He understands what his position is and he understands how valuable he is to the team and how he needs to play energetic and play with passion … every game.”
Considering Oubre’s obvious love for fashion, music and self-expression, it doesn’t seem far-fetched to imagine him saying that one of the best parts of being in the NBA, beyond getting to make a living playing basketball, is the lifestyle. In reality, the answer he gives couldn’t be farther away from the flashy trappings of celebrity life.
“The most fun part, honestly, is giving back to young kids,” he says. “You can put a smile on other people’s faces, you can make somebody else’s day and for me—that’s what I love: to make other people’s day, to make other people smile, to be able to use my platform to touch others and actually make an impact on others’ lives, that’s the most important thing. It never gets old, man.”
And the worst part?
“What does get old, is the old men hecklers. You have the young kids who just love the game, love to be around it, but you have the old head hecklers who are betting money on the games. That’s what’s not really fun, but at the end of the day I still get to play basketball, so I love it all.”
Oubre connects his passion for art—in any form—with growing up in New Orleans, Louisiana.
“It’s where I’m from. It’s a culture-driven place, nothing but art, music and love. I feel like that’s my roots and that’s where I get it from. I’m a reflection of where I come from.”
Though he said he wasn’t the type of kid who grew up idolizing athletes or celebrities, despite “admiring and definitely respecting talent and success,” he lit up as he recalled meeting Kanye West in a VIP area of one of the rapper’s fashion shows, calling it “pretty dope.”
Excitement just seems to trail Oubre. Holding court with reporters talking about last night’s game or huddled off to the side discussing one of his other passions, there is an earnestness that rises above Oubre’s confidence that is immediately endearing. It can seem impossible to have things figured out in the whirlwind that is a life in professional sports at age 22. And yet, when Oubre sums up his journey, all of the basketball and non-basketball parts that make him who he is, it just makes sense.
“Imma be a star regardless,” he says. “Let’s put it like that.”