A month ago, when his playing time was limited and his role unclear, Kelly Oubre picked up the phone and called an old friend. He needed to talk.
Oubre, a 6-foot-7 wing with a body that appears created for basketball, was supposed to be the heir apparent to Andrew Wiggins. He played the same position — small forward. He was a McDonald’s All-American and consensus top-10 recruit. He was supposed to slot into the Kansas starting lineup and help the Jayhawks to an 11th straight Big 12 title. And if everything broke right, maybe that would be him shaking the NBA commissioner’s hand in New York next June, another one-and-done first-round pick.
Oubre never talked about any of this, of course. From the moment he stepped on campus last summer, he said all the right things. He talked about buying into the program. About being patient and enjoying the process. Oubre picked Kansas, he says, because Bill Self offered him a convincing plan and the program touched his heart on his recruiting visit. So why rush the natural order of things?
“Everybody adjusts differently,” Oubre said.
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Then came a stretch in late November and early December. Oubre averaged just 6.5 minutes in four games, and no matter how hard he tried to keep things in perspective, the lack of playing time had to hurt. So Oubre would call Arizona freshman Stanley Johnson, a fellow top recruit he had befriended during high school. The two friends, Oubre says, would talk about the struggles of adjusting to the college game.
“He was going through a similar situation I was going through,” Oubre says. “We talked how it’s just a process; how we both have to just stick with it, stay strong.”
The way Oubre tells the story, there was no need for soul-searching or deep conversations about his future. But it was nice to open up to someone who could relate. It was a way, he says, to keep his confidence up.
One month later, Oubre’s confidence is still rising. He has averaged 15.2 points and 6.8 rebounds over Kansas’ last four games, solidifying himself as the Jayhawks’ starter on the wing. One month after being buried on the bench, Oubre has transformed into Kansas’ most reliable freshman and wing player as the Jayhawks finish out the nonconference season against UNLV at 3:30 p.m. Sunday at Allen Fieldhouse.
“If you were to look at it now,” Self says, “he went from probably being the guy that looked the least ready a month ago, to now he looks like he’s by far the most advanced. And that’s the way it is with young kids. Sometimes, the light comes on at different times.”
Self never doubted that the light would come on. Oubre had too much talent. His long wingspan — measured at 7-1 1/2 inches at a camp last summer — can create havoc in passing lanes and on broken plays. And he’s shot the ball even better than expected. In a limited 12-game sample, Oubre is shooting nearly 48 percent from three-point range (11 of 23) and he has knocked down four three-pointers in two of Kansas’ last three games. Still, Self wonders if he handled Oubre the right way during the season’s opening month. Oubre was not playing very well. That much was apparent. He struggled to understand defensive concepts. He was hesitant. He was overwhelmed by the speed of the game. So Self did what few coaches would do. He essentially benched a top-10 recruit.
“I don’t know that I handled it very well at all,” Self says. “But he wasn’t playing very well early, and other guys were probably playing a little better than him.”
For the better part of two weeks, Self had to answer questions about his top recruit on the bench. It’s a process, Self would say, still confident that Oubre’s time would come. For Oubre, the first positive signs came in a road victory at Georgetown on Dec. 10. He scored seven points and snared five rebounds in 16 minutes, and he earned himself a spot at the post-game press conference alongside sophomore Brannen Greene. It was a small moment, of course, but for Oubre, it was a way to feel good about himself. In the following weeks, Oubre says, he continued to study the Jayhawks’ playbook, picking up on concepts and trying to borrow lessons and moves from his older teammates.
“This was my goal to do this the whole time, take it day by day and enjoy the process,” Oubre says. “I’ve been learning from all the veteran guys that were in my position like [Brannen Greene] and Wayne [Selden].
“I’ve been taking bits and pieces from their game, seeing how they do little things like [the] scouting report, taking stuff seriously.”
In the next moment, Oubre talks about the importance of having a “professional mindset,” which sounds slightly funny coming from a teenage freshman. But this is partly why Oubre chose Kansas. On Sunday, Kansas will face UNLV on national television, a game that will have special meaning for Oubre, who spent his senior year of high school at Findlay Prep in the Las Vegas area.
Who knows how long Oubre will be on campus, and at the moment, it doesn’t really matter. But these are the type of games that Oubre wanted to play in. He wanted to play at a school where the coach held his players’ accountable, where the demand was perfection, where he could learn to be a professional at the right pace.
“Coach wants everything to be perfect,” Oubre says.
For now, perfection is still a process.
UNLV at No. 13 Kansas
When: 3:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Allen Fieldhouse, Lawrance
Records: UNLV 9-4, KU 10-2
Radio: KFH, 1240-AM, 98.7-FM
TV: KWCH, Ch. 12
UNLV at No. 13 Kansas
UNLV: Wood is projected to be a first-round pick whenever he decides to leave school. He had 24 points and 10 rebounds in UNLV’s 71-67 upset over No. 3 Arizona on Dec. 23, and he’s averaging 25 points and 10.3 rebounds in his last three games. “If you watch tape, this Christian Wood is different than anybody you’ve ever seen,” Kansas coach Bill Self said, “because he’s really a guard that’s 7-foot tall.” With Wood anchoring the middle, the Runnin’ Rebels rank fifth in the country with 7.2 blocks per game. Okonoboh also has 33 blocks. But UNLV has struggled to score at times. Vaughn — a former McDonald’s All-American who was recruited by KU — leads the team with 17.9 points per game while shooting 43.9 percent. The Rebels’ four losses came against Stanford, Arizona State, Utah and Wyoming.
KANSAS: The last time Kansas faced a Mountain West program in its non-conference finale, San Diego State entered Allen Fieldhouse last January and handed Self one of his nine home losses at KU. Self said this week that he doesn’t need to remind his team about what happened last year, but he will anyway. The Jayhawks are 4-0 all-time against UNLV, with the last victory coming in the second round of the 2008 NCAA Tournament. After Kansas’ 78-62 victory over Kent State on Tuesday, Self said Oubre had solidified himself as the Jayhawks’ starter at the three. But Self is also hoping for more productivity from Selden, who has scored in double figures just once in KU’s last five games. Mason has picked up some of the scoring slack. Mason has been in double figures in nine straight games. Will Alexander return to the starting lineup? Self has stopped answering questions about his starting lineup, but Alexander finished with eight points off the bench against Kent State after being replaced in the starting lineup by junior Jamari Traylor.