Oubre signing paying dividends for Hornets

The free agent addition is averaging 16.5 points in just over 28 minutes a game

Kelly Oubre Jr. has proven to be a good fit for the Hornets since signing as a free agent with Charlotte in the offseason. (Jacob Kupferman / AP Photo)

CHARLOTTE — In early August, Charlotte Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak made his largest move of the offseason and gambled on Kelly Oubre Jr., signing the small forward to a two-year, $26 million deal.

Although the No. 15 pick from the 2015 NBA Draft had played for three different teams in six seasons, the Hornets needed rotational depth to make up for the free agency departures of Devonte’ Graham and Malik Monk, who combined for more than 25 points per game last year.

Nearly a third of the way through the season, Kupchak’s decision to bet on Oubre has paid its dividends for the 14-12 Hornets. The former Kansas Jayhawks star has scored 20 or more points in six of the Hornets’ past seven games, including 28 points in Sunday’s win in Atlanta and a 35-point performance in an overtime loss to Philadelphia on Monday.

With Charlotte missing five players — LaMelo Ball, Terry Rozier, Ish Smith, Mason Plumlee and Jalen McDaniels — due to the NBA’s health and safety protocols, Oubre has emerged as a reliable producer with the best shooting rate of his career to supplement established scorers Miles Bridges, Gordon Hayward and P.J. Washington.

Oubre is currently posting career-highs with 46.6% shooting from the field and 39.4% shooting from the 3-point line, cracking the NBA’s top-10 in 3-pointers made per game with an average of 2.9. He said Monday night that his offensive success over the past month can be attributed to Hornets coach James Borrego defining what he needs from the 6-foot-7 forward.

“I would just say it’s me getting more confident in my role,” Oubre said after playing a season-high 43 minutes. “Also, me just going out there and not expecting anything, just trying to flow with the offense and everything that coach calls. I know I can do a lot of things better, of course, so I’ll focus on those things instead of the positives.”

When the Hornets get their five missing players back in the lineup, Borrego has the option to either continue starting Oubre or hope his momentum will translate to valuable minutes coming off the bench once again.

“When Kelly plays like that and our bench plays with that type of efficiency, we’re a different team,” Borrego said. “We’re going to need that. We’re going to need a spark off the bench. I believe every win we’ve had, someone off the bench has had a big game. We’re always going to need a spark to bring us home. I’m really proud of him. He stuck with it even through some adversity throughout the season.”

The adversity Borrego is the times Oubre’s 3-point shooting has turned ice-cold — he missed all seven of his 3s in a 115-105 road loss to Atlanta three weeks ago and was just 2 of 10 from long range in a 146-143 road loss to Houston two weeks ago.

Those games resembled the first half of his 2020-21 season in Golden State when he had the lowest percentage from behind the arc in the entire league.

Even in games like his 13-for‑24 shooting effort Monday, Oubre has struggled at times coming up empty on high percentage shots in the paint, particularly when he puts the ball on the floor for an isolation dribble-drive.

In Monday’s overtime loss, he turned an overtime jump ball against 76ers 7-footer Joel Embiid into a fast break, but he missed a wide-open layup that would have given the Hornets a quick lead. Still, those types of mishaps are becoming more infrequent for the seventh-year player who is showing flashes of true star potential.

“It’s next man up and we all try to feed off each other. We didn’t have any positions out there today,” Oubre said of his experience playing without Ball and Rozier on the court. “We try to get out there and run in transition. That’s something that we will continue with that lineup out there.”

While the New Orleans native’s connection to Charlotte began this year, his link to the Hornets goes back to Oct. 30, 2002, when then-New Orleans Hornets played their first regular season home game. Despite being 700 miles away in a different city, Oubre is currently making the most of his opportunity to play for a team that he grew up watching.