<
>

Oubre flourishing after slow start

You'll hear him long before you'll see him, according to his teammates.

Kelly Oubre Jr.'s inside voice is an outside voice for most, they say. His outside voice is a bullhorn.

He arrives with a boisterousness that's a constant pulse in the locker room, the hallways and the gym. Wherever Oubre goes, his bouncing-off-the-walls demeanor demands attention.

"He's a big kid, a real big kid," Wayne Selden Jr. said of Oubre. "He's the life of the team. He always has energy and he's never sitting down. The kid is crazy. He's always screaming, yelling at times when it's not necessary."

Oubre finished with eight points (3-for-6 shooting), nine rebounds, two assists and one steal in KU's 68-57 win over rival Kansas State on Saturday, and the Jayhawks will need his help when they host Iowa State in a Big Monday matchup (9 p.m. ET on ESPN & WatchESPN.com). He's now ranked 24th in the Big 12 with a 108.5 offensive rating (per Ken Pomeroy), and he ranks eighth in the league in steals percentage.

Even his stat lines are loud these days.

But in the Kansas practice facility adjacent to Allen Fieldhouse, it was quiet in November and December. No bulky headphones filled with heavy beats. No posse. No groupies.

Just Oubre, a ball and the hoop.

"I just like to get in the gym," he said. "It's my sanctuary. I'd rather be quiet, think about a lot of things."

On that court, he found solace from the doubters. He'd always felt safe there.

Bill Self's latest NBA-ready wing had failed to secure a spot in Kansas' starting rotation in the opening stretch of the season. Oubre's minutes were sparse. His performances were subtle, unexpected for an athlete picked by noteworthy prognosticators to earn a lottery slot in this summer's NBA draft.

His early struggles belied the typical just-add-water instantaneous impact of Self's notable recruits. Oubre heard the rumblings that followed his subpar start. They're always louder for the kids who compete for powerhouses such as Kansas.

Oubre's not ready for the NBA.

I thought he was a McDonald's All-American.

He should be doing more.

"It was adversity for me," Oubre said. "I'd been through adversity. I didn't really expect it to hit me so hard."

Each day, Oubre dialed his father in Houston and told him he had a problem. Kelly Oubre Sr. advised him to pray and reflect on their experiences and everything they'd overcome together.

This was just basketball. He could get through it.

They could get through it.

"It's been astronomical. ... when he got some confidence, it seemed like the light came on, and when the light came on it's been bright ever since.""
Kansas coach Bill Self,
on Oubre's improvement.

"We'd been here before," Kelly Oubre Sr. said. "That's why he didn't break. I told him, 'Kelly, we've been here before.'"

It wasn't an easy decision for Oubre Sr. To leave everything he loved and knew -- including two of Kelly Oubre Jr.'s half-siblings -- in his hometown of New Orleans. To take a young son to Texas as he was going through a messy divorce. To quit a good job at UPS without any guarantees he'd find sufficient work in Houston.

But Hurricane Katrina changed their world. The storm destroyed houses. Marriages, too. Before it hit, Kelly Oubre Sr. had no desire to raise his son within the tumult he'd encountered as a youth in the Big Easy. The split from his son's mother and the disaster's imprint on the city convinced him that he should leave while Oubre was still young.

"If you're from there and you want more," Kelly Oubre Sr. said, "it's hard to get out."

So the duo hit the road and settled into the Houston suburbs. Sometimes Kelly Oubre Sr. accepted odd jobs to pay the bills. The UPS gig was transferrable but not ideal for a man raising a young son alone.

Life in the unfamiliar city coupled with financial challenges rattled the family. They used sports to escape.

For Oubre, it began with karate. He was 7 years old when he earned his first black belt. He wanted to quit before he ever received it. But his father encouraged him to complete the final standards and earn the black belt.

Basketball soon took hold.

Oubre sometimes lacked the luxuries his friends enjoyed. In the gym, however, he was rich. And his father enjoyed working with his son on the fundamental drills that stripped the game to its basic elements.

They worked on side-to-side movement. Ballhandling. Shooting. Hours would pass. Their passion would never wane.

Beyond that, they had fun.

"That was the only way to get away," Kelly Oubre Sr. said. "That's Babysitting 101, man. We'd be in that joint all weekend."

Soon, Oubre Jr. improved. Gradually. Steady progress and physical development helped him dominate the Texas hoops scene. He averaged 22.7 points per game as a junior at Bush High School in Richmond, Texas. And just like that, after spending his senior season at Findlay Prep in Las Vegas, the former karate kid was a McDonald's All-America wing and projected first-round NBA pick.

Oubre signed with Kansas. His relentless approach in pickup games showed his teammates that he could be an asset as a freshman.

"Playing against him, I didn't like him [initially]," Selden said. "But I ended up liking him a lot. He's an agitator on defense. He's really aggressive."

In Kansas' first seven games, Oubre logged 58 minutes. Total. Self expressed concerns about the talented, raw freshman. The preseason kudos turned into questions.

And that's when Oubre fled to the gym. He had concerns about his lack of playing time, but he focused on what he could do to change his situation.

"He said, 'Dad, I can get better,'" Kelly Oubre Sr. recalled. "He kept telling me that. 'I can get better.'"

He did.

After a six-point win over Florida, Oubre's minutes increased. First, 16 at Georgetown on Dec. 10. Twenty-five in a lopsided victory over Lafayette on Dec. 20, 31 just 10 days later in a win over Kent State. Production accompanied the additional time on the floor.

Kelly Oubre Sr. said limited playing time was the only thing that held his son back.

"Minutes. Minutes. Minutes," he replied in response to a question about the difference between Oubre earlier this season and the player who has evolved in recent weeks.

Self concurred and suggested that he'd underutilized Oubre in the first few weeks of the season.

"It's been astronomical," Self said during last week's Big 12 media teleconference about Oubre's growth. "It wasn't that he was that poor early. He really wasn't playing great but there were some other guys that were probably playing a little bit better. So he just didn't get as much playing time. But then when he got some confidence, and I should have probably been playing him more to begin with, but when he got some confidence, it seemed like the light came on, and when the light came on it's been bright ever since."

On Jan. 19, Oubre earned his second Big 12 newcomer of the week honors. He's burgeoning now. He's a multidimensional defensive threat. Prior to a current three-game lull, he averaged 14.2 PPG over a four-game stretch.

He's still short of the paragon most assumed he'd be after a fabulous prep career. But Oubre's progressing at the most significant moment of the season. As March approaches, he continues to mature in part because he's blocked out the noise -- with his father's help.

And he's enjoying the experience.

"I'm having fun," Oubre said. "I was having fun before, but not as much as now. A lot of people didn't think we could do it, so that's where my fun comes from."