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Kelly Oubre Jr. gaining confidence and improving game as minutes increase with Washington Wizards

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Perhaps the plan for Kelly Oubre Jr. wasn't to start in the second month of his rookie season, but these minutes are paying off for the 20-year-old swingman.

Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

WASHINGTON - This wasn't the plan for Kelly Oubre Jr.

When the Washington Wizards traded up to draft the swingman from Kansas, he wasn't expected to be an instrumental part of the lineup right away. It was wishful thinking in July to consider that Oubre would be a key contributor to this team in December, especially after he had a showing in Summer League that didn't necessarily wow anyone.

The forecast for Oubre this season was that he would come off the bench here and there for a team that was aiming to make a run towards the Eastern Conference finals.

But then Martell Webster didn't come back. Jared Dudley started slow. Alan Anderson still hasn't made his debut. And then Bradley Beal and Otto Porter went down.

Injuries and unfortunate events piled up for the Wizards and suddenly they needed their rookie sooner than they thought.

Luckily for them, the lefty wing who just turned 20 on Dec. 9 was ready to step up. Because of unforeseen circumstances, whatever the plan was for Kelly Oubre Jr. this season got tossed out a few weeks ago.

And he seems to be all good with it, and has embraced the challenge.

"It's kind of tough putting (Oubre) in certain situations, but we need him right now," Wizards' point guard John Wall said after the team's Dec. 23 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies. "He's shooting the ball with confidence and doing the little things and helping us out. His intangibles defensively is helping us."

The game against Memphis on Wednesday was Oubre's third straight start after not playing more than 20 minutes in 15 of his previous 17 games.

But because of the injuries, the Wizards need Oubre right now more than ever. With this added load of minutes and responsibility, Oubre has not just improved his game, but he's learning a lot.

Take the Memphis game, for example. Oubre played a little over 20 minutes in the nine-point win, and for the majority of the game was matched up against either Mike Conley, Matt Barnes, Jeff Green or Tony Allen.

In the first quarter, Oubre showed just how much he has improved and how valuable his defense can be to the Wizards when he played textbook defense on Conley.

Conley simply couldn't get by the lanky 6'7" Oubre. There were more defensive stops like that where Oubre came up big, and it's during those possessions where Oubre is gaining minor victories which turns into confidence.

"(Oubre) met some top quality players tonight that he had to guard," Wizards' head coach Randy Wittman said. "He learns from that. I guarantee he'll be better from what he went through today guarding Jeff Green and Zach Randolph - getting switched off on him.

"These are steps that are positive for him through these injuries, and he has handled it really well."

Throughout the game, Oubre was making solid plays on both ends of the floor. On defense, it was obvious that he is trying to improve his game. One watching the game against the Grizzlies could clearly see that Oubre was attentive on the defensive end, and if he wasn't in the right spot he was at least trying to be.

With Oubre's help, the Wizards held the Grizzlies to just 17 percent from three-point range.

"(Oubre) may be a rookie," said Wizards' veteran forward Jared Dudley. "But he's one of our best defensive players."

A few plays after halting Conley on that drive, Oubre fought his way into the paint and boxed out the feisty Barnes for a rebound. In addition to his 10 points, he was the Wizards' second-leading rebounder, securing seven boards.

Later in the fourth quarter, Oubre was tangled up with Allen under the basket and fought around him to secure a miss off the rim from Marcin Gortat and put it back up for a lay-up. Those two points were difficult to get, especially in a crowded painted area while being guarded by Allen, but with high energy Oubre made it look easy.

"Kelly has been that way whether he plays a minute or 12 minutes," Wittman said. "He plays with a high intensity."

However, Oubre did fall into foul trouble against Memphis. He made a mistake by reaching in on Marc Gasol as the big man went up for a lay-up around the basket in the third quarter. It was his fourth foul, and Oubre had to go to the bench.

It was a teaching moment. Oubre would get back in the game in the fourth quarter and continued to play tough defense without unnecessarily fouling.

Oubre has started in three straight games, but he really started playing better and saw his minutes jump up when the Wizards lost to Memphis on Dec. 14. In that game, the rookie played more than 17 minutes, scored eight points and grabbed four rebounds.

In Oubre's last five games the Wizards are 3-2 and he is playing an average of 23 minutes a game while putting up 10 points and five rebounds per game.

From three-point range, he's been even better. In those five games, he is shooting 62.5 percent from behind the arc and has not missed a three-pointer in his three starts, hitting six consecutive outside shots in that time.

"(Oubre) works on it every day and they're leaving him open and he's able to knock them down," Wall said.

For one of his 14 assists in the Memphis game on Wednesday night, Wall caught Matt Barnes sleeping, put a move on him and dished it behind him to Oubre, who was just to the right of the top of the key. Oubre drained the wide-open shot with ease.

"We work on that with him," Wittman said, referring to Oubre's outside shooting. "The catch and shoot, I don't have a problem with it right now. He's spotting up and got his feet set, that's the kind of shot we work with him every day on and he's got confidence. Confidence is the key."

Because of his recent performance, Oubre has increased his three-point percentage to 41.9 percent on 31 shots. Perhaps he should take more of them, and likely will if his minutes stay consistent.

Eventually Beal, Porter and hopefully Anderson will all return from injuries and Oubre will likely go back to the bench. But, these games have been - and the future heavy-minute games will be - good for Oubre's development and confidence.

They have also been good for the Wizards too. Oubre is developing more chemistry with Wall and others and they have seen him improve right in front of their eyes while also seeing him hold his own against Memphis, Charlotte, Sacramento and San Antonio - where he scored a season-high 18 points.

Who knows what the Wizards actually had planned for Oubre this season. But through 27 games, this much is true: If the Wizards still have intentions of making the playoffs, Oubre will be a key part of the game plan to get there, going forward.