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Trending Hornets: Kelly Oubre Jr. is keeping things really average

After seven NBA seasons, the Hornets reserve is who is he, and that’s just fine.

Charlotte Hornets v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

The Trending Hornets series evaluates the career trajectories of Charlotte’s players based on two advanced stats - Player Efficiency Rating (PER) and Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) - as provided by Basketball Reference.

PER measures per-minute production standardized such as the league average is 15. A PER above 15 means a player contributed above league average. As a frame of reference, among last season’s PER leaders, the Top 20 players were 21.8 and higher while Nos. 21-40 ranged from 18.9 to 21.6.

VORP is a box score estimate of the points per 100 team possessions that a player contributed above a replacement level player. A VORP of 1.2 means the team was 1.2 points better off per 100 possessions with this player on the floor versus a league average player. Among last season’s VORP leaders, the Top 20 were 3.5 and higher and Nos. 21-40 ranged from 2.2 to 3.4.

This week we’ll look at the trajectory of Kelly Oubre Jr.

Mick Smiley, At the Hive

2021-22 results and league ranks

PER: 14.9; ranked T-94th overall

VORP: 0.3; ranked T-208th overall

Career trend overview

Oubre was drafted by the Washington Wizards No. 15 overall in 2015, one spot ahead of teammate Terry Rozier. Like many players taken in the mid-first round it took him a couple of seasons to find his groove in the NBA. Over his first two years both his PER and his VORP were well below league averages and he really struggled with his 3-point shot. But to Kelly’s credit, in his third season he earned consistent minutes (27.5 MPG), started hitting a respectable percentage of his 3s (34.1%), and saw his advanced stats start to rise.

In 2018-19, his fourth NBA season, Kelly took a major step forward and posted a career-high 15.2 PER and an above league replacement VORP of 0.4. It was during that season he was traded from Washington to the Phoenix Suns and then blossomed as a scorer. In 40 games with the Suns that season he averaged 16.9 points per game, then bumped that up to a career-high 18.7 points per game in 2019-20. That year he posted the best VORP of his career at 0.7.

After spending the 2020-21 season with the Golden State Warriors and registering about league-average advanced stats he then signed a two-year, $24.6 million deal with the Hornets. In his first season in Charlotte he once again posted advanced stats that hovered around league average.

What this means for the Hornets

Oubre’s performance last season means the Hornets got exactly what they paid for - a capable, streaky player who clearly contributes but doesn’t really move the needle. In his first season in Charlotte he played a key reserve role averaging 26.3 minutes and producing 15.0 points on a ho-hum 44/35/67 shooting split (and the 67% free throw shooting is an issue), but that’s what the Hornets expected to get when they signed him.

Kelly is probably the streakiest shooter on the Hornets roster. At his best he can score 39 points on 10-of-15 3-point shooting like he did against the Pacers. Other nights he could almost shoot the Hornets out of the game like he did with his 1-of-10 3-point shooting against the Pistons.

While he’s a capable though somewhat inefficient scorer, the advanced stats really didn’t like Oubre’s defense last year. His Defensive Box Plus/Minus of -1.6 was the worst among the Hornets regular players. ESPN calculates a separate defensive metric called Defensive Real Plus/Minus and his rating of -3.22 left a lot to be desired.

When the Hornets signed Kelly Oubre Jr. to a two-year deal there was a general understanding he would be a stopgap player who can help the team win now but he probably isn’t part of the long-term plan. He’s a good insurance policy in the (likely) event Gordon Hayward misses time and he provides valuable scoring off the bench. He’ll likely reprise the same role this year as he had last year.

Another consideration is with just one year left on his contract and a salary of $12.6 million, he could also be used in a trade to help match salaries for a big-money star like Donovan Mitchell and his $30 million salary.

The Hornets don’t have much scoring off the bench so Kelly Oubre Jr. will continue to have a well-defined role in 2022-23. If he can score just a little more efficiently and improve his defense just a bit, Oubre can help push the Hornets into the playoffs.