PHOENIX – Kelly Oubre Jr. made his return to Phoenix recently for the first time since he was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder, who then moved him to the Golden State Warriors, but his homecoming was greeted by the quiet of an empty arena thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was quite the twist, considering Oubre’s legacy in the Valley of the Sun.
Oubre’s time here was anything but quiet. He galvanized the Phoenix fanbase with his flashy, high-energy play and his sense of style on and off the court.
He branded the Suns “The Valley Boyz” with an Instagram hashtag, launching a movement that captured the imagination of basketball and fashion enthusiasts in Arizona and beyond. And he delivered infectious energy on the floor during his less than two full seasons with the Suns.
But Oubre was more than just an energy guy.
He was the Suns’ cultural ambassador to the Valley and was featured in the team’s marketing efforts, including the promotional materials to help drum up support for a $230-million-plus renovation of what is now known as Phoenix Suns Arena. The price tag for the arena project included $150 million from revenue generated by the Phoenix Sports Facilities Fund from tourism taxes.
However, when asked about his contributions to the Valley sports scene by NBA reporter David Aldridge of The Athletic, Oubre sounded less than thrilled with how the end of his tenure in Phoenix transpired.
“It was up and down, of course,” Oubre said. “It was a lot of uncertainty for me as a player. Obviously I had a great year statistic-wise, but I had a lot of, just misunderstandings of who I was as a competitor. Because I was trying to lead a group, or try my best to be a vocal leader on a group that didn’t really understand how to make it to that next step.”
Despite the trade to the Thunder, Oubre never stepped on the floor for Oklahoma City. He was quickly rerouted to Golden State, where he joined a team with a championship pedigree.
And the deal brought the Suns All-Star point guard Chris Paul, building on momentum the team generated during an 8-0 run in the Orlando Bubble with the potential to position the Suns for their first playoff appearance since the 2009-10 season.
Still, Oubre’s teammates miss his presence. That much was apparent after they squared off as adversaries for the first time since the trade.
“Me and Kelly go back a ways,” Suns center Frank Kaminsky said. “We did pre-draft together back in 2015. I’ve known him for a long time. Obviously loved playing with him last year. He’s a good guy, a great person to be around; so it’s always good to see him.
“I mean, I’m not gonna say specifically what we talked about, but yeah, it’s good to see him again. Obviously you miss him around here, so I’m glad he’s in a good situation.”
Mikal Bridges, a young wing who has absorbed some of Oubre’s minutes this year for the Suns, said he nevertheless misses having Oubre.
“It’s different. We’ve been together for a couple years, same team, so it was a little bit different,” Bridges said. “But I’m happy to see him. I just miss my guy.”
Oubre, who was not made available to reporters after the game, had a performance to forget. He hit just one of 11 shots and scored four points in his return after averaging a career-best 18.7 points a game for the Suns last season.
Paul, meanwhile, continued to show that his age, 35, is just a number, putting up an efficient 13 points and a plus-minus of plus-27 to lead all players.
“I didn’t talk to (Oubre) before the game or during about that specifically, about what it was like to play against his former team, but you know he probably wanted it really bad,” Warriors point guard Stephen Curry said. “He’ll get another shot at it.”
That he will. But the Suns are happy with their return in the trade that sent Oubre away. Paul filled the gaping need of an efficient-shooting point guard to share the backcourt with Devin Booker, and his veteran leadership has helped stabilize the Suns after an up-and-down 2019-20 season. The flashes the team showed in the bubble are starting to manifest themselves in a potential playoff spot, and Paul is a big reason why.