Many people were confused by the Warriors drafting yet another lanky, 6'10'' power forward when they chose Ekpe Udoh from Baylor back in June. Now in December, Udoh’s development may be the most important factor in turning around Golden State’s season.
In the two weeks since his debut against the Miami Heat, Udoh has gone from garbage-time big man to a legitimate part of the rotation. This is due in part to the absence of Andris Biedrins due to injury. However, Udoh has taken full advantage of the time he has had thus far.
His stats won’t jump off the page at you. A couple buckets and a couple boards do not look like the line for a would-be savior, but his game is unlike any other frontline player on the roster.
His defensive instincts are already more advanced than Biedrins, David Lee, Lou Amundson or Brandan Wright. The sheer commodity of his style of play makes him valuable to the Warriors.
In his last three games, Udoh has been credited with three blocks per game while averaging just over twenty minutes per contest. His energy level is unquestioned and his 7'4'' wingspan allows him to reach loose balls on the defensive end of the court without being awkward on the offensive end.
Unlike Biedrins, Udoh has a few moves around the bucket, can take a jumper from 15 feet away and make a baby hook. He has shown more on the offensive end than many were expecting from him, all without really looking for his shot.
That is the type of center best suited to run alongside the high-scoring threesome of Monta Ellis, Stephen Curry and David Lee. The Warriors need a solid defensive center that is capable of making a move around the hoop when called upon, and make a free throw when fouled.
This is not to say that he is more important than Curry, Ellis or Lee. Even Dorell Wright is more important to Golden State's success than Udoh’s talents will ever allow him to be.
He is, however, just as capable of giving the Warriors what Ronny Turiaf did for two seasons. He’s got instincts and shot-blocking abilities like Turiaf, but with better fundamentals and knowledge on the defensive end. He seems to understand how to use leverage against bigger opponents, which is a necessity for someone of his stature.
Udoh shut down Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge for much of the third and fourth quarter, right about the time the Warriors went on a run to finish off the game at home. It was imperative for Golden State’s collective demeanor to win against the Brandon Roy-less Blazers at home in front of a rowdy crowd. In this “big game” atmosphere, Udoh was arguably the most important big man.
The Warriors will struggle to win games this year. They need to play nearly perfect to win against the elite teams, and Udoh is the best suited of the complimentary players to help the dynamic backcourt. If Udoh continues to contribute like he has, he will no doubt move up Keith Smart’s depth chart—injuries or no injuries. His development may make the likes of Brandan Wright and Biedrins expendable.
The Warriors are a clearly flawed team in need of some upgrades. Ekpe Udoh does that directly with his play, and indirectly with the options it gives the Warriors front office.