With the Golden State Warriors riding a three-game winning streak into the All-Star break, various theories abound as to the source of this improved play of late.
Sophomore Stephen Curry and backcourt mate Monta Ellis garner the majority of this attention and the talented duo have the stats to warrant that attention. First-year players Dorell Wright and David Lee eat up most of the remaining coverage and, recently, Reggie Williams' play in his contract season have rounded out the rest.
But perhaps the third most important player in this turnaround (Ellis and Curry being one and two, respectively) has been Warriors rookie Ekpe Udoh.
The Edmund, Okla. product, whose journey to the NBA followed two seasons at the University of Michigan and two more (including the 2008-09 season that he sat out after transferring) at Baylor University, has injected a defensive mindset that's been more of an on-court difference than any scheme drawn up or speech given by coach Keith Smart.
For the record, Udoh was not supposed to have this kind of impact. The Warriors, and Udoh, were killed in the blogosphere in the days following the June 24, 2010 draft. SI.com's Chris Mannix was perhaps most generous in grading the Warriors' draft with a "C." The Warriors received a "D" from both foxsports.com and hoopsworld.com.
In other words, a franchise known for poor on-court performance and worse front-office decisions, was said to be well on their way to more poor on-court performances following another poor front-office decision.
The Warriors third most important player is...
But Udoh has helped the Warriors reject any notion that he was anything but valuable as the sixth overall pick. The 6'10", 245-pounder has given the team the intimidating post presence that they thought they had traded for in 2007 (Brandan Wright) or drafted in 2008 (Anthony Randolph).
Despite being the highest selection of the three, Udoh entered training camp with the least fanfare and the lowest projected ceiling for growth. Just 31 games into his professional career, Udoh has already made a bigger impact than Wright and Randolph combined.
In the 21 games that Udoh has logged more than 10 minutes per game, the Warriors approach respectable levels in terms of points allowed (103.9, 23rd best) as compared to when he hasn't played or played less than 10 minutes (106.5, 29th).
While that difference (2.6 points) may not seem like a big number, it shows a step closer to that all-important 100-point mark for opponents. When the Warriors manage to hold a team under 100 points (which they've done nine times with Udoh, four times without) the team is 13-2. Conversely, when they allow 100 or more points the team is just 13-27.
And while many like to emphasize the team's play with David Lee on the floor (or more specifically, the team's play without him where they're just 1-7), they often fail to mention how Udoh's absences effect the team. (People forget that Udoh had yet to make play his first game when the Warriors encountered that tough stretch without Lee in mid-November.)
When Lee has managed to avoid opposing players' teeth and stay on the floor, the Warriors are a respectable four games over .500 (25-21). Meanwhile, when Udoh has managed to earn Smart's trust enough to play at least 10 minutes, the Warriors are five games above 5.00 (13-8).
This is not evidence that the Warriors should sit Lee in favor of Udoh. In fact, the two complement each other well. Lee's shortcomings (defense and post scoring) are Udoh's biggest strengths. And Udoh's major weakness (rebounding) is the area that Lee's mastery of just netted him an $80 million contract last summer.
The Warriors may or may not make the playoffs this season (they currently sit four games out of the eighth playoff spot in the Western Conference, but just five-and-a-half games out of fifth), but this much is clear: The Warriors future is bright and Udoh will play as big of a role as anyone not named Curry or Ellis in leading this organization back to the postseason.