Following the departure of Gordon Hayward to the Boston Celtics in free agency, the Utah Jazz were tasked with retooling their team in order to stay competitive and try to offset his loss. Last season, the Jazz were one of the better defensive teams in the league. Rudy Gobert is one of the most intimidating rim protectors in the NBA and a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Paired with Derrick Favors and Joe Ingles, they make up a formidable defensive front court.
One free agent that the Jazz brought in who should help strengthen the front court defensively is Ekpe Udoh. Udoh last played in the NBA during the 2014-2015 season for the Los Angeles Clippers. He only suited up in 33 games that year and averaged career-low numbers across the board. Known for his defensive ability during his stints with the Clippers, Golden State Warriors, and Milwaukee Bucks, he’ll be asked to help bolster one of the league’s most daunting defenses.
“I’m going to add to it. I think of myself as one of the best defenders,” Udoh told Basketball Insiders. “I just got to get the pace. The pace is going to be totally different, but once I get that conditioning and understand the game, I’ll be ready.”
The pace that Udoh will need to adjust to is the NBA game. He’s spent the past few years playing in Turkey where he had a Stephon Marbury-type experience. Udoh became a bit a fan hero while playing for Fenerbahce Ulker of the Euroleague. He led the team to its first ever Euroleague championship and he was named MVP of the Final Four.
He was named to the All-Euroleague First Team and his defensive prowess was definitely on display. He finished second in the Best Defender voting and his 68 blocks last season was a Euroleague record for most blocks in a single season.
“It was a great experience, being able to see the world,” Udoh told Basketball Insiders. “I experienced different cultures and got my confidence back.”
Reaching the NBA is a dream come true for many basketball players. While Udoh initially achieved that dream, it wasn’t all fun and games his first few years in the league. He was a lottery pick, drafted sixth overall by the Warriors in the 2010 draft after a collegiate career that saw him transfer from Michigan State to Baylor.
The Warriors used Udoh sparingly off the bench. He played only one-and-a-half seasons there before being traded to the Bucks. He saw his role decreased even more in Milwaukee, and by the time he signed with the Clippers in the summer of 2014, he had been relegated to an end of the bench role.
It was then that he decided to head overseas in search of something different.
Despite the fact that his time in the NBA hadn’t quite gone as he’d imagined, he always knew that one day he’d be back.
“I always wanted that. I went out on a sour note,” Udoh told Basketball Insiders. “It’s almost like redemption for me, to show that I can play.”
Often times, a player’s success in the NBA depends greatly upon the situation they’re put in. When Udoh was in Golden State, they were transitioning to being built around Steph Curry. In Milwaukee, they had a deep frontline at the time comprised of Larry Sanders, Ersan Ilyasova, Zaza Pachulia, and John Henson—there were no minutes available. And in Los Angeles, Doc Rivers favored Spencer Hawes and Glen Davis.
In Utah, however, Udoh should have a clearly defined role. As of now, he will likely be the primary backup to Gobert. Although he came into the league as a power forward, in today’s NBA, he is probably best suited to playing center. It was tough for him to leave the success and adoration he had in Turkey, but he is excited for the next chapter in his story.
“I’m so grateful, it’s a great opportunity,” Udoh told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just getting ready for this next challenge.”
And a challenge it will be.
The Western Conference has grown even stronger with several high-profile players arriving through trade and free agency. The Jazz came close to having home court advantage in last season’s playoffs, but they will need to get better in order to keep pace with the rest of the conference. Whatever the team needs from him, though, Udoh is ready to provide.
“I’ll just do whatever I can to get on that court,” Udoh told Basketball Insiders. “I want to give my team the best chance to win.”
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