A strange thing happened in the Golden State Warriors' last game before the All-Star break: They were outscored with Ekpe Udoh on the floor. While that's not exactly unprecedented, Udoh has had a positive plus-minus 17 times this season in 30 games. On a lottery club like the Warriors, that's an accomplishment. By contrast, Golden State has only been positive with Udoh on the bench 11 times in those same 30 games.
That, simply, is how a player draws the nickname "Udoh's plus-minus," as if the figure had a life of its own above and beyond simply measuring Udoh's contributions. Coined by Ethan Sherwood Strauss of WarriorsWorld.net and HoopSpeak.com, the term is easy enough to use in casual conversation. When Udoh checks in with the second unit and Golden State immediately goes on a run, simply note that "Udoh's plus-minus is at it again."
Over the course of the season, the Warriors are 19.6 points better per 100 possessions, per BasketballValue.com. Only Blake Griffin of the Los Angeles Clippers (+22.9) has a larger net plus-minus in the league this season. If this is an artifact of the statistics, it's a remarkably consistent one. As a rookie, Udoh had a +11.7 net plus-minus. Therefore, despite his limited minutes, Udoh's adjusted plus-minus is becoming more statistically significant all the time. According to the two-year version favored by BasketballValue, Udoh's adjusted plus-minus is 2.53 standard deviations better than average.
If being confident that Udoh is better than average doesn't sound particularly impressive, keep in mind we're talking about a player who has thus far in his career rated 1.3 wins worse than replacement level in terms of his individual statistics. More so than any other current NBA player, Udoh's Venn Diagram of player performance fails to produce any consensus. Even "no-stats All-Stars" like Shane Battier and Nick Collison put up solid advanced numbers, especially early in their careers. Udoh's individual statistics suggest that he's a lottery bust, an assessment plus-minus suggests is a flat-out lie.
There's a precedent for Udoh, and it can be found on the bench of the Atlanta Hawks. A decade ago, the New Jersey Nets drafted Jason Collins to be their center of the future, a role he claimed by his second pro season. Collins never averaged more than 6.4 points and 6.1 rebounds, and he's rated as below replacement in each of his 10 NBA seasons. Yet the Nets consistently played better with Collins on the floor, particularly at the defensive end, because of his knack for positioning. Collins came up with few rebounds of his own, but New Jersey tended to collect more missed shots with him on the court.
Even though Collins has slowed down as his quickness has dwindled since he turned 30, he was still a difference-maker in last year's first-round upset over the Orlando Magic because of his ability to defend Dwight Howard without double-team help. Collins has managed 658 NBA games and 460 starts despite his many limitations.
Coming out of Baylor, Udoh was even more highly regarded than Collins. Golden State took him sixth overall, ahead of Greg Monroe, in the expectation that the offensive improvement Udoh showed in his lone season in Waco after transferring from Michigan would continue in the NBA. It hasn't. Udoh has made just 42.7 percent of his two-pointers as a pro, a dreadful mark for a big man. He's limited in part by his subpar hands, as well as his inability to finish when he does catch the ball around the basket. About the best that can be said of Udoh's offense is that he knows his limitations and operates within them.
As a result, the most stunning aspect of Udoh's plus-minus might be that regularized adjusted plus-minus--an improved version that also tends to be more conservative--shows him this season as more valuable to the Warriors on offense than on defense. That aspect is difficult to explain, and reflects a case where I'm tempted to stick with Udoh's individual numbers.
At the defensive end, it's easier to see Udoh's contributions. He's a quality shot blocker whose athleticism allows him to defend on the perimeter as well as in the paint. Udoh is a classic multiple-effort defender who excels against the pick-and-roll. Like Collins, Udoh helps his team on the glass without actually grabbing many rebounds (his rebound rate would be only slightly above average for a small forward) because he boxes out so well. This is particularly useful for Golden State, since David Lee tends to have the opposite effect as a rebounder.
Typically, when plus-minus disagrees with individual stats, it tends to reinforce what coaches value. Players like Battier, Collins and Collison were beloved by coaches, even if they weren't necessarily aware of their plus-minus impact. That's the unusual thing about Udoh. Mark Jackson knows how well Udoh rates because he's heard all about from Sherwood Strauss and other media members who cover the team, including Mercury News columnist Tim Kawakami. Still, Jackson has been hesitant to elevate Udoh above struggling starter Andris Biedrins or even give him heavier minutes.
Last Monday against the Clippers, Jackson had no alternative in the middle. Biedrins sat with a sore knee, while Kwame Brown (Golden State's marquee addition in free agency) is likely out for the season with a torn pectoral. In his first start of the season, Udoh responded by scoring 19 points and grabbing eight boards. Naturally, the Warriors were +13 with him on the floor during a seven-point win. For both Udoh and Udoh's plus-minus, it was a career night.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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