A stop in Europe paved the way for Jazz’s Ekpe Udoh to return to NBA

Guarding all positions in Europe made the former lottery pick more marketable to Utah

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz forward Ekpe Udoh (33) celebrates a fourth quarter comeback as the Utah Jazz host the Denver Nuggets, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City, Wednesday October 18, 2017.

An untold number of YouTube videos will extol the virtues of Jamal Crawford’s ankle-breaking crossover, and while he’s 37, he’s still good enough to make plenty of defenders trip over their own feet.

On Friday night, as Ekpe Udoh switched onto him, Crawford looked like he had another victim in his sights. Only when Crawford crossed over, so did the 6-foot-10 Udoh, and there was no lane to the basket.

There are not many centers who can stay in front of a 6-foot-5 guard like that — but Udoh can.

“I’m not saying I wasn’t able to before, but I wasn’t put in that position two years ago,” Udoh said. “Growing up, you had to guard the guards playing on the playground. It was in me. It was definitely in me.”

Early in Utah Jazz training camp, the 30-year-old Udoh (back in the NBA for the first time since the 2014-15 season) confidently asserted that he was “one of the best defenders in the world.” So far, he’s held up that claim.

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After Wednesday night’s game against Phoenix, only DeMarcus Cousins and Kevin Durant had more blocks than Udoh (12 in five games). His block rate is a staggering 14 percent, and his fierce rim protection and glove-like guarding has helped key several Jazz bench runs and make him Utah’s top plus-minus player this season (plus-9 when he’s on the court).

What stood out to the Jazz brass as they scouted him last year was his newfound knack for being able to switch on defense. In a league in which Swiss army knife Draymond Green won Defensive Player of the Year last season (with apologies to Rudy Gobert), having a big man who can defend all positions is as valuable a tool as ever. With nearly a 7-foot-5 wingspan and lateral agility of a much smaller player, Udoh is a formidable match-up for most.

“I think [opponents] know what they get as soon as they see me,” he said, “and I crack my smile.”

But it wasn’t the NBA that helped Udoh discover this ability. With his Turkish club, Fenerbahce, he refined and expanded his defensive skills over the last two years.

His last NBA team before the Jazz was the Los Angeles Clippers, and Udoh — once a No. 6 overall pick — wasted away on the bench, playing only 128 minutes all season. Part of that, Clippers and Jazz teammate Joe Ingles said, was a lack of opportunity: On a team with DeAndre Jordan and Maurice Speights, there wasn’t much room for Udoh to crack the rotation.

Asked this week about Udoh’s tenure, Clippers coach Doc Rivers was more frank: Udoh wasn’t mentally ready to contribute.

“I don’t think anybody ever doubted his ability,” Rivers said. “Honestly he didn’t play well at that point. … I don’t know if it was confidence, but he was missing something.”

Fenerbahce's Ekpe Udoh, right, blocks a shot by Olympiakos' Vassilis Spanoulis during their Final Four Euroleague final basketball match at Sinan Erdem Dome in Istanbul, Sunday, May 21, 2017. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

Udoh hoped he might find that something overseas. In the offseason, he agreed to come to Istanbul for more playing time. Fenerbahce didn’t know what it was getting for its money, given that Udoh virtually hadn’t played the year before. But when he arrived, things gelled quickly on the court.

Fenerbahce coach Zeljko Obradovic sports two reputations: He’s lined the trophy case with Euroleague titles throughout his career, and he’s well-known for his red-faced histrionics on the sideline. But behind the scenes, Udoh found him much more even-tempered than advertised. Obradovic and Udoh clicked early, and Rafael Barlowe, who lived with Udoh for a year as a videographer and blogger, said the connection was obvious.

“Ekpe respected him, but I don’t think he feared him,” he said. “Obradovic really pushed Ekpe and made him a better player.”

Udoh credits Obradovic with helping him learn more about the game, ramping up his offensive ability as well as his passing. But the most marketable skill the he gave him was the responsibility of guarding smaller players. The Golden State Warriors dynasty was just about to begin, but Fenerbahce was already ahead of the curve, riding their suffocating defense to a Euroleague title this spring — with Udoh as the tournament MVP.

“Ekpe’s comfortable in those situations where he’s on a smaller player,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “He’s got instincts to guard smaller guys that have been honed over the last few years with that style of play.”

While living in Turkey, Udoh thrived. He learned more about Turkish and Muslim culture, which he grew to love, and indulged in the cuisine. Fans loved him back: He hosted constant ticket giveaways to home games, and then would meet the winners and talk with them after the games ended. Barlowe said some of Udoh’s devotees would fly across the country to meet him.

There were also things about the NBA experience he learned to appreciate. Fenerbahce flew commercial, and teammates shared rooms. It was common for opposing crowds to throw objects at players: Udoh’s teammate Luigi Datome was hit in the head with a lighter in one game, drawing blood (play was paused, but the teams finished the contest). Udoh also came face-to-face with extreme poverty that made him feel grateful for the life he led.

“Just to see kids carrying trash on their backs — you get to see life, real life, things we take for granted,” he said. “It’s tough, but that’s what it is.”

The Jazz kept an eye on Udoh for most of that second year, particularly thanks to the organization’s affinity for European basketball. Coach Quin Snyder said he noticed Udoh often when he would tune into Fenerbahce games for play inspiration, and he was quickly excited when general manager Dennis Lindsey brought up the possibility that Udoh might come back stateside.

Still, when the Jazz finally did make a move for Udoh, Snyder told him that it would be uphill sledding to get minutes — words that make him a little bashful now.

“I didn’t tell him he wasn’t going to play, but I probably came pretty close,” Snyder said. “I think he was able to understand what that really meant is that you’ve got to earn every minute. He was OK with that, and that’s what he’s done.”

Despite playing fewer minutes than Gobert, Udoh is a block ahead of him in the season totals, creating a friendly competition. Snyder has noted Udoh’s hustle in practice, calling him the big man who runs the floor the best.

With another shot in the NBA, Udoh doesn’t plan on wasting it. Fenerbahce helped teach him that.

“It’s just been life, growth, knowing that you’re stronger than you think you are,” he said. “You can get through a lot more than you think.”

Ekpe Udoh at a glance<br>• Through five games, ranked third in NBA in blocks (2.4 per game)<br>• Final four MVP on Fenerbahce (Turkey) 2017 Euroleague championship team<br>• Averaged 12.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg and 2.2 bpg for Fenerbahce<br>• Also had stints with the Golden State Warriors, Milwaukee Bucks, L.A. Clippers<br>• No. 6 overall pick in 2010 NBA Draft after earning all-conference honors at Baylor