A fresh transfusion of talent
Power forward has transformed Baylor's identity with his all-around skills
Udoh remembers being a young boy and standing beneath his grandfather as if in the glow of a towering street lamp. Standing 7 feet tall, with endlessly thin legs and impossibly long arms, his grandfather seemed like a giant.
"He was just tall," Udoh said earlier this week before a Baylor practice at the Ferrell Center. "He was tall, and he would wear a kind of garment called a wrapper. That's all he used to wear. No shirt."
Born and raised in Edmond, Okla., Ekpe Udoh (pronounced epp-AY YOU-doe) shares a lasting bond with his grandfather from their lone encounter in his Nigerian village of Ikot-Oku-Okon. That's where Udoh's father Sam -- who laughs heartily at his own stature of 5-foot-9 -- grew up and eventually left at the age of 26.
"That's why I'm tall. I take after him," the 6-10 Udoh said of his grandfather.
Udoh's height, a 7-foot-5 wingspan, late-blossoming basketball skills and an analytical mind for the game have conspired to make him one of the most intriguing stories in the Big 12 -- and quite possibly the nation's most rapid turnaround from off-the-radar transfer to first-round NBA draft choice.
Several draft outlets, including DraftExpress and ESPN.com's Chad Ford, project Udoh as a lottery pick. It's quite a leap for a lightly recruited kid out of Edmond Santa Fe High School. He completed two defensive-minded seasons at Michigan, the first major program to show interest.
When other schools, including Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, got in the game late and when others dropped out after a shoulder injury sidelined Udoh for the start of his senior season, he stuck with his original suitor.
"At the time he asked me what was my suggestion," said Sam, who unlike his son has retained a strong African accent. "I said, 'The rest is up to you. Do your research, ask questions and pick the university that you are most interested.' But I told him, 'Remember, Michigan was the first university that picked interest in you. So they saw something great in you when others did not.'"
After Udoh's freshman season, Michigan fired coach Tommy Amaker and hired John Beilein. Udoh decided to transfer at the end of the 2007-08 school year to escape the Michigan winters and Beilein's methodical offense. He chose Baylor over Arkansas and his two home-state schools.
Udoh, broad-shouldered and now about 235 pounds, sat out last season to satisfy NCAA transfer rules and immediately set out to refine his overall game.
His emergence this season as one of three Big 12 players averaging a double-double (14.0 points, 10.9 rebounds, 4.3 blocks), while being the lone player to average more than four blocks and more than four offensive rebounds a game, has been nothing short of stunning.
"We definitely knew about him in high school but didn't make a run, and I'm mad at myself now," said Kansas coach Bill Self, who had an early curiosity about Udoh simply because they hail from the same hometown. "After he's had some time to just naturally mature physically, he's a very, very good specimen physically and he's got a good set of ball skills.
"And he's really increased his range. He pops out and makes a 3 against us to start the game like it was nothing, so I'm very impressed with him."
We definitely knew about him in high school but didn't make a run, and I'm mad at myself now.” -- Kansas coach Bill Self
Baylor (15-4, 2-3 Big 12) lost that game at Kansas last week but pushed the Jayhawks and the nation's best home winning streak to the brink. The Bears, who were picked by the conference's coaches to finish 10th, are ranked 24th by The Associated Press and boast out-of-conference wins against South Carolina, Arkansas, Arizona State and Xavier.
Baylor's Big 12 season has already run the gamut of emotions, from disappointing (an opening loss at Colorado) to promising (an 83-70 win over Oklahoma State) to gut-wrenching (the loss at Kansas and Tuesday's 76-74 home loss to Kansas State).
Udoh, second in the Big 12 with a 52.4 shooting percentage, had eight points on 2-of-10 shooting against K-State and 10 points and four rebounds at Kansas. He and Baylor look to reboot Saturday in another tough test at No. 6 Texas. Udoh knows the Bears' NCAA tournament hopes can't endure a losing streak early in the conference schedule.
"That's the goal, to get to the tournament. I've never been," he said. "The last time I played basketball for college, I went 10-22. Michigan bounced back last year and made it to the tournament, and that's something I want to do. If we come out every night and we really grind for each other, I think we can make it."
But it's Udoh's all-around presence that has turned the Bears into a complete, and dangerous, team.
They rank second in the Big 12 in field goal defense (36.5 percent), third in points allowed per game (63.2) and first in rebounding differential (plus-9.2) and blocks (7.6). That's a change from past seasons, when Baylor felt its potent offense always kept it within striking distance.
"I think it's the reverse this year," coach Scott Drew said. "Because of our defense, I feel like as long as we can defend and rebound, we have a chance to be in every game."
Udoh has developed his shot-blocking ability to a point that he refers to it as an art. He works on angles and knowing when to challenge shooters and when to contest shots without always going for the block, a key reason why he averages just more than two fouls a game. He's had games with eight, nine and 10 blocks, and seven twice.
"He's always been a world-class shot-blocker," said Amaker, now in his third season as Harvard's coach. "But he has the ability to score, and he's a tremendous athlete. I've always thought of him as a tremendous basketball player. There's a big difference between a great player and great athlete."
It's Udoh's work ethic at the offensive end that has made him a weapon all over the floor and has propelled him up NBA draft boards. He uses a nifty jump hook in the lane and is effective with his back to the basket or facing it. He can step out and bury the midrange jumper and even, as Kansas' Self said, can hit a 3-pointer. He's made 5 of 14 this season.
He has also developed excellent ballhandling skills, allowing him to take his man off the dribble and create for himself, a rare quality for a big man. He's gone to the free throw line a team-high 87 times.
He also sees the floor well. Rarely is the power forward a team's second-leading assist-maker. But Udoh is, averaging just shy of three a game.
"He has incredible basketball intelligence, he's underrated as a passer, and he's a kid that really knows the game and appreciates the nuances and finer points of the game," Amaker said. "He's a crafty kind of player. I don't always think you use those kinds of words or phrases or compliments for a kid that's a power forward. I always marveled at that with him."
Udoh credits much of his basketball skill to playing in the neighborhood with high school teammate Obi Muonelo -- now an Oklahoma State standout -- and others. He credits his grindstone work ethic to his father, who built a new life for his family from scratch.
Sam Udoh moved to Oklahoma in 1982, meeting fellow Nigerians who had left before him to attend the University of Central Oklahoma. After a year, Sam called for his wife Alice, who soon after gave birth to the first of their four children (Ekpe has two younger sisters). Sam earned a degree in business administration and then an MBA at Oklahoma City University, and sold cell phones when they were the size of Acme bricks.
After five years, he went back to school and continues to work as an X-ray technician at two nearby hospitals.
I've always thought of him as a tremendous basketball player. There's a big difference between a great player and great athlete.” -- Harvard coach Tommy Amaker,
who coached Udoh at Michigan
"I've been telling them from Day 1 that this is how I was brought up back home: The opportunities were not there. You struggled to go to school, you struggled to make two ends meet," Sam said. "But, in as much as you were born here and you are an American citizen, even if you are not an American citizen, if you come to America and put your head down and go to school and do the best you can and learn hard, there is always success at the end of that trip. If you work hard, your reward will be sky-high."
Come July, Ekpe's reward could be a lucrative NBA contract. Rookie salaries in the NBA are slotted. The 14th pick in last year's draft, which is the last pick in the lottery, is earning about $1.5 million this year and will make about $4.5 million by the end of the three-year contract.
It's a head-spinning amount for anyone. Udoh said he pays attention to the mock drafts and analysis on the Internet, but that he hasn't given much thought to determining his route once the season is over. He said he's 100 percent focused on guiding the Bears into the NCAA tournament. If Udoh returns to Baylor for his senior season, the Bears would be considered contenders for the Big 12 title. When he needs a moment for perspective, Udoh channels his father.
"He's always talking about if you complain about shoes or clothes, he'll tell us a story about how he used to have it," Udoh said. "My dad, he had the opportunity to come over, but if he wouldn't we would be over there and the conditions over there probably wouldn't allow me to be where I'm at now. So I know that I'm one of the lucky ones."
Sam Udoh is leaving the choice up to his son, and he's certain Ekpe will make a wise decision. After all, it's in his blood.
"He has the determination of my daddy," Sam said, "because whatever my daddy put his mind to, he would do it better than anybody else."