Andris Biedrins

Warriors’ hopes center on Ekpe Udoh

Training camp starts on Dec. 9 for the Golden State Warriors, and with it comes the new tradition of fighting over whether the team should build around Stephen Curry, Monta Ellis or (gasp) both. With a new ownership group now fully entrenched, an earth-shattering personnel move — think “Baron Davis trade,” but even bigger — is on many Warriors fans’ Christmas lists.

But no matter what the Warriors’ goals are this season (the playoffs, finishing over .500, etc.), how things shake out rests largely on the large shoulders of Ekpe Udoh.

With the new CBA bringing about the much-discussed “amnesty” provision, where a team can rid themselves of any player and his contract (for cap purposes only, teams still have to pay players who are amnestied), people are wondering what this could mean for Golden State.

Would they waive an early goodbye to David Lee, a serviceable player who seems unlikely to ever live up to his contract? Or perhaps they’d use their salary cap mulligan on Andris Biedrins, who’s been a (broken) shell of his former self for two straight seasons. Charlie Bell could be a logical candidate if the Warriors want to keep the core intact and get under the cap just enough to sign one of the top free agents (like Nene) or two rotation players, but Bell doesn’t make that much ($4MM) and his deal expires after this upcoming season.

If the Warriors were to toss Lee aside (unlikely given that Lee has a huge fan in Joe Lacob, according to reports), Udoh would become the team’s starting power forward. If Biedrins is sent packing, Udoh becomes the team’s leading (only?) option at center ahead of Lou Amundson and the very raw Jeremy Tyler.

But even if Bell’s amnestied or nobody is at all — which is probably the likeliest occurrence, as teams don’t have to use the clause this season, they just have to exercise it before the beginning of a season — Udoh’s development between April and December of this year could be the difference between the Warriors finishing 30-36 or 36-30.

Remember, Udoh’s rookie season didn’t start until 12/10/10, after he recovered from a wrist injury suffered while working out at the Warriors’ facility on July 4. In the sporadic minutes afforded to him by head coach Keith Smart, Udoh was the best interior defender on the team (not that there was much competition). However, Udoh looked hesitant and mechanical on offense and grabbed very few rebounds for a 6-9 guy with long arms.

Udoh’s 2010-11 stats (per 36 min): 8.2 pts, 6.3 reb, 1.4 ast, 1.7 TO, 3.0 blk

Udoh excited fans starving for anyone on the roster to show some defensive effort. Also, anecdotally at least, Udoh seemed to make things happen while on the floor. After missing so much time he could’ve used as much development time as possible, and many called for Smart to play Udoh more last year, especially when it was clear the Warriors weren’t a playoff team. Then again, many called for Smart to stop playing Acie Law so many minutes in favor of Curry, and we all know how that turned out.

With the lockout and a body that’s presumably 100% healthy, Udoh’s had some time to become a better player. If he arrives in Oakland as an improved player, capable of 12-14 points and 8-10 rebounds per 36 minutes to go along with all those blocks, things drastically change for the Warriors. You can pair a guy like that with Nene (an offensive-minded center who’s actually better at grabbing steals than protecting the rim) and let him provide some much-needed low post scoring while Udoh handles the grunt work — something Udoh would have no problem doing. You could stick Udoh at center and mask Lee’s weak defensive play … somewhat, anyway.

Or, if the new regime really is about making a huge splash and changing the team with “bold moves,” a new-and-improved Udoh provides the kind of trade chip that can help land an established star. For the most part the Warriors already know what they have in Curry, Ellis, Lee, Wright and Biedrins (even if they hope Biedrins has a resurgence left in him). But if Udoh comes in with more post moves, confidence and perhaps even a 10-15 foot jumper on the offensive end, along with the kind of rebounding ability that matches his frame, things might get better sooner than most people think. Even if the team stands pat.

(And yes, now that the lockout’s over my own personal lockout of the NBA on BASG is over as well. Thank God, I missed hoops more than I can even describe.)

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