Udon’t Rebound; But Does it Really Matter?


April 13, 2012; Detroit, MI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks power forward Ekpe Udoh (13) leaves the game after being injured during second half against the Detroit Pistons at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-US PRESSWIRE

What do Matt Bonner and Ekpe Udoh have in common? Hint: it’s certainly not scoring, defense, shooting or blocking shots.

It’s rebounding — and more specifically, a stunning lack thereof.  Bonner has averaged 6.7 rebounds per 36 minutes in his career. Udoh has averaged 6.6. Bonner’s rebounding rate has been 10.9 percent. Udoh’s has been 10.4.

So, what’s the problem?

Bonner often hovers around the three-point line, where he averaged 6.8 three-point attempts per 36 minutes last season, and has been regarded as a soft, unathletic defensive player. That helps explain Bonner’s not-so-surprising rebounding struggles, especially on the offensive end. It doesn’t explain Udoh’s.

Averaging just six rebounds per 36 minutes puts you in a lowly territory for frontcourt players. Udoh averaged 6.3 rebounds per 36 minutes in his rookie campaign, sandwiched between James Posey and Terrence Williams for 190th ‘best’ rate in the league. Udoh’s rebounding numbers only exceeded notoriously poor rebounders like Jason Collins, Linas Kleiza, Carl Landry, Brook Lopez, Rashard Lewis, Boris Diaw, Andrea Bargnani and Bonner.

Udoh saw a spike in rebounding after joining the Bucks in a midseason trade– from 6.4 rebounds per 36 minutes to 8.3 – which put his season average at 7.1 rebounds per 36 minutes (180th in the league). Still, that put Udoh in roughly the same lackluster territory as Tyrus Thomas, Marvin Williams, Brandon Bass and Michael Beasley. By comparison:

  • Ersan Ilyasova ranked 22nd in the NBA last season with a rate of 11.5 rebounds per 36 minutes
  • Joel Przybilla: 31st; 11.1 rebounds per 36 minutes
  • Larry Sanders: 92nd; 9.0 rebounds per 36 minutes
  • Drew Gooden: 95th; 8.9 rebounds per 36 minutes
  • Luc Mbah a Moute: 139th; 8.1 rebounds per 36 minutes

With a spike of almost two rebounds per 36 minutes while suiting up with the Bucks last season, there was some optimism that Udoh could –at the very least – sustain his improved rebounding this year. Through three games, this hasn’t been the case. At all.

I tend to delve into smalls sample sizes whenever possible, even though I acknowledge their general worthlessness. Udoh was the victim of such a practice  Thursday:

When small sample sizes reinforce past trends, however, they become concerning. This is certainly the case with Udoh, who’s always struggled with defensive rebounding in particular.

It’s always easy to pin the Bucks’ rebounding woes on Udoh. After all, while Udoh’s rebounding numbers are taking a disconcerting dive, Larry Sanders’ rebounding rates have been on the incline since he entered the league with Udoh in 2010. Sanders is averaging 11.5 rebounds per 36 minutes this year, after marks of 9.0 last season and 7.3 in his rookie campaign. His rebounding rate is up to an impressive 18.9 percent, trumping past rates of 13.7 and 11.9 in his last two seasons respectively.

Yet, here’s the paradox: While Udoh is seemingly allergic to basketballs once they graze the rim, his teams have always rebounded better with him on the court.

In Udoh’s rookie year with Golden State, the Warriors grabbed defensive rebounds at a slightly higher rate with Udoh on the court (67.7 percent on the court vs. 66.8 percent off).  In his 38 games with the Warriors last year, the difference was more pronounced. They rebounded significantly better on both ends of the court when Udoh was in the game (offense rebounding – 27.1 percent on vs. 23.9 percent off; defensive rebounding – 69.0 percent on vs. 66.2 percent off).

This surprising trend traveled with Udoh to Milwaukee last year, too. In his 23 games with Milwaukee, the Bucks rebounded worse on the offensive glass (28.5 percent on vs. 30.5 percent off) but made up for it on the defensive glass (70.8 percent on vs. 68.3 percent off).

How can this be the case? The most popular theory is that Udoh boxes out like a madman, which creates easy rebounding opportunities for his teammates. Although this is nearly impossible to measure analytically, it’s a reasonable explanation when going off the eye test.

Nov 2, 2012; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics power forward Jeff Green (8) shoots the ball against Milwaukee Bucks small forward Ersan Ilyasova (center) and power forward Ekpe Udoh (right) during the second half at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Mark L. Baer-US PRESSWIRE

A defensive sequence might go something like this:

  1. Udoh plays solid positional defense on his opponent
  2. Udoh rotates well, altering a shot
  3. Udoh boxes his man out
  4. ???????????? (Udoh doesn’t snag the rebound, that’s for sure)
  5. Udoh’s teammate grabs the rebound

However, even if Udoh is aggressively boxing out every single defensive possession – a dying art in the NBA – it’s reasonable to think more than 0.6 rebounds would aimlessly fall into his lap, on average, in a 36-minute span. This number really defies any sort reasoning, even if it’s only based on just 57 minutes of action. I don’t think it’s entirely fair to simplify rebounding as a means of justifying Udoh’s shortfalls, either. Other NBA players box out and still manage to rebound. Rebounding is also about timing, position and awareness. Udoh can continue to box out while sharpening other skills to help him grab a rebound here and there as well.

Udoh’s rebounding numbers will regress (in a good way) toward the mean as the season progresses, but will he ever develop into an average rebounder? This season certainly hasn’t given any positive indications.

Udoh is a fantastic shot blocker. He’s a smart positional and help defender. He plays within his offensive limitations. And, by all accounts, he positively affects his team in many aspects while he’s on the court.

There’s no question Udoh deserves more playing time than the trio of Dalembert, Przybilla and Gooden, but is it unreasonable to ask Udoh to grab a few rebounds after he boxes out? I don’t think so. Although the Bucks are second in the league in defensive rebound percentage (25th in the league offensive rebound percentage), there’s always room for improvement. For Udoh, there’s immense room for improvement, and his playing time could depend on it.

Head coach Scott Skiles praised Udoh’s presence on the court prior to the home opener, but pointed out the one glaring deficiency.

“He’s very active defensively,” Skiles said. “He knows all of our schemes, and he communicates them well. He’s almost always in the right spot. When he’s around the basket, he can tip balls in. He has a very good sense of coming to penetration when the other team penetrates. But he does need to rebound the ball better.”

In the end, 1,000 words later, it’s still debatable whether Udoh’s direct rebounding numbers truly matter – especially if his teams continue to rebound better with him on the court. And that’s really the beauty of this whole paradox.