Making a case for Ernest Udeh Jr. as the Jayhawks’ most important reserve the rest of the way

Kansas center Ernest Udeh Jr. (23) knocks the ball from the hands of Texas forward Christian Bishop (32) during the first half on Monday, Feb. 6, 2023, at Allen Fieldhouse. Photo by Nick Krug

During a radio appearance with KLWN’s Derek Johnson on Tuesday, I was asked which of the three KU bench performances from Monday night’s win over Texas was the most repeatable and which should be viewed as the most important.

For my money, the answer’s the same — Ernest Udeh Jr.’s.

It has everything to do with the position he plays and the importance of that position on this particular team.

We’ve all seen how well sophomore KJ Adams has taken to playing the 5 for the 9th-ranked Jayhawks, but Adams remains undersized and also has shown potential to be limited by foul trouble.

With fellow KU big men Zach Clemence and Zuby Ejiofor out for an undetermined period of time, that puts the onus on Udeh to be not only available to back up Adams but also reliable in the role.

It appears he’s starting to understand what both of those things mean.

It’s unlikely that Udeh will round into form at any point this season as a player who no longer has flaws. He will continue make you scratch your head on defense and likely will also pick up a few silly fouls until the end of the season.

But as long as he’s giving genuine, honest and intentional effort, you can live with those things.

He also can make up for whatever flaws he has by being a legitimate weapon above the rim on offense. In two of KU’s biggest wins of the season to date — at Kentucky and Monday night versus Texas — Udeh showed that he still has plenty left in the tank as a lob catcher and finisher around the basket.

That’s such a critical part of this offense because, in addition to bringing momentum and energy to the team and the home crowd when they’re at Allen Fieldhouse, Udeh as a threat on the lob opens up all kinds of options for Dajuan Harris Jr. as a scorer, which KU coach Bill Self and Harris’ teammates have said they need him to be.

Sure, some of that can come from the outside, where Harris is a better shooter than many think. But the bulk of it comes in the paint. And when Harris has a true threat around the rim that he can throw the ball up to at any minute, opposing defenders in the lane have to at least consider the fact that the pass could be coming.

That moment of hesitation or full-on body leans to the big man, could create the space Harris needs to get off a clean shot instead of a more contested shot. And that could mean the difference between the shot going in or missing and points or no points for the Jayhawks.

Beyond that, Self has talked all season about Udeh being one of the most athletic players on the roster while adding that putting him on the floor increases the team’s overall athleticism, therein raising the team’s ceiling, as well.

It’s all about deserving to be out there, though, and executing while he is. Not just being on the floor for the sake of changing the dynamic. He has showed flashes of deserving more reps in recent games and one can only think that his confidence is currently at a season-high.

Picking Udeh as the most important and repeatable is not a knock on Rice or Yesufu. It’s likely that both will have important roles the rest of the way, perhaps bigger than we currently know.

Here’s the thing, though; the Jayhawks have plenty of other options at their positions, even with a depleted bench, to worry too much about them playing well.

After all, already this season we’ve seen Jalen Wilson play 34 minutes or more a game 17 times, with Dajuan Harris Jr., Kevin McCullar Jr., and Gradey Dick topping that total 23 times combined.

With Udeh, it’s different. The Jayhawks need and want that element in their offense and Udeh is capable of giving it to them on the nights where Adams is off or in foul trouble. Besides, Udeh is a bigger target than Adams and can play that specific role of catching lobs and hovering around the rim better than anyone on the roster as it currently stands.

Beyond that, the numbers show that when KJ Adams plays poorly, the Jayhawks usually struggle.

Adams put up good numbers in just one of KU’s five losses to date — the overtime loss at K-State, where he scored 17 points on 6-of-6 shooting in 34 minutes but still only grabbed two rebounds.

In the four other losses, he combined for just 19 points and 15 rebounds (4.8 points and 3.8 rebounds per game) while shooting 7-of-24 from the floor in an average of 27 minutes on the court in each game.

That’s not entirely Adams’ fault, of course. Most of his off nights have come when the rest of the team has been off, as well.

But those numbers from the 5 spot, in KU’s losses, speak to the importance of Kansas having another option there, should Adams not have it on any given night, regardless of what the rest of the roster is or is not doing.


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