Utah Jazz Center Udoka Azubuike is a “freak of nature” lightning rod just looking to get better

You couldn’t talk about Udoka Azubuike’s rookie season without also touching on all the peripheral baggage that has become associated with the young great man’s burgeoning tenure with the Utah Jazz.

The perception that using the 27th overall selection in the 2020 NBA Draft on him was a reach. Confusion over his selection at all, regardless of lineup, due to the addition of Derrick Favors’ free agent. The frustration that several useful 3-and-D wings are still available to be picked up by a team in dire need of them. And the disappointment that accompanied a high ankle sprain that robbed him of months of precious development time.

For the teammates and assistant coaches who play and work with him every day, however, and for Azubuike himself, this stuff just never happens. Their collective goal for him is more singularly sharp: to help a guy who has invested in improving on the pitch to improve on the pitch.

“He’s a calm guy. You know, he’s not a super extrovert. But he’s a guy who wants to work hard, he wants to improve, ”said Jazz assistant Bryan Bailey, who just led the Salt Lake City Summer League team which included Azubuike. “He always asks questions: ‘Coach, can I do better? How do i do this to improve this? ‘ He’s in the gym trying to improve, working out every day. This is its primary objective.

As frustrated as an outsider can be with Azubuike’s rookie season, it cannot compare to his own anger and disappointment. That’s why he’s eagerly awaiting the SLC and Las Vegas summer leagues, respectively.

He finally has the chance to do something other than play 3 against 3 against his teammates.

“It was difficult, it was really difficult for me to go through this injury, this process. Not being in the field to train or learn, to do what a regular rookie like me would do, ”said Azubuike. “It was a bit hard. And I just had the idea of ​​trying to rehabilitate myself, to try to recover properly.

“I’m just happy to be here today.”

“One of the most athletic guys I have ever seen”

General consensus from a skeptical fan base aside, the Lagos, Nigeria native is not actually a blank canvas bringing zero to the table.

When the Jazz-White team – the one made up of five players who spent time in the organization in 2020-21 – took the field against the San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday night, the 6-foot-10, 265-pounder with a 7-7 wingspan was not only a physically imposing paint deterrent on the defense, but displayed easy, almost supernatural pick-and-roll synergy with second-year point guard Trent Forrest.

It turns out there is a good reason for this.

“We go back a long way. I have known ‘Dok since eighth grade; we played camps together, played AAU together, so our chemistry has always been there, ”said Forrest. “We’re very close, we’ve always been close, so I feel like a lot of it depends on how we know each other off the pitch. Once on the pitch we know how to play with each other.

In his opinion, Forrest fed Azubuike four lobs against Spurs, and he threw them all. The following night, against the Memphis Grizzlies, Azubuike again proved to be a dominant finisher, making 9 of 9 shots (including a 13-foot hook shot this time) en route to a team tied for 19 points.

While the Kansas product toolkit is indeed a bit limited at this point, it at least becomes extremely proficient in using what is in it.

Namely, enjoying a combination of size and athleticism that few NBA players possess.

“Dok is a super athlete. You see him defending, he has long arms and big legs, and he comes out of the ground very quickly. When you think he can’t challenge a shot, he gets there, ”Bailey said. “It’s just because of the size, and [for] being this large, it is quite mobile. He goes up and down the ground, and he can beat guys on the ground; in pick-and-roll defense he can be up and be a little aggressive with the ball and still come back, and he can be deep in the paint and still come out and challenge shots. So just his agility and size and explosive athleticism.

Now comes the challenge of learning how to consistently apply these gifts for maximum effect.

“Dok is learning so much,” said third-year forward Jarrell Brantley. “Dok is one of the most athletic guys I’ve ever seen – you’ll find he puts it all together.”

“He’s a freak of nature, really, to be that tall and to be able to jump as high as him. I feel like he has a lot of things in his game that a lot of people haven’t been able to see yet, ”Forrest admitted. “From catching lobs to blocking shots to hook shots; he has improved so much in his free throws. It’s just crazy how far he’s come, especially since I’ve known him for so long. I mean, I really feel like everyone is going to like it once it starts to catch on.

(Rick Bowmer | Associated Press) Utah Jazz‘s Udoka Azubuike (20) blocks a shot from Memphis Grizzlies Romeo Weems (0) during the first half of an NBA Summer League basketball game on Wednesday, August 4, 2021, in Salt Lake City.

In the meantime, against an admittedly smaller and smaller tall men competition in the Summer League game, Azubuike at least recognizes the need to exploit its advantages.

When asked if he feels like a superior physical force on the Vivint Arena pitch, he replied that he adopted a simple mantra for these SLC games.

“I’m just dominant – that’s what I bring to the table,” he said. “… When I’m there, my state of mind is to dominate and make it look like I’m stronger or whatever. In my head, it’s like I’m just thinking, “Dominate”. If it’s about bouncing the ball, dunking, being aggressive, that’s exactly what I’m trying to do.

“A chance for me to prove myself”

Honestly, the one player who consistently kept Azubuike from dominating in these SLC Summer League games was… well, Azubuike.

His conditioning is admittedly not yet where it needs to be, and Bailey had to call several timeouts in those games when he passed, just to get him off the pitch and give him a needed break.

Azubuike acknowledged that due to the combination of the sprained ankle suffered in his first G League game and the limitation of practice during the NBA season due to COVID-19 restrictions and protocols, he did not. is just not as advanced as it should be. .

The not yet 22-year-old called the pace and overall skill level of the NBA game the two biggest surprises he has faced since joining the league.

Of course, he and everyone else in Jazz knows that he has a lot more to do than just get in better shape. But then, that’s why he was so excited to make the Summer League this year, with the team’s first game on the Las Vegas slate on Monday night.

“It means a lot to me and my development just to go there [and play], “he said.” It’s a chance for me to prove myself [I’m getting better at] all the stuff I’ve worked on.

Azubuike has stated that he enjoys his relationship with Rudy Gobert and that while they don’t communicate much verbally, the All-Star has a great philosophy of teaching by example. He added that he also learned a lot from watching Favors last season.

Being around those two, especially during the playoffs, “helped me see it from a different perspective. … They opened my eyes a lot more. Now I have a better understanding of the NBA game.

When asked after the Summer League opener against Spurs what he wanted to see from his sophomore center over the next few weeks, Bailey had a long list.

“The most important thing for him is obviously to be an anchor in defense. Offensively, run on the pitch, go to the right places, be a good filter, set up good screens, just talk and be active. Be active, ”Bailey said. “He did a good job tonight, finishing around the edge, he bounced back, he ran the ground well.”

There is still a long, long way to go. With the addition of free agent veteran Hassan Whiteside a few days ago, Azubuike will likely spend much of this season recruiting reps for the Salt Lake City Stars.

His teammates, however, to a man all say he’s such a great guy they can’t help but support him.

Forrest acknowledged that the big man is calm and reserved, although with their history together he said he could take him forward a bit.

Second-year winger Elijah Hughes said he enjoyed seeing the center come out of its shell when off-rotation players fought epic battles in practice last season.

“Yo, Dok is funny, Dok is funny. He and I go there sometimes, we play 3 on 3, but he’s a really laid back guy, ”said Hughes. “He’s just a good guy to be around. I’m glad we’re on the same team.

Azubuike himself admitted that he was a bit boring, saying the days off were not spent on big adventures, but rather staying in his room and watching ESPN nonstop. But then, “I’m a little new here in Utah too,” he noted, “so I really don’t know what’s in there.”

Assumptions aside, the same is true for the moment for his career as a professional basketball player.

Utah Jazz in Las Vegas

Monday vs. Phoenix Suns, 8 p.m., ESPN3

Wednesday vs. Dallas Mavericks, 7 p.m., ESPN3

Friday vs. Miami Heat, 3 p.m.

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