Prior to Wednesday night’s game against the Denver Nuggets, seven-foot center Udoka Azubuike had yet to crack the rotation for the Utah Jazz. Out of Kansas, the often debated 27th pick of the 2020 NBA draft has experienced a variety of struggles. From a couple of severe ankle injuries to often unfair comparisons with players drafted around him (cough, Desmond Bane, cough), Azubuike has experienced an up and down career.
Yet like most work environments, an individuals success in the NBA hinges upon capitalizing on opportunities. For Azubuike, the absence of both Rudy Gobert (health and safety protocols) and Hassan Whiteside (concussion protocol) offered him the greatest (and most challenging) opportunity of his young career: a starting spot against last year’s league MVP, Nikola Jokic.
In all honesty, entering this game, I (like most people) expected Azubuike to get toasted. To some extent, he was, as Jokic posted a mind-boggling stat line of 26 points, 21 rebounds, and 11 assists. However, this isn’t fair to Azubuike. For starting in a game that he previously didn’t expect to play in, Azubuike performed surprisingly well. While his box score stats of 5 points, 1 rebound, 1 steal, 1 block, and +/- of -8 in 16 minutes weren't jaw dropping, he played with a high level of effort and intensity. His ability to stay ready and composed, especially coming off a nasty ankle injury, reflects a high level of professionalism.
Although Azubuike largely played on a whim, there were a variety of takeaways, both positive and negative, that could be taken from his first minutes against rotational NBA players. Let’s first take a look at the bad:
I think that Azubuike still isn’t totally there as an NBA level paint defender. Although he posted a phenomenal defensive rating of 100.0, there were a few small mistakes he made. Most of Azubuike’s blunders came in one of three ways: (1) biting on fakes, (2) reacting a step too slow to an action, or (3) standing out of place.
On this play, Facu Compazzo (5’ 10”) drives hard to the paint, looks up to the basket like he’s going to score, get’s Azubuike to leave his feet, and drops an easy pass to Jokic for the bucket.
Note that this play is also the fault of Jordan Clarkson. He fails to get back into the play in time to either contest Jokic’s shot or Compazzo’s drive. Still, I think this play shows how Azubuike needs to develop a better feeling for when to leave his feet and when to use his height and length to effect a play. Had he not jumped, he would have had the chance to turn and contest the floater.
And here, although Barton misses the shot, Azubuike drops too far and fails to contest this pull-up jumper:
While this type of shot is one the Jazz don’t hate opposing teams taking, it’s still a nearly wide-open elbow jumper for Barton. Azubuike sits a little too far back and doesn’t react in time to contest the shot. It may sound like a nit-pick, but learning how to better contest these shots will make Azubuike a better drop defender in the future.
With that said, Azubuike’s defense was largely pretty good. He took advantage of his size and athleticism to clog up space in the paint and make good contests. On this play, Jokic scores with a nifty hook shot, but I think Azubuike does a good job of stopping the initial drive and rotating for a decent contest:
Azubuike even shows off his potential as a shot blocker with this impressive block on Nikola Jokic (last clip, I promise):
I don’t think Jokic expected Azubuike to block this shot. He uses his length and positioning to tip this floater in a Gobert-esque manner. Without a doubt, Azubuike has a way to go as a defender, but he definitely showed some promise on this end throughout the game.
Where he really struggled was on offense. While he was on the court, the Jazz had an atrocious offensive rating of 77.1. While he was able to catch a few lobs and finish a couple of thunderous dunks, he seemed out of his comfort zone any time he caught the ball outside of the restricted area. Azubuike has a lot to learn when it comes to making confident and timely decisions with the ball when he doesn’t have an easy dunk in front of him. He’s still really raw on that end and is going to need a significant amount of development before he can make an honest fight for rotational minutes.
In the end, I was really happy with Udoka Azubuike’s performance. He was thrown into the fire and responded with solid defense, high effort, and a relatively low number of mistakes. With Gobert out for at least the rest of the week, we’ll probably see some more of Azubuike. While I still don’t think that he’s is ready to play consistent NBA minutes, I do think he’s closer than many of us expected. Who knows, maybe after another off-season of development, he could crack Utah’s rotation as a backup.