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Can Udoka Azubuike work his way into the rotation?

The young big man seems to have taken a step forward

NBA: Utah Jazz at Denver Nuggets Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Udoka Azubuike is the third string center for the Utah Jazz. Or, he was. Then Rudy Gobert began missing time due to injuries, so he had to step into a backup center role behind Hassan Whiteside. Next came a surprising move by the coaching staff; Azubuike was given the start even with Whiteside healthy.

Azubuike is a huge 7’0” 270 lb player, and has surprising athleticism. When he’s on the court, he provides size, energy, and verticality. He is still young and unpolished. It’s evident at times that he’s out of position on defense. But his combination of physical tools and pure effort make it a guarantee that he’ll impact the game one way or another when he’s on the court.

In his four starts, Dok is averaging 7.5 points, 9 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks in only 22 minutes. After last night’s win in which he closed the game at center, Azubuike received a lot of praise from teammates and coaches.

That praise was earned. After a first half in which he really struggled to keep the New York big men in check, Dok came into the second half on a mission. He was everywhere, altering shots, grabbing rebounds, and even getting a few buckets inside.

So, why did Quin Snyder, Alex Jensen, and the rest of the staff decide to start Azubuike over Whiteside? Is that indicative of their spots in the rotation when Gobert returns? It’s possible. It’s also possible that Dok is being showcased as a trade asset, or maybe the coaching staff thought he was a better fit with the starters. Maybe Whiteside is on the trading block and they wanted to get Azubuike more experienced playing with the team. We won’t know until after Gobert returns and the trade deadline passes, but I think there’s a real possibility that Azubuike ends up as the backup center.

Whiteside’s play has been very inconsistent, which is, ironically, consistent for his career. He is a talented big, but his effort and decision-making are unreliable. He’s had great performances for Utah which have helped win them games, but he’s also been an issue in many losses. Quin Snyder has shown the willingness to play a young and imperfect big man instead of a proven veteran before. When Ed Davis’ play wasn’t cutting it, Tony Bradley took over his rotation spot. Snyder values centers that put in high effort, and that’s certainly something Azubuike can do.