Utah Jazz take Kansas center Udoka Azubuike at No. 27, Syracuse wing Elijah Hughes at 39; trade center Tony Bradley
FILE - In this Nov. 8, 2019, file photo, Kansas' Udoka Azubuike celebrates after making a basket during the second half of the team's NCAA college basketball game against UNC Greensboro in Lawrence, Kan. Kansas finished the season No. 1 in The Associated Press college basketball poll, receiving 63 of 65 first-place votes from a national media panel Wednesday, March 18, 2020. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)
Going into Wednesday night’s NBA draft, it was thought that the Utah Jazz were most in need of another wing and perhaps a backup big man.
And after some circuitous machinations throughout the day, that’s just what they wound up with.
Once all the deals were done, the Jazz had used the No. 27 pick to select Kansas center Udoka Azubuike, and the No. 39 pick on Syracuse scoring wing Elijah Hughes.
They also sent fourth-year center Tony Bradley and the No. 38 pick to the Detroit Pistons in exchange for future draft considerations and a cash payment.
Azubuike is a 7-foot, 260-pounder, who raised eyebrows with his NBA combine measurements — which included a 7-foot-8 wingspan and a 41-inch vertical leap. The Nigerian-born Azubuike set an NCAA record for career field-goal percentage by shooting 74.6%. He averaged 13.7 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game as a senior.
“I know what I bring to the table. I know what I can bring to a team. Wherever a team drafts me, I know I’m going to have to go there and work hard and prove myself,” Azubuike told reporters in a Zoom call Wednesday evening. “… I wasn’t thinking at all about where I was drafted at. I’ve just been focused on working hard.”
General manager Justin Zanik acknowledged in a Zoom interview with local media afterward that while some will question the use of resources for a backup center in an increasingly pace-and-space-driven NBA, the team felt that the big man offered the best value.
“What we felt at the end of the day, Dok was the best defensive player, and the best player available given his production and unique attributes,” said Zanik. “… That ruled the day. That unique talent won out.”
Azubuike said he’s been focused on improving his ball-handling, extending his jump shot out to 15 feet, improving his consistency on free throws, and losing a little weight, having dropped about 5-10 pounds — all worthy goals, considering to this point he’s been largely viewed as a paint-bound throwback-style center featuring a historically bad free-throw conversion rate, as he’s made just 41.6% of his attempts from the stripe.
Still, the Jazz brass insisted there’s plenty to like.
“His lateral quickness is unique for a man his size. It’s important for us to have a big who can cover a lot of space with his length and his feet. It’ll take him awhile to adjust, but he has the ability to do that,” said assistant GM David Morway. “… He’s an extremely competitive big, and he wants to get better. He’s proven that every year. And he has — he’s improved something every year. That’s something that stood out to us.”
The Jazz began the day with just the No. 23 overall pick, but swung a deal with the New York Knicks to move down to No. 27 and pick up the No. 38 pick in the second round in exchange.
However, shortly after their selection of Azubuike, the Jazz sent No. 38 and reserve center Bradley to the Pistons for future draft considerations and an undisclosed cash payment. The move, which amounts to a salary-cap dump of the team’s first-round pick from just three seasons ago, should free up about $3.5 million for the Jazz, which is thought to be crucial to their attempt to re-sign free agent guard Jordan Clarkson and to potentially be able to utilize the $9.3 million midlevel exception.
The 38th pick, which was temporarily Utah’s, was used to select Vanderbilt point guard Saben Lee.
However, the Jazz subsequently acquired the 39th overall pick from the New Orleans Pelicans for a 2022 second-round pick, according to ESPN’s Andrew Lopez. With that selection, they picked Syracuse star Hughes, a 6-foot-6, 215-pound redshirt junior who is a volume-shooting, high-scoring guard who averaged 19.0 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.4 assists as a senior. He shot 42.7% from the field and 34.2% from deep.
Syracuse's Elijah Hughes, right, looks to pass around Pittsburgh's Au'Diese Toney (5) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020, in Pittsburgh. Syracuse won 72-49.(AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
The Jazz could not officially comment on the acquisition of Hughes, as the transaction had yet to be officially processed by the league, but the 22-year-old could not stop beaming about his selection.
“My heart started pumping, my hands started sweating. Right now, my heart is still beating fast,” Hughes told media in a Zoom call. “… When my agent called and said, ‘Get ready — you’re going to Utah,’ I just couldn’t believe it.
Hughes, donning a Jazz draft cap, described himself as “a full offensive threat” and someone who loves to compete on defense. He said he was particularly excited to get the opportunity to pick the brain of All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell, whom he referred to as “one of the dynamic scorers in the NBA” and “one of the best players in the league.”
As for Azubuike, he now becomes an immediate candidate to serve as Utah’s backup center behind All-Star Rudy Gobert — an area the Jazz’s front office was definitely seeking to upgrade.
The team was hopeful that signing free agent big man Ed Davis in summer 2019 would address the issue, but he was out of the team’s rotation by December. Bradley then got his first extended run with the team since being drafted, and showed some improvement, particularly as a rebounder. However, as the season went along, Bradley’s shortcomings as an interior defender were exposed, as his failure to diagnose opposing offenses, and his lack of lateral movement frequently enabled opponents too-easy access to the rim.
The hope, apparently, is that Azubuike will have more success in that regard — a role he’s relishing.
“I’m so excited to play alongside Rudy, a defensive specialist — that’s mostly what I did at Kansas,” Azubuike said. “I had a similar role, to affect the game defensively. So I’m excited to learn from him.”
Still, Utah’s draft-night machinations were met with some skepticism from fans, considering that Hughes does not appear to address the team’s perimeter-defense deficiencies, and also because the Jazz appeared to get outmaneuvered by an apparently more-nimble New York Knicks front office.
New York swung an early-morning trade with the Jazz, packaging Nos. 27 and 38 in exchange for No. 23. However, several in-draft moves made by other teams subsequently left the Minnesota Timberwolves with a glut of picks, and the Knicks wound up exchanging No. 23 for the 25th and 33rd overall picks.
Zanik, however, continued to preach patience to the fanbase, noting that more roster construction is yet to come, with free agency set to open up on Friday.
“This is just one part of a team-building phase,” he said. “… We know what we need to improve.”