Udoka Azubuike joins the Utah Jazz with much to learn and a rematch to anticipate

FILE - In this Feb. 3, 2020, file photo, Kansas center Udoka Azubuike (35) is congratulated after a dunk against Texas during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Lawrence, Kan. Azubuike was selected by the Utah Jazz in the NBA draft Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020. (AP Photo/Reed Hoffmann, File)

It’s hard to know what was a more jarring “Welcome to the United States” moment for Udoka Azubuike: was it Joel Embiid, or was it pizza?

Let’s start with pizza. Harry and Donna Coxsome welcomed Azubuike to the United States as host parents of the 6-foot-8 13-year-old, after Potter’s House Christian Academy heard about the tallest kid at a Basketball Without Borders camp in Nigeria. Azubuike was offered the chance to escape the violence of Delta, Nigeria, and he and his mother jumped at the opportunity.

The Coxsome patriarch came home from a trip to Sam’s Club with a pizza, but when offered it, Azubuike backed away.

“Not only had Udoka never eaten a slice of pizza, but he’d also never seen a slice of pizza,” Coxsome told Bleacher Report. “He had no idea what it was. I convinced him to take a bite, and his eyes just lit up. I’ll never forget the look of joy on his face. In three seconds, that piece of pizza was gone.”

A short time later, his high school played The Rock School in Gainesville — where future first-team All-NBA center Embiid was a senior. It didn’t matter that Azubuike was a 13-year-old freshman. Six-foot-eight was their best shot, and the two matched up.

Three years later, Embiid would call Azubuike, and tell him to go to Kansas, just as Embiid did. “I know [Udoka] really looks up to Joel,” Coxsome said.

Azubuike’s time at Kansas wasn’t always easy. First, it was somewhat injury-marred — hand, wrist, and ankle injuries cost him significant time, including all but nine games of his junior year. Kansas coach Bill Self was tough: he threatened to buy Azubuike a pacifier if he played too soft, and constantly made public remarks about his weaknesses.

For example, about Azubuike’s rebounding, Self said: “You would think a guy that does this for a living, his stats would be better.” Azubuike, like all college sports players, do not earn a salary for playing basketball in the NCAA; but he did respond to his coach’s challenge by his senior year, garnering 10.5 rebounds per game.

Azubuike’s most notable weakness is his free-throw shooting. For his college career, he shot just 41% from the free-throw line, improving to 44% in his senior season. With that have come all of the familiar free-throw shooting tropes: he shoots them better in practice, he should start shooting underhanded, and even teammates jokingly staring at Azubuike when asked about team’s free-throw shooting woes. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo just started referring to him as “Shaq” at every press conference.

But the Shaquille O’Neal comparisons work in another way, too: Azubuike is a powerful, explosive, big-man dunker. When he gets two feet below him at the rim, someone is getting dunked on, and powerfully so. Azubuike earned headlines for having the highest vertical of any center ever at the NBA combine, and while he cheated a little on his standing reach in order to do so, it still exemplifies just how athletic he is.

The basket stanchion in Italy could tell you that. Azubuike and Kansas were in Rome for a pre-season tour when Azubuike got the chance to dunk on Italian baskets in a small gym in an exhibition game against an Italian All-Star squad. Azubuike bent the rim, causing the game to be delayed for several minutes.

His field-goal percentage numbers are Shaq-esque, too. As one FiveThirtyEight headline declared, “Kansas’s Udoka Azubuike Has Found The Formula For Efficiency: Dunk A Lot.” He did, to the tune of a 74.8% field-goal percentage.

Azubuike has terrific athleticism and soft hands to get those dunks, but the rest of Azubuike’s offensive game isn’t as proficient. He can make some turnaround hooks and the like near the rim, but the jumper isn’t really there, he seems to panic when double-teamed, and the footwork in traffic can feature an extra step, leading to travels. He’s not a dribbler, a passer, or a shooter, and you can probably count the number of NBA players in 2020 without any of those traits on one hand.

One of them is in Utah: Rudy Gobert. Gobert’s been able to make it on the back of his extreme defensive abilities, and Azubuike hopes to mimic Gobert in a lot of ways.

“I want to learn from him,” Azubuike said the night he was drafted. “I want to pick his brain in terms of how he plays, how he blocks shots, and how he affects the game defensively.”

He has a chance to match Gobert. Azubuike has length somewhat near Gobert’s — he stands 7 foot with a 7-7 wingspan. Azubuike can probably jump higher. However, Azubuike is bigger than Gobert, so he doesn’t move quite as quickly. Early in his career, he struggled mightily with quicker guards, but by his senior year did show an improvement in that regard in being able to keep the guard in front of him. Defending stretch bigs, though, still eludes him: he’ll often just give 10 feet of space around the 3-point line to dare the opposing player to shoot. They made them in college, and they’ll make even more in the NBA. He’ll need to adjust.

The combination of movement and skill-related question marks had most draft observers and front offices considering Azubuike a second-round selection, with the center slated to be anywhere from No. 37 to No. 47. The Jazz, though, believed he was the best player available, regardless of position, at No. 27. Indeed, they believed that at No. 23, which is why they were fine with trading down in the draft.

“What we felt at the end of the day was that ‘Dok’ was the best player available, given his unique production, physical attributes, and ability to affect both offensively and defensively on the court,” Jazz general manager Justin Zanik said.

It’s been a remarkable journey in the U.S. for Azubuike to get to this point, to hear his name in the first round in the NBA draft seven years after moving as a fresh teenager.

He’s had pizza many times by now. Joel Embiid looms, waiting for his rematch.