The Triple Team: Udoka Azubuike’s movement is impressive, but rebounding needs work in summer league win over Suns

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz White center Udoka Azubuike (20) dunks the ball as Utah Jazz Blue faces Utah Jazz White in the Salt Lake City Summer League in Salt Lake City on Friday, Aug. 6, 2021.

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 63-57 summer league win over the Phoenix Suns from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Udoka Azubuike’s game

I think it’s fair to say Udoka Azubuike has exceeded expectations in his first summer league.

His line isn’t particularly impressive: eight points on 4-7 shooting, eight rebounds, two blocks, and two steals. But that also comes attached to a +14, and the highlight plays of the game.

This was impressive: not many other guys in the league would have the mass to finish through this contact.

I was also impressed with his movement on the floor. He runs much more quickly, and jumps much higher, than other similarly sized humans. Both are on display in this block, which is then finished with an alley-oop jam in transition.

It’s enough to make you envision big things for Azubuike. You know, his career has so far been defined by the things he wasn’t. He wasn’t a versatile wing player, like the Jazz could have had in the 2020 draft, nor was he good enough to be backup center last season, so the team felt it had to bring in Derrick Favors. Both were probably mistakes, but not Azubuike’s fault. He’s fun, taken out of all that context.

That being said, I do think in order to be a rotation player, he’ll need to become a better free-throw shooter and a better rebounder. The free-throw shooting is obvious: if he shoots under 50% like he did in college, he won’t be able to play in the playoffs, because teams will intentionally foul him.

The rebounding thing is a real concern of mine, though. He is huge, but struggles to get defensive rebounds sometimes: he only had three of those tonight, while the Suns got 20 offensive rebounds. That’s not going to fly in the NBA. His effort visibly isn’t always there.

“It’s just about getting that mentality where, you know, ‘no one can stop me, I can just go crash the glass and no one’s going to keep me from getting the rebound.’ So I’d like to just see that mentality over and over and over,” his summer league coach, Bryan Bailey, said. “It’s got to be in other aspects of the game, not just dunking the ball.”

2. Jarrell Brantley’s contract

Jarrell Brantley had 10 points, seven rebounds, and three assists on Monday night. Generally, he was more impressive inside than out, and more impressive in the first half than the second half.

Let’s talk about Brantley’s mildly surprising contractual decision this week.

After a fine-but-not-stellar Salt Lake City Summer League, Brantley decided to accept the Jazz’s qualifying offer. What’s a qualifying offer? It’s a mechanism that teams have to use to turn their unrestricted free agents into restricted free agents. In order to do that, they have to give a 1-year offer at a small dollar amount. That offer is usually ignored until the free agent can come to terms with either his old team or a new one — after the qualifying offer is offered, the old team has the chance to match any contract given by a new team.

But in this case, Brantley accepted the Jazz’s qualifying offer: a 1-year, $1.67 million contract, of which only $84,414 is guaranteed. In short, rather than going out and seeking a better offer, Brantley thought this was the best he could do. Given that his agent could have conversations with all 30 teams around the league, it was probably an informed decision.

So what happens now? Well, the Jazz could keep Brantley around using their 15th roster spot for as long as they want next season. Doing so would cost them the ability to sign any other players to standard contracts — such as the more deserving Forrest. It would also cost them cold, hard cash: remember that each dollar spent from here on out is essentially tripled due to the NBA’s luxury tax, so Brantley’s additional contract might cost Ryan Smith an extra $5 million.

Or, and this is more likely, the Jazz could just cut him. They could do it right away, but they could even wait until eight or so days into the regular season and cut him then without using any additional guaranteed money — NBA players’ contracts are prorated, and that’s about eight days worth of salary. If they think it’s possible Brantley becomes a good NBA player over the next two months, that would be the move.

From Brantley’s point of view, taking the qualifying offer means he gets $84,414, and then, worst case, the chance to sign with another team and get more money over the course of all or nearly all of a whole season. He could just sign with a G-League team and try to make the NBA that way, or he could go overseas and get a larger dollar amount. Either way, he’s doing okay.

3. Summer league woes

Ah, summer league. The basketball is famously not always of the highest quality.

To be sure: these are some of the best college and G-League players around, and so the talent level is probably high enough to make a compelling product. I mean, if you watch college basketball, this is a higher level of talent on the floor, no doubt.

But the fact that every player is killing themselves to try to impress, well, it leads to some scrappiness out there — maybe even some nerves as well. Every player is definitely in it to raise their own stock, and winning can come second. Heck, even if players really wanted to win, it’d be hard, with only a few days of practice together. (The Jazz should have an advantage here over most of the summer league squads given their games last week, but they merged the Jazz Blue and Jazz White teams before heading to Vegas.)

Even by those low standards, this Suns/Jazz game was a nightmare. The Suns shot 25%, and missed so many layups, open 3-point shots, and everything in between that it was scarcely believable. Do you give them credit for the offensive rebounds they had (20) or the turnovers they forced (15), or chalk that up to bad play from the Jazz? Speaking of them, Utah’s leading scorer had 10 points, but they at least shot 35% from the field.

I tried to look up the lowest-scoring summer league game in history, but it wasn’t in the records section of the NBA Summer League media guide. I did some Googling, though, and there was once a 56-52 game between the Wizards and Warriors. Ignominy was avoided tonight.