Utah Jazz center Udoka Azubuike is a ‘freak of nature’ lightning rod just looking to get better

The second-year center, maligned as a draft pick by the team’s fan base, is out to prove himself during the team’s Summer League play.

(Rick Bowmer | Associated Press) Utah Jazz's Udoka Azubuike (20) dunks against the Memphis Grizzlies during the first half of an NBA summer league basketball game Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021, in Salt Lake City.

You couldn’t talk about Udoka Azubuike’s rookie season without also conjuring all the peripheral baggage that became associated with the young big man’s nascent tenure with the Utah Jazz.

The perception that using the 27th overall selection in the 2020 NBA draft on him was a reach. The confusion over his selection at all, regardless of range, owing to the free-agent addition of Derrick Favors. The frustration that several useful 3-and-D wings were still available to be taken by a team badly in need of them. And the disappointment that came along with a high ankle sprain that robbed him of months of valuable developmental time.

For the teammates and assistant coaches who play and work with him every day, though, and for Azubuike himself, that stuff simply never comes up. Their collective focus for him is more singularly honed: Help a guy who’s invested in improving on the court improve on the court.

“He’s a quiet guy. You know, he’s not super outgoing. But he’s a guy that wants to work hard, he wants to get better,” said Jazz assistant Bryan Bailey, who just headed up the team’s Salt Lake City Summer League team that included Azubuike. “He’s always asking questions: ‘Coach, can I do this better? How do I do that to improve on this?’ He’s in the gym trying to get better, working every day. That’s his primary goal.”

As frustrated as any outsider might be by Azubuike’s rookie season, it can’t compare to his own anger and disappointment. That’s why he’s been so looking forward to the respective SLC and Las Vegas summer leagues.

He’s finally getting a chance to do something other than play 3-on-3 against teammates.

“It was tough, it was really tough for me going through that injury, that process. Not being out on the court practicing or learning, doing what a regular rookie like me would do,” Azubuike said. “It was kind of tough. And I just had a mindset of just trying to rehab, trying to get back right.

“I’m just glad I’m here today.”

‘One of the most athletic dudes I’ve ever seen’

General consensus from a skeptical fan base aside, the Lagos, Nigeria native is not actually a blank canvas bringing zero to the table.

When the Jazz-White team — the one featuring five players who spent time in the organization in 2020-21 — took the court against the San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday night, the 6-foot-10, 265-pounder with a 7-7 wingspan was not only a physically imposing paint deterrent on defense, but displayed an easy, almost preternatural pick-and-roll synergy with second-year point guard Trent Forrest.

Turns out, there’s a good reason for that.

“We go way back. I’ve known ‘Dok since eighth grade; we’ve played camps together, played AAU together, so our chemistry has kind of always been there,” Forrest said. “We’re really close, always been close, so I feel like a lot of it just kind of falls on how we know each other off the court. Once we get on the court, we know how to play with each other.”

To his point, Forrest fed Azubuike four lobs against the Spurs, and he threw them all down. The next night, against the Memphis Grizzlies, Azubuike proved a dominant finisher again, hitting 9 of 9 shots (including a 13-foot hook shot this time) en route to a team-high-tying 19 points.

While the Kansas product’s toolbox is indeed a bit limited at this point, he’s at least becoming exceedingly proficient at using what’s in there.

Namely, taking advantage of a combination of size and athleticism that few in the NBA possess.

“Dok is super-athletic. You see him on defense, he’s got long arms and he’s got big legs, and he gets off the floor super-quick. When you think he can’t contest a shot, he just gets there,” said Bailey. “It’s just due to the size, and [for] being that big, he’s pretty mobile. He gets up and down the floor, and he can beat guys down the floor; on pick-and-roll defense, he can be up and be a little aggressive on the ball and still get back, and he can be deep in the paint and still get out and contest shots. So just his agility and size and explosive athleticism.”

Now comes the challenge of learning how to consistently apply those gifts to maximum effect.

“‘Dok’s learning so much,” said third-year forward Jarrell Brantley. ‘Dok’s one of the most athletic dudes I’ve ever seen — you’ll see he’s putting that stuff into place.”

“He’s a freak of nature, really, to be that tall and be able to jump as high as he does. I feel like he has a lot to his game that a lot of people haven’t been able to see yet,” agreed Forrest. “From catching lobs to blocking shots to making hook shots; he’s gotten so much better at his free throws. It’s just crazy to see how far he’s come, especially since I’ve known him so long. I mean, I definitely feel like everybody is going to love him once he starts to hit his stride.”

(Rick Bowmer | Associated Press) Utah Jazz's Udoka Azubuike (20) blocks a shot by Memphis Grizzlies' Romeo Weems (0) during the first half of an NBA summer league basketball game Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021, in Salt Lake City.

In the meantime, against admittedly smaller and lesser big-man competition in Summer League play, Azubuike at least recognizes the need to exploit what advantages he’s got.

Asked if he felt like a superior physical force out there on the Vivint Arena court, he said he had adopted a simple mantra for those SLC games.

“I’m just dominant — that’s what I bring to the table,” he said. “… When I’m out there, my mindset is to dominate and make it seem like I’m the strongest or whatever. In my head it’s like I’m just thinking, ‘Dominate.’ If it’s rebounding the ball, dunking, being aggressive, that’s just what I try to do.”

‘A chance for me to prove myself’

Honestly, the only player who consistently stopped Azubuike from dominating in those SLC Summer League games was … well, Azubuike.

His conditioning is admittedly not where it needs to be yet, and Bailey had to call multiple timeouts in those games when he was spent, just to get him off the court and get him a needed breather.

Azubuike acknowledged that, owing to the combination of the sprained ankle suffered in his first G League game and the limitation on practices during the NBA season because of COVID-19 restrictions and protocols, he simply isn’t as far along as he needs to be.

The not-yet-22-year-old called the pace and the overall skill level of the NBA game the two biggest surprises he’s faced since coming to the league.

Of course, he and everyone else in the Jazz know there’s far more for him to work on than simply getting into better shape. But then, that’s why he was so excited to get to take part in Summer League this year, with the team’s first game on the Las Vegas slate coming Monday night.

“It means a lot for me and my development just to go out there [and play],” he said. “It’s a chance for me to prove to myself [I’m getting better at] all the stuff I’ve been working on.”

Azubuike said he loves his relationship with Rudy Gobert, and that while they don’t communicate verbally a ton, the All-Star has a great teach-by-example ethos. He added that he also learned a ton from watching Favors last season, too.

Being around those two, especially during the playoffs, “helped me to see from a different angle. … They opened my eyes way more. Now I have a better understanding about the NBA game.”

Asked after the Summer League opener against the Spurs what he wanted to see from his second-year center over the coming weeks, Bailey had an extensive list.

“The biggest thing for him is obviously to be an anchor on defense. Offensively, running the floor, get to the right spots, be a good screener, set good screens, just talk out there and be active. Be active,” Bailey said. “He did a good job tonight, finishing around the rim, he rebounded, he ran the floor well.”

There’s still a long, long way to go. With the free-agent addition of veteran Hassan Whiteside a few days ago, Azubuike is likely to spend much of this season getting reps for the Salt Lake City Stars.

His teammates, though, to a man, all say he’s such a good guy, they can’t help but root for him.

Forrest acknowledged that the big man is quiet and reserved, though with their history together, he said he could get him going a bit.

Second-year wing Elijah Hughes said he enjoyed seeing the center come out of his shell when out-of-the-rotation players waged some epic battles during practices this past season.

“Yo, Dok is funny, Dok is funny. Me and him, we go at it sometimes, we play 3-on-3, but he’s a really laid-back guy,” said Hughes. “He’s just a good dude to be around. I’m glad we’re on the same team.”

Azubuike himself conceded he’s a bit boring, saying that off-days were devoted not to grand adventures, but rather, staying put in his room and watching ESPN nonstop. But then, “I’m kind of new here in Utah, too,” he noted, “so I really don’t know what’s out there.”

Assumptions aside, the same holds true for now on his professional basketball career.

Utah Jazz in Las Vegas

Monday vs. Phoenix Suns, 8 p.m., ESPN3

Wednesday vs. Dallas Mavericks, 7 p.m., ESPN3

Friday vs. Miami Heat, 3 p.m.