Utah Jazz have a decision to make: should they pick up Udoka Azubuike’s option?

The deadline for exercising third-year options looms for the Jazz and their young center

(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.

Should the Jazz sign up for another year of Udoka Azubuike?

That’s the decision that they’ll have to make before Monday, the deadline in which to exercise Azubuike’s third-year option. The 2020 No. 27 pick is just 22 years old, and the Jazz will have to decide whether or not they want to keep Azubuike on the roster next season or open another spot.

Let’s dig into the considerations that could decide the young center’s future.

The ups and downs of Azubuike’s game

By far, Azubuike’s longest stretch of professional play occurred at this offseason’s summer league, where he showed off all of his strengths and weaknesses. Previously, he’d been set back by the pandemic canceling last year’s summer league, and a severe ankle sprain that cost him all but one game of the G-League season.

Azubuike is a record-setter: he set the all-time NCAA field-goal percentage record by shooting 74% over the course of his career. How? Well, by standing 7-feet tall, having a 7-7 wingspan, and having an NBA Combine record for a center 37-inch vertical leap. He is a superlative dunker, one of the best we’ve ever seen, and his screen-and-roll threat is profound.

The combination of all that means Azubuike has incredible tools that no other player in the NBA has: not Joel Embiid, not Rudy Gobert, not Giannis Antetokounmpo, nobody. But he’s much, much thicker than those players, meaning his length and verticality is of somewhat limited effectiveness.

The problem lies in his quickness of movement. In order to jump, he has to load up — giving defenders plenty of time to collapse on him. Dunks are ‘Dok’s specialty (one teammate was heard yelling “DOK SMASH” after a preseason conversion), but he’s not always able to go through multiple bodies to do so. If opponents foul him, Azubuike is a sketchy free-throw shooter. After shooting only 41% from the charity stripe in college, he’s shot 48% in professional play so far.

In defending pick-and-roll, he’s capable of getting jaw-dropping blocks and deflections, but also capable of plays where he’s so slow to move he’s out of frame entirely. Changing directions quickly is hard for such a big man.

Frankly, Azubuike is also out of shape. This was understandable in summer league, even as head coach Bryan Bailey had to take multiple timeouts in order to give Azubuike a breather — it was his first time playing much since the ankle injury. But after getting that feedback in summer league, and having two months to work on it, Azubuike also showed up out of shape for training camp: visibly exhausted after only a few minutes of NBA play, struggling to move and get up and down the floor.

This might show up most in Azubuike’s effort on the glass. In general, he’s not fighting enough down low, leading to far lower rebounding numbers than you’d expect for such a big player. Azubuike’s rebounding was also a complaint of his college coach, Kansas’ Bill Self.

How much will it cost?

If the Jazz pick up Azubuike’s option, they’ll have to pay him $2,174,880 in the 2022-23 season.

That’s not a lot by NBA standards, but is more than the projected rookie minimum of about $975K next year. Because the Jazz are currently likely to be in the luxury tax next season, they’d have to pay taxes on the difference — a cost of $3 million in total at minimum, though it could be higher depending on how much over the projected $145-million luxury tax line the Jazz end up being next year.

In short, the Jazz have to decide whether they want to gamble on Azubuike’s upside. If they feel he can get in shape and improve his movement, free-throw shooting, and rebounding, he has a real possibility of being a plus NBA center. On the other hand, declining Azubuike’s option would mean they feel that they can use the money and roster spot on a player that has a better shot of contributing at the NBA level.

A history of underperforming big men

If the Jazz pick up Azubuike’s option, and he underperforms, they may choose to salary dump his contract next season, using another second-round pick. And the Jazz’s record at the backup center position hasn’t been encouraging in recent years, losing a number of draft assets due to overpays at the position.

• After acquiring Tibor Pleiss in the Enes Kanter trade to Oklahoma City, the Jazz signed him to a 3-year, $6.5 million guaranteed contract. But Pleiss’s lack of mobility and defense meant he didn’t have a productive NBA future, and the Jazz dumped his salary one year into the deal, at a cost of two second-round picks.

• The Jazz picked up center Tony Bradley’s fourth-year option in October of 2019, but ultimately decided he couldn’t stay on the floor in the playoffs enough to justify the $3.5 million salary they opted into for the 2020-21 season. They traded the No. 38 pick to incentivize the Pistons to take on Bradley.

• Four days later, the Jazz traded Ed Davis’ $5-million salary for the 2020-21 season to the New York Knicks. The Jazz gave up two second-round picks in the deal, so that the Knicks would pay Davis’ salary.

• After signing a 3-year, $29-million contract to return to the Jazz in 2020, Derrick Favors was traded one season later to the Oklahoma City Thunder at the cost of a 2024 first-round pick. (The Jazz will get the Thunder’s least favorable 2027 second-round pick in the deal.) Favors, a fan favorite, ultimately didn’t provide enough value to live up to that salary.