Udoka Azubuike impresses his Utah Jazz teammates with ‘fighting and clawing’ vs. Knicks

The second-year center best known at this point for not being Desmond Bane has made big contributions in Utah’s three-game winning streak simply by going out and being competitive.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz center Udoka Azubuike (20) yells out as the Utah Jazz and the New York Knicks play an NBA basketball game at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 7, 2022.

Utah Jazz center Udoka Azubuike remains very much a work in progress.

But, crucially, there is progress.

With Rudy Gobert out due to a left calf strain, Hassan Whiteside playing inconsistently, and small-ball option Rudy Gay also battling some injuries, the second-year big man — who, to this point, has mostly been known for being the guy the Jazz took instead of up-and-coming Grizzlies wing Desmond Bane — has been getting some chances to play and to prove himself.

There have been ups and downs, to be sure, and it remains very much in question whether “Dok” will ever amount to anything more than a second- or third-string center. There are zero questions, though, about his care factor, and right now, that’s been enough.

“I told him, ‘Look, you’re gonna mess up. It’s going to happen,’” teammate Donovan Mitchell noted after Friday’s victory over Brooklyn. “But the thing about Dok is he messes up at 125%. We all love that.”

After back-to-back solid performances against the Nuggets (eight points, 10 rebounds, two blocks off the bench) and Nets (10 points, 11 rebounds in a surprise start), Azubuike once again was among the first five in Monday night’s 113-104 win against the Knicks.

Many mistakes were made early vs. New York, and they did not exactly live up to that lofty 125% billing.

His initial foray against über-athletic New York counterpart Mitchell Robinson was a bit of a disaster, as the Knicks center racked up 10 points (on 5-for-6 shooting) plus seven rebounds (five of them offensive) in just 7:25 of action in the first quarter. Robinson was up to a 12-point, 12-rebound double-double by halftime.

Azubuike, meanwhile, struggled with scheme recognition, with positioning, with physicality, and generally looked overmatched and underwhelming before the break, totaling one point and two boards in 10:23 of court time.

Then, after halftime, he flipped a switch.

Four points, seven rebounds, two blocks in the third quarter. Two points, five boards, and another rejection in the fourth. Beyond the raw numbers, though, were the energy and effort. He started bodying up bigs, switching onto smalls, contesting shots, utilizing his physical attributes to be an actual presence.

When Whiteside fouled out with 4:59 remaining, the Jazz had no choice but to play Azubuike in that crucial stretch run. He handled it well.

“Dok’s competitiveness — that was the differentiating factor,” coach Quin Snyder noted afterward. “… There’s a lot of things that he’s working on, but it’s hard to work on just being competitive. I told him this in the locker room: it’s not that he didn’t do a good job the last two games, but tonight, playing against [Nerlens] Noel, Robinson, [Julius] Randle’s in there, [Obi] Toppin — it’s a war down there on the glass. And even when he didn’t get it, someone had to hit him in order for him not to get it. And he hit a few people. That competitive component, that gives your team a lift.”

Snyder wasn’t the only one making that last point.

“His energy, it’s impressive,” noted Bojan Bogdanovic.

“He’s guarding, he’s being physical, and his presence has really kind of picked us up as a unit when he’s out there,” added Mike Conley. “We know he’s out there just to be a bruiser and change the flow of the game. I’m really proud of the way he’s progressed.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz center Udoka Azubuike (20) listens to Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) as the Utah Jazz and the New York Knicks play an NBA basketball game at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 7, 2022.

Mitchell, unprompted, sidetracked himself during one of his postgame responses to “take a second to shout-out Dok,” before going on to extol the way the 6-foot-10, 265-pounder played as the game progressed, specifically expressing appreciation for Azubuike’s improved communication, noting that at one point, “he was telling me where to be.

“… He was fighting for every board, trying to block shots, trying to scramble, trying to do every little thing to win,” Mitchell added. “When you see a guy who’s fighting and clawing — I’m not going to lie, he was the trend-setter with that for us. He’s continuously making extra plays, and I’m really happy for him. I’m proud of him.”

Azubuike is proud of himself.

After speaking to the media following the blowout win over depleted Brooklyn, he gave an honest self-assessment, noting that he still has more conditioning work to do in order to get into ideal game shape, and that he’s still getting adjusted to specific actions, particularly when opponents go small against him.

Nevertheless …

“I feel a little more confident,” Azubuike said. “Playing alongside guys like Don or Mike, they make the game so much easier for me. For me, it’s just know my role and play to the best of my ability — setting good screens, rebounding the ball, running the floor.”

In particular, teammates and coaches have been on him to maximize his relationship and partnership with Conley.

“The thing that we’ve told him is just compete, run, lock in defensively, and if you roll, we’ve got some guards who will find you. If you’re big and you roll with Mike Conley, you’ll get a dunk,” Snyder said.

Jordan Clarkson was even more direct.

“Just telling him, ‘You screen, you’re gonna get Mike the ball, and Mike will make you some money!’” he noted with a laugh.

And Azubuike confirmed that the veteran point guard has, indeed, become quite the resource.

“When Don was gone, Mike was talking to me — about where to be, what to be doing, trying to encourage me. Just being the vet,” he said. “For me, as a young guy coming in the league, just hearing that voice — that big a voice — from Mike saying, ‘You’re good,’ just being encouraging, that goes a long way.”

Conley, for his part, pointed out that “The game’s fast for him,” still at this point, “but he’s learning.”

And that, plus playing like he cares, counts for something.

Azubuike may never make up for the Jazz whiffing on Bane, but it’s too late for the team to play “what if” now, and that can’t be a consideration for the center, anyway.

He’s got his own career and improvement to worry about. And, by all accounts, he’s doing exactly that.

“Credit to Dok for putting that work in, and then finding an opportunity,” Snyder said. “… Young guys, they’re enthusiastic about having opportunities, and there’s juice.”

“He’s been waiting for this opportunity, and you can tell,” Mitchell added. “You saw something in his eyes tonight that he wants it.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) makes a move on New York Knicks guard Alec Burks (18) as the Utah Jazz and the New York Knicks play an NBA basketball game at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 7, 2022.