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Udoka Azubuike quietly working to prove his NBA worth with the Utah Jazz

Utah Jazz White team center Udoka Azubuike (20) blocks Utah Jazz Blue team guard Malik Newman.
Utah Jazz White team center Udoka Azubuike (20) blocks Utah Jazz Blue team guard Malik Newman (39) as the Utah Jazz Blue and White teams play in summer league action at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Friday, Aug. 6, 2021. The White team won 83-65.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Udoka Azubuike is not an easy person to get to know.

The second year Utah Jazz player, a Nigerian native who played four years at Kansas before being drafted 27th overall by the Jazz in 2020, is quiet by nature and socially timid. He’s hard to read and sometimes it takes him a while to open up.

But his teammates and coaches agree that things are different when he’s on the court. He’s athletically gifted, yells out plays, calls out screens. He loves basketball and is always looking for ways to get better.

“He’s a quiet guy and he’s not super outgoing, but he’s a guy that wants to work hard,” said Jazz assistant Bryan Bailey, who coaches the Jazz’s Summer League team. “He’s always asking questions. ‘Coach, can I do this better? How did I do today? Did I improve on this?’ He’s in the gym trying to get better, working every day.”

There are a lot of things about Azubuike’s circumstances with the Jazz that have been completely out of his control. Many were disappointed with how high the Jazz drafted Azubuike, especially when there were so many 3-and-D wings who were available for the taking in the 2020 draft. That’s not his fault.

The Jazz then brought in Derrick Favors to back up Rudy Gobert last season, making Azubuike a bit of a redundancy on the roster. That’s also not his fault.

Finally, Azubuike suffered a severe ankle sprain in the SLC Stars’ first game in the G-League bubble last season and it halted his development and kept him sidelined throughout almost the entirety of his rookie season.

“It was tough, it was really tough for me going through that injury, that process,” Azubuike said.

“Not being out on the court practicing or learning, doing what a regular rookie like me would do.”

Azubuike doesn’t have control over the perception of the front office moves that brought him to the Jazz or the injury that prevented him from playing. What he can control is his commitment to improvement.

His strengths are obvious. Azubuike is big and strong and is often the biggest and strongest player on the court. He can dunk the ball, has good footwork, has no trouble pushing through contact under the rim and he’s more athletic than you would expect a player of his size to be.

Azubuike runs the floor quickly and can get well above the rim seemingly without much effort. He’s also got better timing than you would expect for a player who hasn’t really had much action at the professional level. He blocks shots with ease at the rim and is quick on close-outs making it easier for him to block jumpers, and he does it without fouling most of the time.

The areas where he needs to improve are pretty simple to figure out as well. He needs to improve his free-throw shooting and he needs to get better on the glass.

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

Because Azubuike wants to block every shot possible, he often finds himself out of position when it comes time to rebound. Sometimes he gets the block and it works out, then he can run down the floor and be available for a transition dunk. But there are times when he doesn’t get the block and the other team benefits from an offensive rebound because the big guy isn’t underneath the basket.

As he settles into the NBA game, he’ll learn which blocks to go after and when it’s a better choice to trust the help defense and stay by the basket, but it’s going to be a process.

Likewise, if he wants to get meaningful minutes in meaningful games for the Jazz he’ll have to improve his free-throw shooting, which, as of right now, is inconsistent and inefficient. These are things that Azubuike is aware of and he’s working on them.

With a little bit of improvement and the opportunity to play, there’s no reason that Azubuike can’t develop into a reliable, traditional style, rim-running big. That’s what he wants.

With the addition of Hassan Whiteside to the Jazz’s roster, there is some competition for minutes as a reserve center, and while Whiteside will likely have those minutes spoken for, there is an opportunity for Azubuike to earn some time on the floor and even prove that he is worthy of the coming in to backup Rudy Gobert.

Azubuike won’t be the most outgoing or gregarious player on a team. He isn’t the most adventurous person, choosing to stay home and watch SportsCenter or soccer in his off time (what could be more relatable than that?) rather than do anything else. But he will work hard to prove himself, which is exactly what the Jazz want from him.