Jazz start Udoka Azubuike ahead of Hassan Whiteside against the Nets, and it worked
The rotation change came as a bit of a surprise, but it paid off for the Jazz in their win over Brooklyn.
Rudy Gobert is still sidelined because of a left calf strain. Hassan Whiteside has been dealing with a sore lower back, but he was still available to play on Friday night. So it was a little surprising when assistant coach Alex Jensen said that Udoka Azubuike would be starting against the Brooklyn Nets.
Whiteside started for an absent Gobert seven times in January and it’s not really a secret that he didn’t look great. There were games where his effort was completely lacking and he was certainly part of the reason the Jazz lost some of those games.
All of that came in stark contrast to how promising and effective Whiteside looked through the first half of the season when he was backing up Gobert. And here’s the thing, Azubuike and Whiteside both played fantastic on Friday night.
Azubuike, who at times has looked unplayable in spot minutes, looked like he was really understanding where to be — and when to be there — and was making huge second and third efforts on the defensive end.
He said that his confidence is the biggest thing that’s changed and that playing with veterans and smart players like Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell has gone a long way in helping him. Well, it certainly seemed that way on Friday.
What’s even more interesting is how well Whiteside played. He was entirely more engaged and, more often than not, made the right play. It was a great effort from both centers.
Now, Jensen, the coaching staff and the players, no matter the reasons, are not going to say that this decision had anything to do with Whiteside’s effort as of late. They are not going to be that directly critical of a player during pre or postgame interviews. That’s just how this team operates.
Jensen explained that the decision was made over Zoom with head coach Quin Snyder — who is still in the NBA’s health and safety protocol — earlier in the day on Friday. Both Jensen and Whiteside said that Whiteside’s recent injuries and absences went into that decision.
“I was coming off COVID and then my back was bothering me and I didn’t like how I looked the last couple games,” Whiteside said. “I was having a hard time moving and just being myself.”
Jesen alluded to the same line of thinking pointing to a number of players who were coming back from injury. But I don’t know if that line of thinking really makes a ton of sense. Whiteside still played more than 24 minutes, well above his average of 15 when Gobert was healthy.
The argument could be made that playing Whiteside in the second-unit rotation is smarter because that’s what he’ll be doing when Gobert recovers from a calf strain. But that’s not what the coaching staff said either.
Honestly, with the way that Whiteside had been playing through January, it was reasonable to wonder whether the Jazz would actually keep him on the roster for the rest of the season. He was that detrimental. It really seems like a situation where Whiteside’s position is being threatened and he stepped up to the challenge and played better.
How this plays out moving forward will be interesting. While Gobert is sidelined, do the Jazz stick with Azubuike in the starting lineup? Do they switch back to Whiteside starting? And, no matter which decision the Jazz make, what are the outcomes? It’s certainly something to keep an eye on.