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Jazz center Udoka Azubuike has created a competition for backup center minutes with his tenacity

SHARE Jazz center Udoka Azubuike has created a competition for backup center minutes with his tenacity
Utah Jazz center Udoka Azubuike, wearing black, grabs a rebound

Utah Jazz center Udoka Azubuike (20) grabs a rebound as the Utah Jazz and the Denver Nuggets play an NBA basketball game at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022. Utah won 108-104.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

There have been times over the last year and half when the prevailing thought about Udoka Azubuike was that he was a huge miss for the Utah Jazz in a draft where they could have had any number of other players who could legitimately help this team.

But over the last couple of games, Azubuike has been given an opportunity and has grabbed on with both hands and seems unwilling to let go.

“Dok’s competitiveness — that was the differentiating factor,” Jazz head coach Quin Snyder said after the Jazz beat the New York Knicks on Monday night. “It’s hard to work on just being competitive. ... That competitive component, that gives your team a lift.”

Donovan Mitchell stopped himself in the middle of an unrelated answer to say that he wanted to shoutout Azubuike for how he’s taken advantage of the opportunity that he’s been given.

The Jazz players have praised Azubuike for his determination and his fight and his willingness to learn. But what stands out the most is exactly what Snyder was talking about — there is never a question of effort or competitiveness with Azubuike.

“You’re going to mess up, it’s going to happen,” Donovan Mitchell said. “But the thing about Dok is that he messes up at 125%. We all love that.”

Azubuike has been given the starting minutes ahead of Hassan Whiteside for two consecutive games and has not disappointed. He was plus-11 in boxscore plus-minus against the Denver Nuggets, plus-23 against the Brooklyn Nets and then a plus-10 against the Knicks.

It will be telling to see what happens on Wednesday against the Warriors. Right now, Rudy Gobert is still listed as out, dealing with a left calf strain. If Gobert is upgraded and plays, will Azubuike get the backup minutes over Whiteside? If Gobert remains out, will we see Azubuike start a third straight game?

No matter what happens in the future, what has already happened is that Azubuike has shown that he cares about plays that, frankly, it’s seemed like Whiteside couldn’t be bothered with.

Azubuike will make multiple efforts in a single possession, even if he doesn’t get the desired result. He will charge out to the 3-point line to contest a shot, even when that’s not his defensive assignment. He will sprint down the court on either side of the ball, even when you can see that he barely has his legs under him.

“He’s fighting and competing,” Mitchell said of his teammate on Monday night. “When you see a guy fighting and clawing, I’m not going to lie, he was the trendsetter for us with that.”

Azubuike has said that these games have boosted his confidence and that’s been the biggest difference for him, and he’s willing to admit that he still is learning where he is supposed to be and that he still needs to work on his conditioning. That humble quality is also going a long way for the young center.

None of this is to say that Azubuike has taken Whiteside’s job, but he’s definitely earning the minutes that he’s getting and there is definitely a competition for that position.

That doesn’t mean that the Jazz are going to get a pass on what still might be looked at as a missed opportunity in the 2020 draft, but Azubuike is not nearly as much of a lost cause as many thought he was.