The Utah Jazz started out on Wednesday with the 23rd pick in the NBA draft, but that’s not what they ended the night with.
By the conclusion of the 2020 draft, the Jazz had traded the 23rd pick to the New York Knicks in exchange for the 27th and 38th picks. The Jazz took Kansas center Udoka Azubuike with the 27th pick.
The Jazz then traded the 38th pick and Tony Bradley to the Detroit Pistons in return for cash and future considerations, according to multiple league sources, and also acquired the 39th pick, Syracuse guard/forward Elijah Hughes, from the New Orleans Pelicans.
Though many, including myself, thought the Jazz would target a guard or forward in the first round on Wednesday, perimeter defense was not the only thing that the Jazz needed to address this offseason. The Jazz’s interior defense was a major problem, especially in the playoffs whenever Rudy Gobert was not on the floor.
“I feel like I can learn from the guys there, guys like Rudy Gobert,” Azubuike said via Zoom on Wednesday night. “I feel like I can be a helping hand to Rudy. ... He blocks shots, sets good screens and stuff like that, and I feel like I can play a similar role.”
With Azubuike, the Jazz get a 7-foot player with a 7-foot-7 wingspan who is known for being a bullying post player with an incredible knack for protecting the rim, grabbing rebounds, slapping out offensive boards that he can’t quite get both hands on, and is immensely efficient scoring on the inside.
“He’s the NCAA leader in field goal percentage, all time,” Jazz general manager Justin Zanik said via Zoom on Wednesday night. “He has strength and ability to finish through contact, his lob radius, potential to be a very good roll man, and in our opinion, the most impactful defensive player in the draft.”
Averaging 13.7 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game in his senior season at Kansas, Azubuike proved himself to be a dominating presence in the post that was able to wear out opposing players and guard without fouling.
The Jazz didn’t conduct an in-person workout with Azubuike leading up to the draft, but they did hold multiple extensive Zoom meetings with the prospect. They liked what they learned and felt that he could help the team.
It was theorized that the Jazz could target someone in free agency to fit the role of backup center, with Phoenix’s Aron Baynes looking like the most promising option. After Ed Davis didn’t work out for the Jazz as substitute for Gobert and Bradley looked like he was going to take a lot longer to develop, it was clear that the answer was going to have to come from outside the team.
Though Azubuike doesn’t offer a perimeter game, fitting the mold of a more traditional post player, he is probably the most developed center in this year’s draft class after playing four seasons at Kansas, and he looks to be ready to come in be a part of the Jazz’s immediate rotation.
As far as how the Jazz did on their night of wheeling and dealing, you have to look at what else happened with the 23rd pick. New York turned around and traded that pick for the 25th and 33rd pick, which has more value than what the Jazz had just received for the same thing.
But the Jazz’s maneuvering actually began on Tuesday night which is when the deal with New York was ironed out. That’s where the Jazz see the value in the trade.
“The decision-making process is finding something that is enough for what you want to get done, at the time you want to get it done,” Zanik said. “We valued knowing we would have those two picks going into the draft that allows us to accomplish the things, not only that we can comment about tonight, but also the plans that we have as it’s tied to the rest of the draft and free agency.”
The Jazz’s trades with the Pistons and New Orleans have not been made official, barring them from talking about them. But Jazz assistant general manager David Morway did say that picking up the 38th pick and being able to have conversations with teams all day, rather than just during the draft, opened the door for other opportunities.
Azubuike was projected to be a mid-to-late second-round selection at best so some believe that the Jazz reached by taking him with the 27th pick. Azubuike knows that he was projected lower in the draft than where he was selected but feels like he’ll prove he was worth it once he’s with the team.
“I know a lot of people had me in the second round, but I wasn’t looking at that or concerned with that,” he said. “I know what I can bring to the team, I know my ability and I know that wherever I was taken I was going to have to go there and prove myself. I have to work hard and I know my work ethic.”
For the Jazz, the value of a pick, no matter where the player has been projected, is relative to myriad things, including fit and character. Azubuike gives them the potential for being able to play the same style of offense and defense with the starting unit and bench without sacrificing defensive integrity.
That’s not to say that Azubuike will be just as good as Gobert, but once the rookie has adjusted to the NBA and is playing consistent minutes, it allows Quin Snyder and the rest of the coaching staff to transition from starters to bench players without switching much, if any, of the defensive scheme.
As for what the Jazz got in return for Bradley, who Azubuike said was the player on the Jazz that he has the closest relationship with, the Jazz now have a little more flexibility in the cap to work with and try to re-sign Jordan Clarkson and use the exceptions available to them, while possibly staying under the luxury tax threshold.
On the other hand, you could say the Jazz gave up too much just for a chance to stay out of the luxury tax. Not only did they give up Bradley, who was a first-round pick in the 2017 draft, but they also had to send a pick away in order to make it happen.
The Jazz don’t see their draft-day moves as singularly as some on the outside might and grading how they faired might take waiting until the rest of the offseason has played out.
“This is just one part of and one phase of our team-building plan to put the most competitive team on the court” Zanik said. “We know where we need to improve and we want to see if we can accomplish that in any number of ways. It’s not just a singular one-for-one acquisition.”