Udoka Azubuike, like many college basketball players, was ready for March Madness.
The No. 1-ranked Kansas Jayhawks went 28-3 through the season and 17-1 in Big 12 play and Azubuike, the defensive anchor of that team, truly felt like they had a chance to win the NCAA championship, or at the very least make it to the Final Four.
But March of 2020 brought a different kind of madness. On March 11 the NBA suspended its season and the next domino to fall was the NCAA announcing on March 12 that the Division I basketball tournaments would be canceled.
“It’s been tough not being able to play,” Azubuike said Wednesday night, shortly after being drafted by the Utah Jazz with the 27th overall pick of the NBA draft. “The NCAA tournament being canceled and the season being cut short ... getting that taken away from us was kind of tough. It being my senior year, I wanted to go out with a bang, but I wasn’t able to do that.”
It was especially difficult having his dreams of a college championship run taken away, after having his freshman and junior seasons end early because of hand injuries that required surgery. Then Azubuike had to wait for months to even find out if there would be an NBA draft, much less when.
Syracuse star Elijah Hughes may not have had the high-profile success of Azubuike, but he was also grappling with the emotions and anxiousness brought on by the prolonged break between college ball and the draft.
“These last eight months was a roller coaster, to be honest,” Hughes said Wednesday night. “A lot of up and down, a lot of uncertainty, getting down on myself.”
After transferring from East Carolina to Syracuse and finishing the 2019-20 season as the ACC’s leading scorer, Hughes was projected mostly as a second-round pick in this year’s draft, much like Azubuike, who, despite his defensive prowess and claiming the NCAA’s all-time field goal percentage record, was projected to be a mid-to-late second-round pick.
When the wait was finally over, it seemed almost kismet that Azubuike was selected 27th in the draft since he was ranked 27th overall by Rivals.com coming out of high school.
Trying his best to stay calm and collected through a Zoom conference with local reporters, Azubuike had to wave off phone calls and strain to hear reporters’ questions over the celebrating of his friends and family.
More than anything Azubuike is excited to get things started and learn from a defensive veteran like Rudy Gobert.
For Hughes, who was selected 39th with a pick that had been acquired by the Jazz from the New Orleans Pelicans just moments earlier, watching the picks go by without hearing his name was almost too much to handle, and then he was hit with a wave of relief unlike anything he’d ever experienced.
As the picks in the 30s were quickly going by, Hughes said he just went into a corner of the room and needed a minute to be alone, not being picked was starting to overwhelm him. That’s when he got the call. His agent told him, “Get ready, get in the seat because you’re going to Utah at 39.”
“After he told me that, my heart stopped. My heart stopped beating,” Hughes said. “I’m not trying to be funny, my heart really stopped beating, and I kind of lost it for a little bit. But I got in the seat, and it just happened, and like I was so — I’ll never forget it. I’m still shaking right now. It’s crazy. I’m probably talking a bit too much, but I’m just super excited, super happy.”
As player profiles go, Hughes and Azubuike could not be more different. Azubuike is as traditional as centers come and he’s huge. Standing 7 feet tall, he boasts a 7-foot-7 wingspan, is a rebounding juggernaut, and is a lob threat with a knack for soft touch hook shots and putbacks. Hughes is a 6-foot-6 playmaking guard/forward with a silky jump shot and speed to boot.
Azubuike is a little more soft spoken and relies on his toughness and hard work to do the talking. Hughes is more of a happy-go-lucky type and describes himself as a people person who loves to smile. Azubuike likes to unwind by watching cooking shows. Hughes is a huge sneaker head and loves fashion.
Both are ready to get started as soon as possible and put the madness of March behind them.
What to expect on the court
This incoming rookie class is facing a rust battle that no other class has had to endure. By the time training camp opens in early December, it will have been nearly nine months since they were able to play competitive five-on-five basketball.
More than anything there is going to be a concern for injury coming into explosive and intense workouts after being away from the game for so long. You can’t help but think about the risks when, outside of the draft, Wednesday’s biggest NBA news was that Golden State Warriors star Klay Thompson had suffered a severe lower leg injury during a workout.
Normally the incoming rookie class would have multiple chances to adapt to the NBA life and style of play, but this year that’s all been thrown out the window.
“There’s no summer league, there’s not that opportunity to work with our coaches during the summer OTAs (or rookie camp),” Jazz assistant general manager David Morway said Wednesday night. “It’s going to be a difficult adjustment for all of the rookies coming in.”
The bottom line is there is going to be a level of understanding and precaution as the team brings along its newest batch of players.
Specific to their games, Azubuike needs to work on his free throws and containing the ball. He’s already been doing extra conditioning, cutting his weight down to about 260 over the past few months and knows he needs to improve his free-throw shooting, which was at an abysmal 44% his senior year.
Jazz general manager Justin Zanik praised Azubuike’s willingness to put in the work necessary to improve and credited much of that to his upbringing and the Kansas program under head coach Bill Self.
“He’s always been a good worker, a good listener, somebody that cares about improving and wanting to be good in his role and excelling in his role,” Zanik said of Azubuike. “He’s a considerate human being, he’s smart. And those are the types of guys, guys with great physical talent, unique abilities and production, that want to get better.”
Hughes is facing the same thing that almost any player entering the league must do — prove he can play defense on an NBA level. Outside of that it’s more about consistency and refinement, which is all easier said than done, but a challenge Hughes is ready for.
“I want to show people I can defend, and I want to prove that and lead from day one,” Hughes said.
Day one is not that far off as players plan to arrive back in their markets during the first week of December and welcome their rookies to the team for a 2020-21 season that will be a learning experience for all involved.