In advance of the 2020 NBA Draft, Peachtree Hoops is evaluating prospects with a look at what the Atlanta Hawks might be considering from now until the selection process occurs. Dozens of prospects will be profiled in this space and, in this installment, we take a look at Kansas big man Udoka Azubuike.
Born in Nigeria, Udoka “Dok” Azubuike (you-DOE-kuh az-uh-BOO-kee) was a late arrival to the sport of basketball. He was largely put on the radar of American schools by a Basketball Without Borders Africa developmental program that has produced Gorgui Dieng, Joel Embiid and Pascal Siakam among other past and present NBA players.
After immigrating to the United States, he became a McDonald’s All-American in 2016 despite just playing four years of organized basketball. He honored a scholarship to Kansas University, and then manned the paint for the Jayhawks for four years as one of the best defensive players in the country.
Azubuike entered the draft without an agent in 2018 and thus was allowed to return to Kansas, but now that his college eligibility has expired, it’s time for him to prove he’s worth a shot in the NBA.
Azubuike is a record-smashing efficiency machine on both ends of the floor. He broke the mark for the highest career FG% in NCAA history — minimum of 400 FG attempts — at 76.4% in addition to finishing first in the nation in that area in both seasons he qualified. That career mark just edged out the 7’6” Tacko Fall (74%) for comparison.
He allowed just 0.43 points per defensive possession ending in a post up, putting him in the 96th percentile in Division I. A lot of this can be attributed to swatting shots from the low block. He finished in the top 20 of the country in blocks per game (2.6) and block percentage (10.9%) in 2019-20.
You couldn’t ask for better measurables in a center to anchor your defense than the 7’ 1/4” 270-pound frame Udoka Azubuike has to offer. Additionally, his 7’7” wingspan means he’s a terror to finish over or around when driving to the rim.
Upon attending the NBA Combine in 2018, his wingspan placed him in the top ten of the combine record book, bested only by the likes of Mo Bamba and Rudy Gobert and tying a mark reached by Bol Bol and Hassan Whiteside, to name a few. As an aside, Tacko Fall would set the modern record in 2019 at 8’ 2-1/4”. Azubuike also offers outrageous strength and a Herculean build that allows him to routinely dominate post up battles on either end of the court.
Azubuike is an elite shot blocker — both as the primary defender and as a weak side helper — with 3.1 blocks per 36 minutes in his career. Most players can only block shots with their strong arm but Azubuike can snuff out shots with either arm, easily ranging both left or right across the lane to erase attempts.
He is a rim runner extraordinaire, cutting and rolling to the basket off of screens at a high level. He posted north of 1.3 PPP — points per possession — in both rolls off of picks and pure cuts.
Azubuike also specializes in dunks off both putbacks and lobs. This helped him finish shots at the rim at an absolutely stupid 88% of the time as a senior. At over 4 offensive rebounds per 36 minutes, he is a virtual impossibility to neutralize on the glass.
Azubuike is maybe the best prospect in this draft at using his large frame to seal off defenders both for catches in the post but also for rebounding positioning. Even when he receives entry passes that take him away from an ideal position, with one power dribble he can scoot his way toward a flush at the rim.
His freakishly long wingspan allows him to catch any sort of lob in his vicinity and throw it down with either hand.
Additionally, he has a pretty touch on his short hook shot, giving him some complexity in his offensive game. Certainly, Azubuike will never be counted on to lead an offense in any capacity at just 8.3 field goal attempts per 36 minutes in college, but with NBA teams increasingly deploying smaller and smaller rosters, there is opportunity to zag and punish small lineups.
Azubuike steadily cut his foul rate every season, going from 4.6 fouls per 36 minutes in his sophomore season to 3.1 in his senior season, the two seasons he played over 30 games. While he can pick up a few needless fouls away from the post, he showed a marked improvement in positioning and defending with his lower body since arriving in Lawrence, Kansas.
Even with a meager 13.7 point and 10.5 rebound per game average, Azubuike’s silly efficiency marks earned him the title as the Big 12 player of the year in 2019-20. Despite a productive four-year college career, Azubuike just turned 21 years of age this past September and may have ample room for further improvement in an NBA setting.
There are quite a few elephants in the room working against Udoka Azubuike’s chances at the next level.
First, as alluded to above, he has proven to be injury-prone. A wrist injury in his freshman season limited him to 11 game appearances that season. He would bounce back the next year and play in every regular season game, but sprained his MCL in the season finale against Oklahoma, causing him to miss the Big 12 tournament in his sophomore season.
An ankle and wrist injury — on the opposite hand from his freshman year injury — meant just nine games played in his junior season. As a result, he only played in 87 out of a possible 142 games for Kansas.
He possesses very little shooting range, and essentially didn’t even attempt shots outside the paint. Similarly, he’s not a threat to face up and take players off the dribble whatsoever.
Even his post up game leaves room for improvement. He mostly chooses to turn over his left shoulder to finish with his stronger righty hook shot and can struggle to make the right decision when he sees double teams. At the moment, catching and dunking when possible is the general makeup of his scoring output.
Azubuike doesn’t pass very well in general and doesn’t possess the vision to find the right pass out of post double teams. He logged just 1.1 assists per 36 minutes and a .35 AST/TO ratio. In addition, he doesn’t have the ability to dribble out of trouble, let alone to free himself for a shot.
Azubuike’s career free throw shooting mark of 41.6% is atrociously bad and teams will continuously march him to the free throw line when he catches the ball in any sort of a threatening area. Opposing coaches may even resurrect the Hack-a-Shaq strategy outside of the final two minutes of a quarter to slow the game down when he’s on the court, even when he doesn’t have the ball in his hands.
He will have to be used as a drop defender on pick-and-rolls, both because his size means he’s a poor defender in space but also he’s too valuable a rim protector to pull out of the restricted area for any more than a brief moment.
It’s possible the modern game has passed him by, as monstrous post up big men just aren’t en vogue in an era of spacing and shooting. Even compared to defense-oriented 7-footers that have been selected in recent lotteries like Bamba and Jaxson Hayes, Azubuike has three years of college seasoning and at least 40 pounds on that rangier center archetype.
Even beyond that, with a defensive three-second rule in the paint for the pros, Azubuike won’t be able to camp out in the lane without receiving a whistle. Recent playoffs have further shown how pure paint protectors lose value in big time games, as one of the best defenders in NBA history in Rudy Gobert can be rendered a liability against unfavorable plus shooting lineups in crunch time.
Possible fit with the Hawks
In the basketball days of yore, being an athletically gifted 7-foot big man would be a fast track toward a probable lottery draft pick in the NBA draft, regardless of the quality of the class. Front offices used to be able to build a team around defensively dominant centers, but now most prognosticators rate similar prospects as gadget-y part-time players.
With an extremely offensively challenged skillset, and as a frequent target to be switched onto smaller players in the pick-and-roll game, Udoka Azubuike has far too many glaring weaknesses for any higher of a selection than late in the first round.
His health history and four years spent in college also hurts his stock, but he has for the most part produced consistently in a major college conference. Someone like current Hawk Clint Capela represents the top few percentiles of his possible outcomes, but that takes quite a bit of positive projection on both ends of the floor.
Still, Azubuike is extremely good at what he’s suited for and doesn’t ever try to extend this game into a role outside his own. It’s very possible he slips into the back half of the first round and receives a guaranteed contract. But there’s really no reason for the Hawks — with their war chest of centers — to move assets to be in a position to select him above the 50th overall pick.
Even today, protecting the rim is key to a team’s defensive performance. There’s no doubt he’ll hear his name called on draft night as the single safest rim protector in this draft.