Spoiler alert for the quickly approaching college basketball season: David McCormack is not Udoka Azubuike.
No one should expect McCormack, now a junior in the Kansas front court, to suddenly be able to pull off everything Azubuike did a year ago just because he is stepping into the sizable hole his predecessor left behind.
McCormack won’t be a force of nature with the ball in the paint, or reach as high above the rim for a lob, or make the entire backboard and stanchion quake after a slam.
But Bill Self is a demanding coach, and he’s going to need McCormack to at least reproduce some of the skills that made Azubuike so effective on the defensive end of the floor.
Self recently presented what amounted to a checklist for McCormack, KU’s latest primary big man.
“He’s not as explosive as Dok in a lot of ways,” Self prefaced. “But he’s got to be able to defend the paint, be a better rim protector and he’s got to stay out of foul trouble, because you can have a talented guy but if he’s only playing 16 minutes a game because of foul issues it doesn’t really help you that much. So he’s got to be much better playing with his feet and not his hands. And that’s something we’ll spend a lot of time on.”
While Azubuike's 7-foot, 270-pound physical frame contributed to his defensive abilities, it was the footwork Self referenced that truly made KU’s defense so tricky for opponents to face.
It’s one thing to have a large human waiting in the paint for any drives or post-ups. It’s a whole other kind of problem when that defensive anchor also moves quickly enough to defend a ball screen on the perimeter, and can corral a ball handler and recover back to his man before the offense spots an opening.
Azubuike wasn’t just a fallen boulder on the highway shutting down a lane of traffic. He was a turbocharged monster truck, intent on cutting off anyone trying to get by him.
The work Azubuike did on defense was critical to KU’s rise to the top last season. And if the 6-foot-10, 265-pound McCormack somehow can find a way to replicate it this season, that would raise the Jayhawks’ ceiling significantly.
Self thinks McCormack’s “want-to” is higher now than it’s ever been and he called the big man’s commitment “off the charts.”
So maybe it is realistic for McCormack to study what Azubuike did so well defensively and mimic as much of it as he can.
“I think it’s reasonable to ask him to be a really good ball screen defender,” Self said. “I think it’s reasonable to demand of him being a — not so much an intimidation — but be a guy that protects the lane. Dok protected the lane probably far better than he ever protected the rim. Because there were guys that didn’t drive it in there because he was in there. I think David could have that same type of presence.”
The numbers from last season show that Azubuike was a significantly superior shot blocker.
The 7-footer finished his senior season ranked 16th nationally in blocks per game, at 2.58. McCormack didn’t play nearly as much as Azubuike and averaged 0.4 swats a game, blocking just 12 all season.
Looking at some advanced statistics, Azubuike’s block percentage (an estimate of the percentage of 2-point shots blocked by a player when he was on the floor) was 10.9% last year, while McCormack finished at 3.3%.
The Big 12’s reigning defensive player of the year, KU senior guard Marcus Garrett, is confident, though, that McCormack can be a defensive presence in the paint.
“Dok was great at that, but I also feel like David can protect the rim, too,” Garrett said. “So that’s the biggest thing I try to tell him, if not block it, try to make the offensive player take a contested shot or hard shot.”
That’s another practical way McCormack can try to copy Azubuike’s defensive approach. He’ll need to find such facets that he actually can imitate and master those. Realistically, few college basketball players are even equipped to match Azubuike’s defensive prowess.
“I’m not expecting him to be the same defender that Dok was,” Self admitted. “But I am expecting him to hold some of the same qualities that Dok did."