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He Will, He Won't, He Might 2018: Udoka Azubuike

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KU center Udoka Azubuike takes a step back to assess the situation during the men's basketball scrimmage at Late Night in the Phog on Friday, Sept. 28, 2018 at Allen Fieldhouse.

KU center Udoka Azubuike takes a step back to assess the situation during the men's basketball scrimmage at Late Night in the Phog on Friday, Sept. 28, 2018 at Allen Fieldhouse. by Kyle Babson

The next man up on the 2018 He Will, He Won’t, He Might countdown is junior center Udoka Azubuike, who returned to Lawrence for his third KU season with something to prove.

After flirting with turning pro following his solid sophomore season, Azubuike heard enough from NBA scouts — and was mature enough to listen — to make the decision to return to Kansas for at least one more run with the Jayhawks.

In doing so, Kansas held on to its anchor in the paint and is loaded with a more-motivated monster who presents just about as big of a mismatch for opponents as there is in college basketball.

Although he missed a few games late, the 2017-18 campaign was Azubuike’s first full season of college basketball and now that he has two years of at least some kind of experience under his belt, many are expecting him to advance to a more mature place as a leader, a player and a person.

Kansas certainly could use a locked-in Azubuike, as he and Lagerald Vick are the only returning regulars from last year’s Final Four run. We don’t know what Silvio De Sousa’s status will be yet and he only played half a season. Mitch Lightfoot, though around for all of the fun, also only played limited minutes for KU the past two seasons.

Let’s get to it and take a look at three predictions for what could be a big third season at Kansas for the KU big man.

He Will – Play fewer minutes than he did as a sophomore

It’s hard to put an exact number on this because they don’t keep stats for such things. But there were a bunch of times last season when KU coach Bill Self, if he could have, probably would have taken Azubuike out for a few minutes for reasons other than foul trouble.

Self couldn’t, though, because KU’s depth was nearly non-existent and Azubuike had to play big minutes most of the season.

That won’t be the case this season and that figures to benefit Self and the Jayhawks in a couple of ways. First, if Azubuike’s in a funk, dealing with an off night or simply not getting it done on either end, Self will have others to turn to. Second, it’s no secret that Azubuike’s conditioning has been something worth keeping an eye on throughout his career and now, in order to keep him playing at his best and most efficient, Self can better manage Azubuike’s minutes to keep him turned up the entire time he’s out there.

In those 36 games last season — 34 of them starts — Azubuike played 848 minutes, good for 23.6 per game. I don’t think we’ll see a drastic drop, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if that minutes-played number sits closer to 20 mpg by the end of his junior season.

He Won’t – Match his record-setting FG percentage mark from the 2017-18 season

Partly because of opportunity and partly because of his inner desire to showcase more offensive skills than just dunking, Dok’s field goal percentage figures to dip just a bit in 2018-19.

And that’s probably OK. Especially if he makes up for it in ways you’ll learn about in the “He Might” section below.

During a sophomore season in which he played in 36 of 39 possible games, Azubuike made 211 field goals in 274 attempts, good for 77 percent. More than 100 of those makes were dunks and almost all of them came with two feet firmly planted in the paint.

The reason is twofold. First, that’s where Azubuike does his best work and where he can best take advantage of his massive size. Second, Azubuike, for most of the season, was KU’s only true low-post threat.

Both of those things figure to change this season — the latter more significantly than the former — as Azubuike has worked on expanding his game and has watched the depth around him explode with capable and talented big men.

He Might – Make more free throws than he misses for the first time in his career

The elephant in the room on Azubuike’s overall development lives at the free throw line.

Sure, he can get bigger, stronger, faster, more explosive, better feet and better feel, but if he doesn’t improve as a free throw shooter a lot of those things are going to be compromised as he takes a seat on the bench at the end of close(r) games.

A career .406 shooter from the free throw line, Azubuike shot .413 a season ago (45 for 109) and endured, for the first time at Kansas, all kinds of talk and coverage about his inability to deliver at the line.

This year, both Azubuike and Self have bigger goals for the KU big man, believing that he has improved his shooting stroke enough and made such good progress at the free throw line that somewhere in the 60s is a realistic goal.

Hitting that mark, obviously, would do wonders for Azubuike’s game and KU’s win-loss record. And, assuming the big man gets to the line roughly the same number of times this season as he did a season ago, it also would mean he makes around 25 free throws during the 2018-19 season that he missed during KU’s run to the Final Four in 2017-18.

Impossible? Nah. Doable? Time will tell.

But with so much of free throw shooting being mental, Azubuike is starting off his junior season in a great place in that department, full of confidence and the belief that he both is and will be better.

He Will, He Won't, He Might 2018:

• Senior guard Lagerald Vick

• Junior forward Mitch Lightfoot

Comments

Steve Zimmerman 11 months, 3 weeks ago

I hope your 'will' prediction is wrong about his PT. This could hurt his chance of getting drafted even more. Analysts want to see his rebound#s increase from last season. Definitely. His number is below other Cs: Welsh, Delgado, Thomson 4. That increase will help his chance in the draft. We'll see his progress in FT. But if he doesn't rebound, box-out, block like a more-motivated monster as you described, he might as well forget going to the next level. Let's hope to see a beast-mode Dok this season. I have faith in him (and the coaching staff).

Robert Brock 11 months, 3 weeks ago

Azubuike needs a lot of coaching on rebounding and defending-without-fouling. He MUST improve in those areas if he wants to play in the League. As for his free throw issues...wow! He is still a mess. His form has improved but not enough to be adequate. Why can’t the staff get him to understand how to shoot a standard FT without resorting to gimmicks like dipping etc? It isn’t that difficult.

Barry Weiss 11 months, 3 weeks ago

Dok's FT shooting is a big problem in the NBA. Teams don't want a hack a shack. He's got to get that number up for his own future.

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