A small hint at a big decision for KU junior Udoka Azubuike
Late in the Big 12 Conference basketball season, Kansas coach Bill Self provided an update on junior center Udoka Azubuike, who missed all but nine games of the 2018-19 season with a hand/wrist injury.
In it, sometime in early March, Self explained that Azubuike still had a screw in his injured hand, was limited in the weight room, was forced to wear a cast for precautionary reasons and had not participated in any contact drills since injuring the hand in early January.
None of that, of course, came as much of a surprise. When Azubuike injured the opposite hand in the same manner in late December of his freshman season, he was not cleared to resume full basketball activities until June, and a similar timeline is expected this time around.
The one difference this time, however, is the question of whether Azubuike will still be at KU when he’s cleared to get back to basketball.
Self’s comments from a few weeks ago hinted at an answer to that, too.
When asked if he thought Azubuike would be a better player after using the bulk of the 2018-19 season to study the game with his mind and later use his observations from the bench as part of his attack, Self briefly addressed Azubuike’s future.
“There’s so many things that he has been so limited on that it would be hard to get better,” Self said. “What you would be hoping for would be maintaining. He’ll be a better player next year than he would have been this year, not because of that, just because he’ll be a year older. He’s still real young. I doubt we’ll get a chance to witness that, though.”
Because Azubuike was out and therefore could not impact KU’s seed or postseason hopes, the comment kind of came and went with little to no attention. But Self’s statement was not all that surprising, given Azubuike’s past.
For one, he took his decision to stay in the draft or return to Kansas for his junior season down to the wire — announcing his return roughly 11 hours before the deadline — and spent most of the month of May trying to find a home in the NBA so he could make the jump.
It never happened, and Azubuike returned to KU with the goal of working on the areas the NBA folks told him he needed to improve. It’s worth noting that Azubuike continued to work hard in the areas he could work — mostly cardio — often running stairs or sprints while the Jayhawks practiced.
Nine games is not enough of a sample size to show whether the work Azubuike did in the offseason significantly addressed the improvements NBA officials wanted to see, so it’s hard to know whether the 7-foot Nigerian actually improved his standing in the eyes of NBA scouts and GMs.
But at the time of his injury, the junior center looked an awful lot like he did as a sophomore, averaging 13.4 points and 6.8 rebounds per game on 70.5% shooting in just more than 20 minutes a game.
His final numbers from the 2017-18 season were strikingly similar, albeit over a much longer period of time — 13.0 points and 7.0 rebounds per game on 77% shooting in 23.6 minutes per outing.
What all that means for Azubuike is anybody’s guess. And there’s no doubt that even with his latest injury, Azubuike has done everything he can to keep his body, conditioning and mind in the best basketball shape possible.
We saw that often during the postseason, with Dok running sprints or stairs on the side while the rest of the team practiced on the floor.
But based on Self’s recent comment and the fact that the big fella was so eager to leave a year ago, it’s not hard to envision him foregoing his senior year and turning pro.
Best case, he catches on with an NBA squad — drafted or not — and finds a way to parlay his mammoth size and ability at the rim into a nice career.
Worst case, he heads overseas and makes a bunch of money that way.
There is, of course, a chance that Azubuike could elect to return to KU for his senior season, but the native Nigerian always has struck me as a guy who’s more eager to be a pro than a four-year college player.
Either way, we should have a better idea of the 7-footer’s future plans in the next week or so.
Recent NCAA/NBA rule changes made it possible for college prospects to test via the combine and pre-draft workout stuff more than once, and it would make perfect sense for Azubuike to look to take advantage of everything at his disposal.