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Udoka Azubuike’s coach discusses his star big man’s growing game

The coach of Nigerian big man Udoka Azubuike talks about his star's growing game.

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — When UdokaAzubuike arrived in the United States in 2012, one of the first things Steve McLaughlin, his coach at Potter’s House Christian Academy in Jacksonville, Fla., told him was to “try to dunk everything.” For most Division I basketball prospects, this strategy would be inadvisable at best and nonsensical at worst. Few possess the combination of strength, power, explosion and coordination to consistently rise up over a contesting defender and ram the ball through the rim. But Azubuike makes throwdowns look almost as routine as free throws, an action so repeatable its execution is expected, even taken for granted. Watch Azubuike work in the post for a spell, and you anticipate jams on his every touch.

Listed at 6'10" and 275 pounds, Azubuike has been likened to NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal. But how effective will this style—built on power, aggressiveness and a considerable height and weight advantages over the opposition—be at the next level? We expected to learn where Azubuike would be play college basketball at the Hoophall Classic, but his announcement was postponed, and he did not speak to reporters after an 18-point loss on Sunday to Westtown (Pa.) School. On Jan. 28, Azubuike committed to Kansas.

McLaughlin said he learned about Azubuike through a contact who knew the Lagos, Nigeria, native’s coach in Africa. At the time, according to McLaughlin, Azubuike stood about 6'9", weighed 195 pounds and was less a fully formed basketball player with a functional skillset than a “hard worker” eager to improve. That attitude would serve him well in the long run, but his size and brute force were enough on their own to draw attention from talent evaluators early on. A mixtape with his name and the word “Monster” was posted on YouTube following his jaw-dropping, 43-dunk showing at the E1T1 Best of the Best of the Best Camp in 2013, and he shone at the Jordan Brand Classic in New York in April 2014.  

So physically imposing was Azubuike that initially there was skepticism about the veracity of his age. (McLaughlin told that Azubuike turned 16 in September.) “Man among boys” has become the go-to phrase for describing Azubuike.

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That implies Azubuike was simply taking advantage of lesser competition and gaining national acclaim as a result. This is unavoidable in some settings; rare is the defender who can avoid ceding space to Azubuike near the basket. But Azubuike established himself as one of the top big men in the class of 2016— rates him the No. 7 center—by excelling against elite talent in events like the NBPA Top 100 camp and on the Elite Youth Basketball League circuit. He averaged nearly 14 points and eight rebounds per game in 2014 with Nike Team Florida and last year helped the Georgia Stars win the EYBL’s marquee event, the Peach Jam, by shooting 79% from the field over five contests.

While Azubuike’s back-to-the-basket MO—catch, turn, dunk—is more than sufficient against prep defenders, it’s fair to wonder whether it will work against bigger, stronger opponents. His post game is not so deficient as to be irredeemable; on occasion Azubuike will shake his mark and convert an easy bucket. But he lacks touch in the paint, and his footwork needs fine-tuning. Savvy defenders with heft can bother Azubuike, and his range of counter moves remains limited. Azubuike welcomes contact on the interior, which has the benefit of getting opposing big men into foul trouble, but he’s a poor free throw shooter. Azubuike only connected on 45% of his attempts from the line with the Stars last year.

“I think there’s certainly room for concern, because he really hasn’t developed all that much on the offensive end,” recruiting analyst Evan Daniels said of Azubuike. “He still brings value because he can rebound his area, he seals and he’ll get dunks and put-back opportunities, but you want to see him take that next step and add a little more to his offensive game.” Near the end of the first half on Sunday, Azubuike offered a glimpse of the power with which he can shove the ball through the rim by throwing down a two-handed dunk that shook the structure connecting the backboard to the ceiling for a few seconds.

But Azubuike tallied only six points and nine rebounds in the loss, and his thunderous dunk was a distant memory by the time Westtown Center Mohamed Bamba, a five-star prospect in the class of 2017, was putting the finishing touches on a triple-double (10 blocks, 13 points and 16 rebounds).

Any dissection of Azubuike’s interior repertoire glosses over the reality that, against most of the college teams he faces, Azubuike probably won’t face much resistance sealing his man under the basket and exploding to the rim for an easy finish. Doubts over the long-term viability of Azubuike’s game may intensify if he doesn’t show improvement in the coming year (particularly in an era when building a solvent offense around traditional post play seems a dubious proposition), but Azubuike is still learning how to play, and McLaughlin’s description of him as someone who “just kept working” to reach this point is encouraging for his development. To wit: Azubuike made strides defending in space, according to Georgia Stars coach William Steele, after losing weight last year.

For now, the questions over what Azubuike can do to get better can be shelved in favor of a discussion over what Azubuike is as a high school senior, and how he’ll help the school of his choice when he arrives on campus this fall.