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Utah Jazz draft pick Udoka Azubuike (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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Jazz Pay Steep Price For Backup Center Azubuike

Utah Jazz draft pick Udoka Azubuike (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – The Utah Jazz selected Udoka Azubuike with the 27th pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. Hailing from Kansas, Azubuike is a behemoth of a man. The Jazz new rookie was the second tallest player in the draft, standing at 6’11.5 in shoes with a staggering 7’7 wingspan.

For reference, Rudy Gobert entered the NBA with a 7’9 wingspan, despite being a full two inches taller than Azubuike. The Kansas product was a Consensus All-American in college, was named the Big-12 Player of the year as a senior, was a two-time member of the All-Big-12 team, and as well a member of the Big-12 All-Defensive team.

The Upside of the Jazz Selecting Azubuike In The Draft

Azubuike projects as an NBA ready back up big man in the mold of Gobert, though he lacks the two-time Defensive Player of the Year’s mobility on the floor.

“Dok”, as the Kansas center is known inside his personal circles, recorded an impressive 41-inch vertical leap at the draft combine, the fourth highest of any player measured in the draft. His standing vertical leap was the second-highest of any player measured at 37 inches.

When paired with his incredible length, it’s not difficult to see how he functioned as one of college basketball’s best rim protectors last season blocking 2.6 shots per game. The big man also left Kansas as college basketball’s all-time leader in career field goal percentage at 74.9%.

In his post draft interview, Jazz general manager Justin Zanik called Azubuike, “The most impactful defensive player in the draft.”

All in all, his measurements, shooting percentages, and overall athleticism make him somewhat of a marvel among big men entering the league.

If the Jazz trust the rookie to assume the reserve center minutes, and that’s a big if, it could save them a significant amount of money on the free-agent market by not having to sign a rotational big man by using most of it not all of the Mid-Level Exception.

On that front, Azubuike is a logical first-round selection for the Jazz as a player who adds length and defense to a second unit that was struggled to defend the paint when Gobert was off the floor.

The Downside of Selecting Azubuike In The Draft

However, the pick doesn’t come without scrutiny.

With Gobert under contract and presumably a long term piece for the Jazz, Azubuike’s upside within the organization is as a backup center. Even if he’s the league’s best backup big man, there are only 14 minutes on the floor available to him if Gobert records 34 minutes a night like he did last season.

If he can allow Gobert to get additional rest throughout the year, that will be another plus on what he brings to the roster, but truthfully, the more Gobert is on the floor the better. Furthermore, due to Azubuike’s unskilled game, he doesn’t bring versatility to the roster beyond his role as a center.

Then, when looking at the league’s premiere reserve centers, how many are worth a first-round selection, especially in today’s NBA where draft picks are the most valuable currency?

Phoenix Suns back up center Aron Baynes might be the league’s top second-unit big man. Baynes was traded by the Boston Celtics during last year’s draft along with the 24th pick for the rights to the Milwaukee Bucks 2020 first-round pick via the Phoenix Suns. That turned out to be the 30th pick in this year’s draft, two spots behind where the Jazz selected Azubuike.

While the Celtics wanted to clear money as a motivator for the move, they still gave up Baynes, and a fellow first-round pick in exchange for a worse first-round pick than the Jazz could have offered the following year. In the Baynes example, back up centers, even high productive ones, can be had at extremely low costs, and can even be acquired along with other assets in the right situation.

Instead, the Jazz used their lone first-round pick in order to select a reserve who may or may not be able to help the roster this season. While the team moved back in the first round to select him and got an additional second-round pick in the process (sold to Detroit), the team still used a priority draft pick on the type of player that can be had for relatively cheap on the free agent and trade market

Zanik discussed the dilemma of using a first-round pick to select a reserve center after the draft.

“There’ll be other people that argue about the value of a backup center or center,” Zanik admitted. “We look at it as a young developmental player that has character that fits us, production that can fit us, physical size, and defensive ability that fits us.”

Ultimately, Azubuike’s true value to the Jazz might come in the form of the uncomfortable truth the organization may not be willing to discuss in public. If the rookie big man proves he can offer the Jazz a reasonable percentage of Gobert’s production at 1/15th the cost, how does that weigh into the team’s decision on whether to bring Gobert back on an even bigger contract in 2021?

The All-Star big man is eligible to sign a supermax contract worth nearly $250 million as soon as this offseason, though the deal wouldn’t kick in until after the season is completed. If Azubkie can partially fill Gobert’s shoes, and allow the team to use Gobert’s enormous salary elsewhere, he’s got a chance to be a much more valuable pick.

Even if Gobert’s contract comes in at half that price, say somewhere in the neighborhood of $135 million, how does that compare to what their new rookie can contribute, and would that money be better spent elsewhere?

Azubuike’s career can’t be judged until he steps on the floor and proves his value, but as for the value of drafting a reserve center with the first-round pick, the Jazz already paid a steep price.

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