BEN ANDERSON

Jazz Rookie Azubuike Values Guidance From Gobert

Dec 14, 2020, 1:14 PM | Updated: 1:15 pm
Udoka Azubuike (Photo by John E. Moore III/Getty Images)...
Udoka Azubuike (Photo by John E. Moore III/Getty Images)
(Photo by John E. Moore III/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – Transitioning to the NBA is a difficult challenge for any rookie. Transitioning as a true big man in an ever-shrinking NBA may be more difficult than ever. Lucky for Utah Jazz rookie Udoka Azubuike, he’s got the help of Rudy Gobert, one of the NBA’s best traditional big men to guide him.

Azubuike made his NBA debut Saturday night in the Jazz 119-105 victory over the Phoenix Suns. The rookie scored six points, grabbed three rebounds, and blocked two shots in just under 13 second-half minutes.

This year’s 27th overall pick, coincidentally the same draft slot that landed the Jazz Gobert, looked startlingly like his mentor on the floor in his first NBA minutes.

On defense, Azubuike twice blocked the shots of Suns reserves as they underestimated the rookie’s incredible length. On offense, he set screens and rolled to the hoop to catch easy lob passes from Elijah Hughes and Trent Forrest.

These are the same plays that have turned Gobert into one of the most imposing big men in the NBA and serve as Azubuike’s pathway to a successful NBA career.

“When I spoke to him before the game, he told me to do what I always do,” Azubuike said of Gobert’s advice. “I’m just going to go out there and play aggressive and be myself.”

While many rookies have to retool their game to find a role in the NBA, Azubuike’s play looked remarkably similar to what he did at Kansas where he set the NCAA record for career field goal percentage and earned Big-12 Defensive Player of the Year Honors as a senior.

“I take so much pride in playing defense,” Azubuike said. “What I did in college, setting screens, rolling to the basket, being able to catch lobs and finish around the rim — This is some of the stuff that I bring to the table.”

Gobert Helping Azubuike

The Jazz originally held the 23rd pick in the first round but dropped back to the 27th pick knowing Azubuike would still be available. Though the Jazz knew who they were targeting with the pick, Gobert was unfamiliar with his incoming protege.

“I didn’t know about him before the draft, because I don’t watch any college,” Gobert said. “But I watched some of his highlights and stuff after he got drafted and I’m excited. I think he has a lot of potential.”

While Gobert didn’t know Azubuike, the Jazz rookie was familiar with Gobert’s game before he landed in Utah. On draft night, the Kansas product mentioned the unique opportunity he would have to learn from a player with such a similar skillset.

“I’m excited from day one to learn from him and to pick his brain,” Azubuike said. “In terms of how he plays, in terms of how he blocks shots, and how he affects games defensively. I’m so just so excited to learn from him.”

Now, just two weeks into his NBA career with one game under his belt, the Jazz rookie recognizes how valuable Gobert’s advice has been.

“Sometimes I try to pick up his mindset,” Azubuike said. “Talk to him about the stuff that I need to get better at and how to get prepared and how he was able to get to where he is. Having a guy like Rudy right beside me is really huge.”

The Jazz will host the Suns for a second straight game Monday night at Vivint Arena. Azubuike is listed as questionable for the game due to left knee soreness after his debut.

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Jazz Rookie Azubuike Values Guidance From Gobert