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Utah Jazz center Udoka Azubuike (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
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27. Jazz Second-Year Center Udoka Azubuike

Utah Jazz center Udoka Azubuike (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – The Utah Jazz open their season on October 20, just 27 days from today. With the clock ticking, we look at 50 things for Jazz fans to be excited about leading up to the 2021-22 NBA season. Today, we look at the second-year center Udoka Azubuike.

Jazz Center Udoka Azubuike

It’s hard to argue any Jazz payer had a more pleasantly surprising offseason than second-year center Udoka Azubuike, though, after a miserable rookie season, there wasn’t much room to go but up.

The Jazz drafted Azubuike with the 27th overall pick in the 2020 draft in what turned out to be one of the least impressive draft nights in recent team history.

The Jazz owned the 23rd pick heading into draft night which they ultimately ended up swapping for the New York Knicks’ 27th and 38th picks. While that’s not necessarily a poor value for pick, the Knicks promptly turned around and swapped the Jazz 23rd pick with the Minnesota Timberwolves for the 25th and the 33rd pick, both better slots than where the Jazz wound up drafting.

To make matters worse, the Jazz drafted Azubuike at 27 while the Knicks used their 25th pick to select All-Rookie team member Emmanuel Quickley who would have been on the board for the Jazz had they stayed at 23. Worse yet, the Jazz passed on the opportunity to draft Payton Pritchard, Jaden McDaniels, Malachi Flynn, and Desmond Bane in favor of the backup center.

Like Quickley, Bane also made the All-Rookie team, while Pritchard, McDaniels, and Flynn were all a part of their team’s rotations last season.

Immediately following the draft, the Jazz signed veteran Derrick Favors to a three-year, $30 million contract who promptly pushed Azubuike to the end of the bench, and out of the Jazz regular rotation entirely.

Then, as if things couldn’t get any worse, Azubuike suffered a gruesome ankle injury in his first game with the Salt Lake City Stars, significantly limiting the remainder of his rookie season.

But, to Azubuike’s credit, rather than letting his NBA career get further derailed, he bounced back from his adversity-filled rookie season with an impressive performance during the summer league.

In seven appearances between the Salt Lake City and Las Vegas Summer Leagues, Azubuike averaged 13.7 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks while shooting a masterful 85 percent from the floor.

Perhaps even more impressive was the way Azubuike ran the floor and dunked everything near the rim considering his enormous frame and recent ankle injury.

After a truly horrendous rookie season, Azubuike looked not only like a potential rotation-level NBA player but perhaps a player that could impact games in a way few big men do in the modern league.

Now, there are still several roadblocks in the center’s way before he’ll be able to see the floor for the Jazz.

First, the Jazz signed veteran Hassan Whiteside in the offseason who will get the lion’s share of the backup minutes to open the season. Second, Azubuike’s free-throw shooting and defense remain a work in progress, both of which could limit his opportunities with the Jazz this season.

However, Whiteside’s fit with the roster remains a mystery after last season’s bizarre stint with the Sacramento Kings, and Azubuike’s ability to run the pick and roll when Rudy Gobert is off the floor could give coach Quin Snyder reasons to find minutes in the rotation as the season evolves.

Whether he spends the majority of his time with the Jazz main roster or with the Salt Lake City Stars remains a question mark, but the evolution of Udoka Azubuike heading into a healthier second season is one of the top 50 storylines for Jazz fans to keep an eye on entering opening night.

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