October 4, 2022

Utah Jazz center Udoka Azubuike (20) defends against Denver Nuggets forward Will Barton (5) in the first half during an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022 in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

There’s been a lot of talk lately about what Rudy Gobert’s trade to Minnesota will do for the Timberwolves’ chances of making the NBA Western Conference.

But Kansas fans are arguably more interested in what’s going on with Gobert’s former team in Utah.

That’s because the departure of the all-professional Jazz roster center may have opened up an opportunity for former Jayhawk Udoka Azubuike.

I briefly met Azubuike last month when he was back in Lawrence for the Rock Chalk Roundball Classic. And aside from looking in the best shape of his life, the former KU center said he’s been enjoying his time in Utah so far.

Like at Kansas, Azubuike has been plagued with injuries since turning pro after the 2020 season, but he’s played enough and shown enough flashes to at least earn an opportunity for more minutes now that Gobert is gone.

Part of Gobert’s trade, which included a ton of players and picks headed to Utah, included rookie big Walker Kessler, a 7-foot-1 center from Auburn, who was drafted No. 21 overall in the from the June draft.

Kessler will certainly have the chance to compete for long minutes on the court at Utah, but it remains to be seen how quickly he will adapt to the NBA game. As a sophomore at Auburn, he really broke through last season, becoming one of the best big men in the nation while dominating around the rim both on offense and defense.

His shot-blocking prowess is probably his biggest strength, but he’s also mobile and a good finisher around the rim, with the ability to get out and fire 3s occasionally.

Azubuike’s greatest asset, of course, is her sheer power. Although he improved as a defender throughout his time at Kansas – especially on the perimeter – his ability to punish the rim and rebound at a high rate helped him climb into the first round of the 2020 NBA Draft, where Utah selected him with the No. 27 overall pick.

Multiple reports out of Utah said the Jazz liked Azubuike as a replacement for Gobert because he knew his part and was happy to perform it.

Injuries – a severe ankle sprain in the first year and surgery to repair multiple ankle and foot ligaments in his right foot in the second year – and time away from the pitch have taken his toll. not done a favor in terms of adapting to the NBA game and finding a role. . But he has shown in the past that great things can happen if he can stay healthy. Utah picked their Year 3 option last October, so it’s clear the Jazz are at least willing to see if that can hold true in the NBA as well.

In his first two seasons with the Jazz, Azubuike played 32 games, with six starts while averaging around 8 minutes per game. At the time of his season-ending surgery in March, Azubuike was averaging 4.7 points and 4.2 rebounds in 11.5 minutes per game.

More important than any of those numbers, however, are the numbers he presented during the 2021 Summer League season. In three games last summer in Salt Lake City, he averaged 13.7 points, 10.7 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game while being named one of the most outstanding players in the entire Summer League. . In his four games in Las Vegas, Azubuike averaged 13.8 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks.

The team option predicted him to earn $2.17 million in year 3, and he will enter year 4 against another team option. That suggests the Jazz might want to see what they have in Azubuike now before they have to decide if they want to pay him nearly $4 million for the 2023-24 season. They’ve already committed $4 million to him in his first two seasons in the league.

Of note, Utah added 7-foot-6, 311-pound center Tacko Fall to its Summer League roster this offseason. And numerous reports have Utah in the mix for several free agent big men as well as being linked to a possible trade for Phoenix center DeAndre Ayton.

Who knows how it all works. But regardless of who is or isn’t on Jazz’s roster next season, it’s clearly a big year for Azubuike’s future in the NBA.