Kansas assistant coach Norm Roberts remembers the first of many times he watched Udoka Azubuike play AAU basketball.
“He was so big. He couldn’t help but stand out,” Roberts said of a 14-year-old Azubuike, who played for Nike Team Florida and later the Georgia Stars. “What he would do is rebound, block shots and dunk it.”
He was a “power player who knows how to seal. He’s a much better athlete than you’d think he is. He’s just getting better and better.”
Azubuike — he committed to KU over North Carolina and Florida State on Jan. 28 — arrived at Kansas over the summer as a 7-foot, 300-pound, 16-year-old McDonald’s All-American. He turned 17 on Sept. 17.
He is big now at 275. He was big then.
“Being raw (after coming to the U.S. from Nigeria four years ago), he has to improve his footwork, has to improve his first jump, second jump quickly, his touch around the basket,” Roberts said. “He is a kid that will work at it. He improved his jump hook already. He is a dunker and can dunk, but he also can shoot the right-hand jump hook. He’ll work on his touch, both hands, all that stuff.”
Azubuike, who must stay at KU at least two seasons because of the NBA Draft age restriction, averaged 16.9 points and 9.7 rebounds a game his senior season at Potter’s House Christian in Jacksonville, Fla. Many of his buckets came from close range.
“Pretty much,” Azubuike said, asked if he has the most fun trying to tear down the backboard on forceful slams. “It’s just part of me. It’s what I do. That’s just part of my game. It comes natural.”
Azubuike — who averaged 17.2 points and 9.6 rebounds as a high school junior — has been compared potential-wise to a pair of NBA Hall of Famers.
“He has a mindset of being dominant. He sets out to do it. For the most part, his power, I would compare it to Shaq (O’Neal),” said Azubuike’s mentor/guardian, Harry Coxsome. “I know his finesse. He wants to be like Hakeem (Olajuwon). Once it’s all said and done I think he’ll have a mixture of both.”
Azubuike, who entered college ranked No. 31 in the Class of 2016 by Rivals.com, watches videos of true pivots.
“I like the center position. I do. That’s what I’ve been trained to do. It’s what I do,” said Azubuike, a fan of former KU center Joel Embiid of Cameroon, who is a third-year member of the Philadelphia 76ers.
He would love to develop quickly as Embiid did. Azubuike has only played hoops for four years. He played soccer as a youth.
“I need to work on my hook shot, going to my left and right, pretty much work on running the floor,” Azubuike said. “I feel very much inside of me I can go in and compete. I feel really confident in myself.
“It’s been a rough journey,” he added of traveling from Nigeria to a new land. “Coming over here ... the transition wasn’t easy. Through the process I got to learn the game more. I can go for everything. I’m real thankful.”
Azubuike believes he’ll fit in well here.
“The love for the game is at KU. I’m living my dreams,” he said.
KU coach Bill Self is thrilled he gets to work with Azubuike, who also heard from Duke, N.C. State, Wake Forest, California, Auburn, Florida and others in the recruiting process, along with his finalists.
“He is probably as athletic off two feet as any big guy I’ve ever had,” Self said. “He could go down as the best big man Kansas has seen in many, many years.”
Azubuike scored nine points and grabbed eight rebounds in the McDonald’s All-America Game on March 29 in Chicago. He had 10 points and six boards in the Jordan Brand Classic on April 15 in New York. And he had three points and two boards in the Nike Hoop Summit on April 9 in Portland, Ore.
“He’s a big fella,” KU sophomore forward Carlton Bragg said. “Wait until he starts getting angles and experience. He’s going to be tough. When he gets the ball, he can score. As big as he is, I didn’t know he could run the floor like that. He likes to joke around. He’s feeling more comfortable with us.”
Those who have met Azubuike say he’s a gentle giant.
“I mean it’s just kind of me. That’s just the way I was brought up,” Azubuike said of smiling all the time and being approachable. “I just feel honored to be in the position I’m in.”