Udoka Azubuike’s offensive repertoire in high school consisted of grabbing the basketball in the paint and trying to tear down the rim.
“I really didn’t shoot a lot of hook shots. It was just dunk on everybody,” said Azubuike, Kansas’ 7-foot, 280-pound sophomore center from Delta, Nigeria, and graduate of Potter’s House Christian Academy in Jacksonville, Fla.
“You come to college, you have to learn how to make hook shots with the left, right hand. I’ve been feeling good about that,” the former McDonald’s All-American added of implementing various ways to score.
The powerful Azubuike — who remains a threat to collapse a goal standard at any time — has dunked 13 times and also converted 15 two-point baskets on layups and hook shots entering Friday’s KU-Oakland game, set for a 7 p.m. tipoff at Allen Fieldhouse.
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“I feel I am getting more confidence in my game. I’m playing in a lot of games right now,” said Azubuike.
He’s averaged 15.8 points and 6.3 rebounds through four games in 2017-18 after going for 5.0 points and 4.4 boards in 11 games during a freshman season cut short because of a wrist injury that required surgery.
“Last year I was beginning to show everything before (I was hurt),” he said. “This year it was pretty much I’ve been working on it (hook shot) in practice every day. I just keep improving, getting better every day.”
A good shooter a year ago (he was 22 of 35 for 62.9 percent), Azubuike has converted 28 of 33 shots for a nation’s best 84.8 percent this season.
“His touch on the ball has really improved,” KU coach Bill Self said. “With Perry (Ellis, former KU forward now in Australia), if the ball sat on the rim it seemed like it had a way of kind of falling in. I’m not saying ‘Doke’ has Perry-type touch, but for those little jump hooks and stuff, he has a nice touch on the ball. For a powerful guy like that, I think his touch has been impressive.
“He is still a little crude offensively as far as gracefulness sometimes down there. He’s not exactly (Bill) Walton on the low post yet. His footwork is better. His balance is better. He is getting better. He has to become at least an average free-throw shooter. That’s going to be important for us.”
Azubuike, who hit 11 of 29 free throws his freshman season (37.9 percent), has made 7 of 16 in 2017-18 for 43.8 percent. Azubuike did make 2 of 4 for 50 percent during KU’s most recent game, Tuesday’s 114-71 rout of Texas Southern in which he finished with 20 points.
“My free throws … I’ve been feeling good about them, too,” Azubuike said. “There’s always room for improvement for me.”
Self — who has said the 18-year-old Azubuike’s best basketball will be three or four years from now as he continues to mature physically and expand his game — must also improve his work on the backboards, the coach maintains.
“No way he should be our third best rebounder. Marcus Garrett is leading our team (7.8 per game). Lagerald (Vick, 7.3) is second,” Self said.
Azubuike has grabbed 25 boards.
“If he is not able to do that (rebound), our chances against bigger teams will not be very good,” Self said.
One pleasant surprise has been Azubuike’s staying out of foul trouble. The big man has seven blocked shots while being whistled for nine fouls.
One of his two fouls on Tuesday against Texas Southern was a technical for hanging on the rim after a violent dunk off a lob from Malik Newman.
“That dunk … it was crazy,” said junior guard Vick, who takes an 18.3 scoring average — second on the team to Svi Mykhailiuk’s 20.0 mark — into Friday’s contest against a 2-2 Oakland team that is picked to win the Horizon League. No. 3 KU enters the game 4-0.
The slam was impressive, but the hang time on the rim was ill advised, Self said.
“He deserved it,” Self said of Azubuike being called for a technical. “The official said, ‘I hate calling that.’ I said, ‘You’ve got to call it.’ He (ref) didn’t say it in a way that he shouldn’t call it. It was, ‘Tell your kid to get off the rim.’ ‘Doke’ has a bad habit of doing that. I was glad they called it. The worst thing is that it’s a personal foul, too. If he did that with two fouls the first half it wouldn’t be good at all. So it’s a good lesson for him.”
Obviously, Azubuike, who came to the U.S. from Nigeria halfway through his ninth-grade year, still has room for much skill development.
His potential, Self has said, is unlimited.
“He has a chance to be as explosive a big guy as we’ve had here in a while,” Self said on Wednesday’s Hawk Talk radio show, crediting strength coach Andrea Hudy for her work with Azubuike.
“Hudy works hard with him (on) changing directions. When Doke gets moving he can move really fast. When he has to start and stop he’s not quite as good at that,” Self said. “Everybody has something they can improve on. Andrea Hudy has been working hard with him improving that and he has (improved). That’s why guarding ball screens … changing directions, people may not equate that to coach Hudy. A lot of that is Hudy … muscle memory, getting him to change directions. She’s played a big role in his development. She has for all our guys.
“Everybody’s played a role. It’s a team effort,” Self added, also crediting trainer Bill Cowgill and KU’s academic support team for work with Azubuike. “Doke has benefited from having everybody around.”
KU to play in 2018 Preseason NIT
KU will be one of four teams to participate in the 2018 NIT Season Tip-Off at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, during Thanksgiving week of 2018, ESPN announced Thursday.
Joining Kansas in the 2018 field: Louisville, Marquette and Tennessee.
Pairings for the Nov. 21 and 23 event will be decided at a later date.
KU will also play two games against yet-to-be-determined mid-majors at Allen Fieldhouse as part of the event. The Jayhawks, by the way, are scheduled to return to the Maui Invitational in 2019.