Like former Kansas big men Joel Embiid and Cheick Diallo, KU freshman forward Udoka Azubuike credits soccer for accelerating his development as a basketball player.
“It helped me with footwork and being able to keep my balance,” said the 7-foot Azubuike, who hails from Delta, Nigeria, where he played a lot of soccer growing up.
“You see an NBA player like Steve Nash … he played soccer,” Azubuike said.
Azubuike — he moved to the United States when he was 13 to attend school in Florida— said soccer remains the most popular sport back home.
“When I was growing up, a lot of people said, ‘You’ve got to play basketball because of your height.’ I was taller than the average kid in my age grade,” Azubuike said. “I picked it up and just started playing (basketball). Sometimes I’d go to an empty hoop rim, an outside hoop and practice to get better. It was kind of tough.
“Back home we don’t really have basketball facilities like the U.S. Over there you have maybe one or two basketball goals in the city. It was difficult. I had to grind because of love for the game. After school I’d go to a college. They have an open college (gym) back home. You can go practice or play basketball. I’d just go there and do it,” Azubuike added.
KU coach Bill Self — he also knows the stories of Philadelphia 76er Embiid and New Orleans Hornet Diallo playing soccer as youths in Cameroon and Mali, respectively — sees the value in soccer.
“I see parallels of kids that play soccer having better footwork,” Self said. “Comparing anybody to Joel (is wrong) … because I don’t think anybody here really knows how good he is. I mean, it’s comical how good he is or how good he was, and hopefully if he stays healthy this year, you’ll see it in the NBA.”
Embiid missed his first two seasons in the league because of foot injuries. He’s considered by many as a possible future All-Star now that he’s healthy.
“But there are some similarities,” Self said of Azubuike and Embiid. “You know, if I’m not mistaken, Udoka is three years younger than Joel was when Joel was here, so when you’re trying to project out, where will Udoka be three years from now, that remains to be seen. He’ll never be as skilled as Joel, and I would have said at the time, but he may end up being bigger and strong than Joel, but you look at Joel now, he’s 7-2, 260 pounds. But I do think Udoka has a chance to be a dominant collegian, but it’s not going to happen immediately, though,” Self said.
Azubuike, 17, would love to ultimately be compared to a Hall of Famer from Nigeria.
“Of course every big man has aspirations to be like Hakeem (Olajuwon). He was extremely good,” Azubuike said. “His footwork, skill work, all that stuff. Hakeem is not a bad one to pattern your game after.”
KU coaches and players this weekend will welcome No. 14-ranked (by Rivals.com) Trae Young (6-2, senior guard, Norman, Okla., North) and No. 91 Deng Gak (6-9, senior, Blair Academy, Blairstown, N.J.) to campus for official recruiting visits.
Meanwhile, Billy Preston, a 6-9 senior forward from Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va., who is ranked No. 8 in the recruiting Class of 2017 by Rivals.com, will visit Indiana this weekend. He attended KU’s Late Night in the Phog on Oct. 1 and also has visited Syracuse. He’s made an unofficial visit to Maryland. He expects to sign in the spring.
Collin Sexton, a 6-1 senior guard from Pebblebrook High in Mableton, Ga., who is ranked No. 7 nationally, will make an unofficial visit to Alabama this weekend.
“An explosive combo guard, Sexton has been indicating that a decision will come in November and behind-the-scenes talk has him rumored to be torn between the Crimson Tide and Kansas,” writes Eric Bossi of Rivals.com. “If that’s the case, then this unofficial visit (he’s already seen ’Bama and Kansas officially) could be big. Kansas had head coach Bill Self plus two assistants in to see Sexton earlier this week. Alabama had hoped to get four-star shooting guard John Petty (who visits Kentucky next week) on campus but it doesn’t look like he will make it.”
Jarred Vanderbilt, a 6-8 senior forward from Victory Prep in Houston who is ranked No. 21 by Rivals.com, will visit Kentucky this weekend. He has visited North Carolina and TCU and is also considering KU, Texas, Oregon, Arizona, Houston and Baylor. TCU is considered the favorite since assistant coach Corey Barker is Vanderbilt’s first cousin.
“It’s a little weird, being recruited by someone in your family,” Vanderbilt told Kentucky.com. “We also talk about just life, family stuff. But he throws in the recruiting stuff, as well.”