Udoka Azubuike looking for first-round guarantee to stay in draft
I had one prevailing thought following Wednesday's announcement that center Udoka Azubuike will be returning to Kansas for his junior season: Welcome back to Bill Self's wheelhouse.
The Kansas coach has no doubt adjusted away from his comfort zone the last two seasons. He did a great job of catering to his personnel, creating an innovative four-guard offense that was the foundation for the Jayhawks winning big with an outside-in style they'd never had to previously embrace.
Make no mistake, though. This wasn't Self's preference.
The coach has built a hall of fame career by creating easy baskets while limiting them on the other end. And next year's team should be able to succeed in those areas much, much better than the last two Jayhawks squads.
The biggest intrigue will be in KU's frontcourt — and specifically, seeing how Azubuike and Memphis transfer Dedric Lawson complement each other.
Azubuike was one of the players most hurt by Billy Preston sitting out last season. Though KU's small lineup allowed Azubuike plenty of room to operate inside (and helped him to a new Division I record for this decade), it also often left him as KU's only hope when it came to both rim protection and defensive rebounding.
That should change in 2018-19.
Self has already labeled Lawson as a potential Big 12 player of the year candidate. In his final season at Memphis, Lawson also posted defensive rebounding and shot-blocking percentages that were nearly identical to what Azubuike had last season.
In short: Azubuike has help. There were times last year when he boxed out but didn't go after the ball hard enough to secure the rebound; Lawson should clean up in those situations this season. There were other instances where Azubuike left his man open while hunting blocks; he shouldn't have to do that as often with another athletic big on the floor with him.
And if we're being honest, KU's biggest gains should come defensively. The Jayhawks ranked 47th last season in adjusted defensive efficiency — Self's previous worst mark in 15 seasons was 24th — and a huge turnaround should be expected this year.
KU was awful on the defensive boards (283rd nationally), and that should immediately go from weakness to strength. Ken Pomeroy has found through his studies that block percentage and two-point percentage (along with influencing shot selection) are the main tools a defense has to limit offense; KU should absolutely be strong in those first two areas.
Offensively ... we'll see. KU was fifth in adjusted offensive efficiency, and the team's lack of proven three-point shooting could provide more issues than many would expect. Long-range shots — and even deep ones — are among college basketball's most efficient attempts, and it remains to be seen whether the Jayhawks can be productive enough from deep to not only get points but also help with their floor spacing.
We still should expect Self to maximize his team's talent by scheming up numerous ways to get easy shots. Azubuike has improved his post technique and footwork in his first two seasons, and he should only get better with additional reps in practice.
KU still has some unanswered questions entering next season. Are freshman guards Devon Dotson and Quentin Grimes ready to be immediate contributors? Who will be the team's best outside shooters? And will the defense be better at closing out on the perimeter to prevent shots there?
Those issues, though, seem to be minor compared to other teams. The Jayhawks will be blessed with a talented and deep frontcourt with the added benefit of transitioning back to an offensive style their coach loves most.
KU might not be everyone's pick for preseason No. 1 next year, but it's certainly not difficult to understand the hype. Self and the Jayhawks — even after losing four starters — should start next season with the highest of expectations.
And Azubuike is one of the biggest reasons for that.