/No One Has an Answer for Udoka Azubuike

No One Has an Answer for Udoka Azubuike

After the final buzzer, the big man known as “Doke” addresses the crowd at center court. It’s tradition at Kansas for the seniors to speak on Senior Night, and as the only senior who has been with Kansas for his entire career, Udoka Azubuike does the heavy lifting moments after the Jayhawks polish off a 75-66 win over TCU at Allen Fieldhouse.

The Nigeria native is a storyteller. He speaks to the capacity crowd of 16,300 for more than 13 minutes, recalling personal anecdotes about every coach, trainer and manager in the Kansas program. He thanks coach Bill Self for teaching him about hard work and consistency, and he thanks assistant Norm Roberts for recruiting him so aggressivelyeven when a 16-year-old Azubuike didn’t want to talk on the phone.

Azubuike’s story then takes an emotional turn as he thanks his host parents, Harry and Donna Coxsome, with whom he lived while attending high school in Jacksonville, Florida, and who are in attendance for his final home game. “I had a hard time when I first came to the States,” Azubuike tells the crowd. “I had a hard life. My father had just died. But they took care of me. When I felt like giving up, they kept me strong.”

Then, the finisher. Doke talks about his mother, and there’s not a dry eye in the house.

“My mom, she’s back in Nigeria,” the 7-foot, 270-pound center explains. “The only time I got to see her was the [2018] Final Four. That was the only time I’ve seen her in a minute. … I want to tell you guys that we’ll go to the Final Four this year, I’ll get to see her.

“So Jayhawks Nation, let’s go to Atlanta!”

While that may be a reasonable expectation for a Kansas team that heads into the Big 12 tournament having won 16 consecutive games, the expectations for the Jayhawks’ senior big man are far more uncertain.

The youngest of five siblings (two brothers and two sisters), Udoka was born in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1999. His father, Fabian, a police officer and his mother, Florence, a middle school teacher, raised the family in Delta, a southern state along the Gulf of Guinea coast. Despite record oil revenues in the early 2000s, the Nigerian government was riddled with corruption. In 2009, a militant Islamic organization called Boko Haram waged an insurgency against the Nigerian government.

Amid the upheaval, the Azubuike family’s financial situation deteriorated. Udoka told Bleacher Report’s Jason King in 2018 that his mother frequently went without a paycheck in her teaching position. Eventually, his parents resorted to selling whatever they could—valuables, services, even furniture—to generate some income.

“A lot of people didn’t have jobs because the government was so bad,” Azubuike said in 2018. “For a lot of them, the only way to eat was through violence. They would just walk up to people in the street and attack them and rob them just so they could have money for food.”

Making matters worse for the family, Fabian became ill in 2009. What was initially just some swelling in the feet spread across his entire lower body, which gave rise to itchy, tumor-like bumps that made it difficult for Fabian to sleep. Doctors were unable to diagnose the illness, and Fabian died in 2010. Udoka was just 10 years of age.

Two years later, Udoka’s life would take another turn, this time at a Basketball Without Borders camp in Nigeria. Azubuike had only just begun playing basketball, but his sheer size (he was 6’8″ by the summer of 2013) prompted one of the scouts in attendance to contact Steve McLaughlin, the head coach at Potter’s House Christian Academy in Jacksonville. McLaughlin was interested, and soon Azubuike set off for high school in the States.

In Florida, the Coxsomes proved to be a welcoming presence. They ushered him from store to store to find clothes that fit and worked to find food that he liked as he transitioned to life in the U.S. The fact that the Coxsomes were devout Christians also helped ease the worries of Udoka’s mother, who was deeply religious herself.

Almost from the moment he stepped on the court, Azubuike got a glimpse of his basketball future. In his first game as a high school freshman, according to B/R’s story in 2018, Azubuike went up against future Kansas star and Philadelphia 76ers All-Star center Joel Embiid. A senior at The Rock School in Gainesville, Embiid had moved from Cameroon to Florida the year before.

Only four years after he began playing basketball, Udoka Azubuike scored nine points and eight rebounds in 15 minutes in the 2016 McDonald's All-American Game.

Only four years after he began playing basketball, Udoka Azubuike scored nine points and eight rebounds in 15 minutes in the 2016 McDonald’s All-American Game.Matt Marton/Associated Press

Azubuike went on to become a four-year starter at PHCA and averaged 16.9 points and 9.7 rebounds per game his senior year. A member of the National Honor Society—a point of pride for the big manhe played in the 2016 McDonald’s All-American Game and the Jordan Brand Classic, becoming ESPN’s No. 22 player in the class of 2016. With offers from Kansas, North Carolina and Florida State to choose from, Azubuike settled on the Jayhawks, thanks in large part to the relentless recruiting by Roberts. When Embiid called Harry Coxsome on behalf of Kansas, the decision was all but made.

Chances for Azubuike to reunite with his family have been few since he moved to America. The NCAA provides $3,000 to $4,000 stipends to assist players’ families in attending the Final Four, so Azubuike hopes that a deep tournament run would allow for another reunion in Atlanta. In 2018, it took a nonimmigrant travel visa, obtained with some help from Kansas U.S. Representative Kevin Yoder, to get Florence Azubuike to the States. Even if his mother doesn’t make it back this year, Udoka could already count one special family moment earlier in the year.

In late February, one day before Azubuike’s 19 points and 16 rebounds led KU to a rout of Oklahoma State, he found out that his older brother Chima Azuonwu would be in attendance to watch the game in person. The brothers hadn’t seen each other in 10 years, and the game was the first time Chima had ever seen his “little” brother ball. Azuonwu, a 6’11” center, received a scholarship to play at Tennessee State, but a knee injury ended his career. Now living in Nashville, Azuonwu surprised Azubuike with the trip to Lawrence.

“Doke was proud,” Self said after the game. “I left the locker room area at 11ish. Doke still had his brother in there. They were taking pictures. They were the only two left. That was fun to see.”

Azubuike is a college basketball anomaly: the dominant college senior. With a game that is based almost entirely on his overpowering size and strength, Azubuike has figured out how to be an exceptional offensive college center without possessing tremendous skill or touch.

His evolution hasn’t come without tribulation.

After playing sparingly in an injury-shortened freshman season, projections of potential became reality in Azubuike’s sophomore season. He led the nation in shooting with a 77 percent mark only to miss the Big 12 tournament with a sprained MCL. That summer, he declared for the 2018 NBA draft, measuring out with the second-longest wingspan at the combine (7’7″, behind only Mo Bamba). But injury concerns gave some scouts pause, and Azubuike returned to school.

An honorable mention All-Big 12 preseason pick entering the 2018-19 season, Azubuike severely sprained his right ankle in early December 2018. He returned four games later, only to tear a ligament in his right hand, which required season-ending surgery.

As the 2020 NCAA tournament beckons, though, Azubuike—named the Big 12 Player of the Year over the weekend—makes a more convincing case for his NBA future with each passing game. Entering this season, he shed nearly 20 pounds. He’s stronger, and his endurance has improved. Always one of the best interior scorers in college basketball, Azubuike leads the nation in field-goal percentage (.748), and he has surpassed Tacko Fall for the best career field-goal percentage in NCAA history (.746).

Perhaps most notable for his future, he has shown an improved ability to not only defend the rim, but also to guard players on the perimeter.

“When you’ve got the big fella changing the game it seems most every possession on both ends, that bodes well for you,” Self told reporters after a Feb. 22 win over then-No. 1 Baylor. “Nobody else in America has a guy like that. Nobody.”

Along with sophomore point guard Devon Dotson, a leading candidate for the Naismith College Player of the Year Trophy, Self has a point guard and big man combo that reminds him of some of the most dynamic duos in Kansas basketball history.

“You’re looking at Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich or Mario Chalmers and Darrell Arthur,” Self told reporters after the Baylor win. “I don’t know that we’ve ever relied on two guys more than what we rely on those two.”

As it does so often this time of year, Kansas has discovered its identity. The Jayhawks are a dominant defensive unit with an efficient four-out, one-in offense predicated on great guard play (Dotson), typical athletic Kansas wings (Marcus Garrett and Ochai Agbaji) and one immovable, inimitable force in the middle. After the 12-game suspension of junior forward Silvio De Sousa for his role in the Jan. 21 brawl at Kansas State, Self has placed even more responsibility on Azubuike’s broad shoulders. In his quest for a second national title, the head coach’s best hope for hardware is Azubuike.

“You don’t realize how big he is until you see him in person,” CBS analyst Clark Kellogg says. “Kansas isn’t as proficient as they’ve been in the past because they’re missing a dynamic wing like Andrew Wiggins or Brandon Rush, but with Azubuike, they punish you for 40 minutes.”

A national championship in Atlanta may be Azubuike’s sole focus of the present. But there’s basketball life beyond April 6, and Doke knows his NBA future likely depends on a run of sheer dominance through the NCAA tournament.

But as opportunities in the NBA keep drying up for players of his ilk, no one knows for sure what his role will be as a professional. A career 41.6 percent free-throw shooter, Azubuike has his share of doubters about whether he’ll develop a reliable enough mid-range jump shot to make him a rotation player. Still, his size and strength are intriguing.

Azubuike shot almost 75 percent from the field and blocked almost three shots per game as a senior this season.

Azubuike shot almost 75 percent from the field and blocked almost three shots per game as a senior this season.Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

Bleacher Report NBA analyst Jonathan Wasserman does not have Azubuike included in his latest first-round mock draft, but ESPN has him No. 33 overall on their best available player rankings. One thing going for the big man? His age. At 20, he may have more upside than older college seniors.

“He’s not highly skilled, but he’s good with the ball when he catches it, and he’s a great finisher,” one NBA scout says. “He’s a force. When you’re that big and strong, teams are going to want to give you a shot. He could be an effective rebounder and rim-runner in the NBA.”

Just eight years after he first touched a basketball, Azubuike’s skills are improving. In previous seasons, a bulkier iteration sort of bumbled through the paint, uncomfortable with the ball in his hands anywhere farther than four feet from the basket. Now? He catches the ball in the post and assesses the defense. He has a better understanding of pick-and-roll reads, passing out of the low post and knowing when to back-cut from the weak side for an easy alley-oop. In short, his instincts have improved, and his movements are more natural.

Whether that’s the product of six months of film study while sidelined, his increased athleticism thanks to weight loss or both, no one knows for sure. But it’s a fact. And it’s made him the most overwhelming physical force in the nation.

“I wouldn’t have been able to do this my freshman year,” Azubuike told reporters after the win over Baylor. “… I’ve had a lot of people say, ‘He can’t do this, he can’t do that,’ All my life I have been looked down on on everything. So coming out here and playing the way I played and giving it all to my team just made me emotional.”

Despite what he can’t do, the heights that Azubuike can climb have never been more apparent, his ceiling never higher. Will he lead Kansas to another national title? Is he a capable starter in the modern NBA? Some answers only come in time.


Matthew Foley is a writer based in New York. His freelance work has been featured in SLAM, the New York Times, Ozy and theScore. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyfoles.