In a game where the Phoenix Suns (14-14) were -15 on the road against the Sacramento Kings, there were few positives or bright spots to glean from. In that, however, exists both just that in a bright spot, as well as a “shot in the arm” provided from a position within their rotation that they’ve needed it from — standing as a template for just what’s needed on higher volume from said position.
In his first main rotation minutes of the season, by way of the Suns operating without Jusuf Nurkic due to personal reasons, Udoka Azubuike displayed some much-needed time on task from the center position for this team.
The Suns have desperately been in desire of frenetic, energetic activity behind and as a contrast to all the skill and physicality that Jusuf Nurkic brings to the table.
Amidst a game that saw the Suns struggle, where they were truly -21 before the final 2:23 of play in “garbage time,” Azubuike was somehow able to eke out a +1 in the box score, in his 22:22 of play.
Aside from athleticism, he flashed some quick twitch rim protection, vertical spacing, and effective dunkers spot spacing off drives.
His minutes were not without mistake, as he was late on a few rotations, and has work to do with screening angles/contact/legality, but his motor was refreshing and gave a glimpse at what said dynamics can have in impact on this team as they search for things to parlay into wins – making him a positive.
Registering 11 points, 11 rebounds (five offensive rebounds), and a block, his play certainly stood out and should certainly net him more opportunity going forward in this window.
Let’s dive into some of Azubuike’s film from vs Sacramento.
Pockets of athletic finishing's around the basket have evaded the Suns, and trickle down from that have been highly contested attempts within the advantages the perimeter pieces create.
The attention Azubuike’s wide pin creates enables a driving lane for Booker to wiggle through for a paint touch, that engages three Kings.
On the kick, a quick skip is faster than Sacramento’s rotations, enabling Allen a drive against a scrambling contest, resulting in a 2v1 that enables Allen an opportunity at the lob.
Vertical spacing in multiple contexts, but especially here, allows them the uncontested finish to beat the peel switch — a context in which would usually see a bounce pass or pass over to the top that was caught below the basket, allowing defenders to recover and impact play.
Launchpad activity that engages both the players as well as the bench, but also compromises the defense, has been missing and certainly is the plot of this play.
However, make sure to give credit to his screen, which enables Booker access to engaging Sabonis and forces Fox to both navigate and trail.
That all adds up to him being perfectly positioned a tic behind the play, and the well-timed pocket pass plus his roll timing leaves the Kings in compromise — this is an impactful and tone-setting/message-sending miss.
Really good situational awareness on display here.
Defending far away from the porch in Delay, with Sabonis handling up top, he peaks and feels that leverage is lost on the 45 cut, drops back on the flight of the pass, and can put the fire out in support.
This is a really good defensive instinct as well as feel, a good sign of what he’s capable of.
Another solid screen enables his guard to engage the big man, and he’s able to roll into advantageous positioning underneath.
His roll aids Goodwin’s snaking here, as, Sabonis again has to step away from the porch in drop and Azubuike is well-positioned for an offensive rebound.
Then, the jobs not finished, as he sees his extra efforts as not just another opportunity for the team, but a touch for himself — and the dexterity, footwork, and feel steal the plot on this rep.
Again, dictating and assertive play set a tone in the paint.
(Side note: the reaction this play generates from the bench – including coaches – is such a tell-tell sign of how desperate the team’s been for this activity, in his moment).
The timing of when he engages Huerter here on the late switch is what’s important to notice. Doesn’t commit too early, but is very much on time with the vertical contest.
That rhythmic timing enables Allen the opportunity to reroute into the veer back and ultimately nets a steal plus play with tempo into the offense — for a layup.
Nothing major here, but a great peek into his mindset — after a solid, fundamental boxout, the pursuit of the ball regardless of both Goodwin and Durant being in position without Kings around.
The result is still positive because it’s Kevin freaking Durant handling, but this is another example of Azubuike’s need for better screening angles and making contact or screening a general space that frees handlers of that initial defender, even if only momentarily.
Don’t want to accept anything in successes that you wouldn't in a failure, so noting this is important as he more than capable of nailing the details in his screening — which he’d display in his next shift.
In contrast to the last play, this is a great example of him doing his job thoroughly and reaping benefits from it in play.
He can’t lay a “boom” on Fox here, but the way he screens space that forces Fox to navigate puts him behind schedule on Booker, which then engages Sabonis, rendering Azubuike unaccounted for trailing play.
No one boxes him out, and he’s able to move some furniture en route to the putback slam — nailing all the margins in his role here.
Lastly, the Kings go with “Wedge Action,” where a big man receives a strong side up screen from a guard, for post or mid-post play.
As Sabonis turns and faces, look at Azubuike concede space to play with length and give Sabonis a hand to think about, before the quick twitch lateral slide to contain, then body up to absorb contact and flatten progress in isolation — taking away the ease of strong hand play.
The cherry on top ultimately is forcing Sabonis to turn over the opposite shoulder, and also have to shoot over length as he’s able to contest from a balanced platform.
He put out some valuable film in a unique match-up, displaying positives, solid time on task, and some of the challenges that come with weaknesses — but a general frenetic activity that ultimately allowed him to remain positive in a game where the Suns were collectively not.
There’s value in what he brings, and with reports before Christmas Day not declaring whether Nurkic will play or not, he certainly should garner more opportunity as a change of pace piece for their two-way process. These minutes should have earned him more opportunity independent of the status of Nurkic’s availability on Christmas, as I would love to see the contrasting styles with size staggered.
Split reserve frontcourt minutes should be up for grabs in team-oriented competition for reps, and as of now, Azubuike has a half-step in ownership.