After big-time prep battles, Udoka Azubuike, Deandre Ayton teammates with Phoenix Suns

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Udoka Azubuike will finally sport the number he desired coming out of the University of Kansas.

No. 27

“When I was in Utah, I wanted to pick the number I got drafted, but I couldn’t get it because big Rudy Gobert was wearing it,” said Azubuike. Gobert now is with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Azubuike was the 27th overall pick in the 2020 draft.

“The number that was available for me was 20,” he added.

Azubuike talked with the Arizona Republic about his role with the Phoenix Suns, being on the same team with Deandre Ayton, his hobbies and more. He signed a two-way deal with the Suns after spending his first three NBA seasons with the Jazz.

Utah Jazz center Udoka Azubuike (20) shoots against the Sacramento Kings during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Sacramento, Calif., Sunday, May 16, 2021. The Jazz won 121-99. (AP Photo/Randall Benton)

Utah Jazz center Udoka Azubuike (20) shoots against the Sacramento Kings during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Sacramento, Calif., Sunday, May 16, 2021. The Jazz won 121-99. (AP Photo/Randall Benton)

The 6-11, 270-pound center averaged 3.5 points on 81.9% shooting from the field and 3.3 rebounds in 36 games last season. Udoka then played for the Boston Celtics in the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, averaging 7.4 points on 81.8% shooting and 6.6 rebounds in five games.

Then he played in games against former Suns big Bismack Biyombo in Malaga, Spain, that were organized by the National Basketball Players Association.

Azubuike posted video on his Instagram account last month.

“Udoka possesses imposing size and the ability to finish around the rim,” said Suns president of basketball operations and general manager James Jones in a news release Tuesday. “His strength and physicality help add to our team’s depth.”

How do you feel about being with a championship contender?

“I feel good. Coming in and being with a team with championship aspirations, you can’t ask for a better opportunity with a special team trying to win a championship. I feel good. I’m excited about it.”

After being with the Celtics in Vegas, what led you to coming to Phoenix?

“It was basically my agent and the team spoke and from there, that’s how everything started, the process started. The coach (Suns coach Frank Vogel) liked my game and from there, that’s when everything started.”

Miami Heat center Orlando Robinson looks to shoot as Boston Celtics center Udoka Azubuike guards him during an NBA Summer League basketball game on July 8, 2023, at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas.

Miami Heat center Orlando Robinson looks to shoot as Boston Celtics center Udoka Azubuike guards him during an NBA Summer League basketball game on July 8, 2023, at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas.

How do you like being on the team with Deandre Ayton?

“I feel good about playing with DA. Me and DA, we go way back. In high school, we played against each other. We’ve known each other since high school.”

Ayton and Azubuike had a memorable battle in City of Palms Classic in Fort Myers, Fla., in December 2014. A sophomore at the time, Ayton was at Balboa City in San Diego and considered the No. 1 player in the 2017 class in 247Sports.com’s composite rankings.

Azubike was a junior at Potter’s House Christian Academy in Jacksonville and listed as the No. 11 player (No. 1 center) in the 2016 class. Potter’s House won, 54-51, in overtime as Azubuike finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds while Ayton went for 23 points and 20 boards.

They later played against each other NBPA Top 100 camp in Charlottesville in the Summer of 2015. Now Ayton and Azubuike are teammates.

“Playing alongside him, it’ll be great. Just us competing. Ultimately, we’re competing for one another. We’re a team. It’s all for the best interest of the team. Whatever is going to make the team better, just competing. I’m excited. I’m looking forward to that from the jump, going into training camp and competing and working hard.”

What do you think your roles will be with the team?

“I’m not a coach. For me, I know from my perspective what I can control and that’s come in and working hard in practice. Being a rebounder, setting good screens and being that presence around the paint when my number is called.”

Where is there room for you to grow offensively?

“With the amount of guys we have on the team who are good offensively, for me, I just need to do my job in terms of setting screens and rolling to the basket. I do a pretty good job of finishing around the basket. When the opportunity presents itself, I’ve just got to be ready. I’ve got to be present.”

Utah Jazz center Udoka Azubuike (20) blocks the shot of Houston Rockets guard Eric Gordon (10) in the first half during an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Utah Jazz center Udoka Azubuike (20) blocks the shot of Houston Rockets guard Eric Gordon (10) in the first half during an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

You’ve had your share of injuries. Do you feel as if the injuries have been the main thing that’s held you back from being the player you can be?

“When you’re in the league, it’s a lot that plays into it. I’m going into my fourth year in the league. I have experience of what it is to be in the league. I’ve had my fair share of injuries, but opportunities also. When you’re on a team and when you have the opportunity, you’re always going to be able to showcase what you can do. Part of it is like having the opportunity to be able to be out there and be able to show what you can do. Right now, I’m pretty healthy. I’m good. That’s what we’re looking for. I’m excited about it. New team. We’re going after the chip.”

Azubuike had season-ending surgery March 2022 to repair multiple ankle and foot ligaments in his right foot to stabilize the subtalar joint. He only played 17 games in the 2021-22 season when averaging a career-best 4.7 points on 75.5% shooting and 4.2 rebounds.

Utah Jazz center Udoka Azubuike (20) defends against a shot by Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (right) during the first half of an NBA basketball game on March 24, 2023, in Salt Lake City.

Utah Jazz center Udoka Azubuike (20) defends against a shot by Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (right) during the first half of an NBA basketball game on March 24, 2023, in Salt Lake City.

What are your hobbies? What do you like to do?

“Sometimes I like to watch movies. I like movies. I’m a nature guy. I like to see nature, walk around water. My leisure time, I like to travel, too. I like to read books. I don’t read all the time, but when I do, I enjoy reading.”

Is there a current book you’re reading right now?

“I just finished “Chop Wood Carry Water.” by Joshua Medcalf. It’s an inspirational book.”

Published Dec. 14, 2015, “Chop Wood Carry Water: How to Fall In Love With the Process of Becoming Great” is about a man guided by “Akira-Sensei” who realizes “the greatest adversity on his journey will be the challenge of defeating the man in the mirror” in trying to become a samurai warrior.

Have opinion about current state of the Suns? Reach Suns Insider Duane Rankin at dmrankin@gannett.com or contact him at 480-787-1240. Follow him on Twitter at @DuaneRankin.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Udoka Azubuike looks to show ‘presence around the paint’ for Phoenix Suns

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