Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, left, looks to pass the ball as Utah Jazz center Udoka Azubuike defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022, in Denver. (David Zalubowski, Associated Press)
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SALT LAKE CITY — With game time fast approaching, Udoka Azubuike was approached by a Utah Jazz assistant coach and was told he would start.
He thought it was a joke.
To be fair, how could he take that seriously? He was coming back from a severe ankle injury and just played his first bit of five-on-five basketball the day before. Was he really expected to go up against the reigning MVP? Not to mention, he hadn’t actually played any meaningful NBA minutes since getting drafted by the Jazz in the 2020 draft.
Sure, he’d be starting; good one, coach.
Except it wasn’t a joke.
Rudy Gobert and Hassan Whiteside were both late scratches, which left Azubuike as the only traditional center left on the team. For the first time since arriving in Utah, the hulking center from Kansas was needed.
“I’m not gonna lie to you, I was a little nervous,” Azubuike said. “Just coming back from injury and you get to play the Joker, the MVP.”
Jazz fans probably had similar emotions. It just made Utah’s 115-109 win over the Denver Nuggets that much more satisfying.
The night started as best it could for Azubuike: He won the tip, and then a couple possessions later he hammered home a dunk. For the night, he finished with 5 points, one rebounds and one block in 16 minutes.
He combined with Rudy Gay and Eric Paschall, who arrived in Denver late Wednesday afternoon after being away from the team for the birth of his son, to provide crucial minutes at center to help the Jazz secure, if not their best, their most unique win of the season.
“For him to come in and his first NBA start to play against arguably the best player in the world right now, I thought the minutes that he gave us were just really important minutes — particularly at the beginning of the game,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said of Azubuike.
For Azubuike, it was a moment that was unexpected, to say the least.
In late November, Azubuike had to be carried off the court during a G League game with the Salt Lake City Stars. His leg had turned in such a way that it was feared he had suffered a severe and devastating injury.
“If somebody told me when I got injured that when you get back you’re gonna start your first game back from an injury, I’d be pretty shocked,” Azubuike said.
But he prepared for the moment. He rehabbed continuously and started running on a treadmill at the Jazz practice facility as his team practiced around him. He changed up his diet, ate cleaner and even dropped some pounds as he recovered.
“With that kind of ankle sprain, there was a lot going through my mind,” he said. “For me, I just take it one step at a time, just kept rehabbing, and keep working hard.”
All that work paid off Wednesday. Who knows when Azubuike will be back in a meaningful role — Whiteside is progressing through concussion protocol and is expected back soon, and Gobert is dealing with a non-COVID illness; both could be ready to play by Friday in Toronto.
Azubuike will always have the night in Denver — when he went up against the reigning MVP and came away with a win.
“He went out there and did his job and contributed to a win today,” Gay said.