Kansas guard Malik Newman has tried shooting over Udoka Azubuike in practice. He’s attempted going around him and through him too.
Nothing has proven effective against KU’s 7-foot, 280-pound center.
“He’s a brick wall,” Newman said with a laugh Tuesday. “I think that’s a great way to describe him.”
This is a glimpse into the Jayhawks’ future, and also the biggest reason for optimism in a 2017-18 campaign that will have more newcomers than returners: Azubuike, if he can stay healthy, gives the Jayhawks a defensive ceiling they had no way of reaching the past two seasons.
After last year, there’s certainly room for KU to grow on that end.
You’ve probably heard this by now, but the 2016-17 Jayhawks were the worst defensive team in the Bill Self era. KU was 24th in adjusted defensive efficiency, and while most teams would consider that a good year, the Jayhawks had ranked top 10 in nine of the last 11 seasons.
So what’s the best way to quickly improve a defense? As you might guess, the answer has a lot to do with Azubuike.
From his 2015 series of articles, Ken Pomeroy found there was one area of basketball that was almost completely dictated by the defense: shot-blocking. In other words, there’s little offenses can do to not be impacted by a giant on the back line.
“The defense’s tools are two-point defense and influencing shot selection,” Pomeroy said. “While a frightening number of things are in the offense’s control — leading to the offense having 64 percent control over its points per possession number — the defense has significant influence over where shots are taken from and how effective the offense is near the rim.”
KU knows this formula … heck, it’s mastered it often. And while having a dominant shot-blocker hasn’t been required for elite defensive numbers, it’s sure been a nice starting point in a few other seasons.
The graph here shows what I’m talking about. I’ve plotted KU’s adjusted defensive efficiency mark (lower is better) along with the team’s ranking in two-point defensive percentage and block percentage each year.
There are some outliers here. KU managed a top-10 defense in 2010-11 with a poor block rate. And the 2013-14 team struggled as a whole despite getting good rim-protection numbers.
In general, though, these plots tend to follow each other. And when KU has had top-five defenses, it’s overwhelmingly been because the Jayhawks have controlled shots in the lane.
For all the positive qualities Landen Lucas brought — including his smarts and hustle — he was not a shot-blocker last season, ranking 18th in Big 12 block rate among qualified players. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t valuable defensively, as Self reiterated Tuesday when he called Lucas “the best post defender in the league” last season.
Azubuike’s situation, though, is different. He may not know what he’s doing all the time, and the anticipation and footwork might not always be great, but 7 foot is 7 foot, and a 7-5 wingspan is going to be tough to shoot over, regardless of who’s playing.
“He’s one of those guys that, you can gamble (on defense),” Newman said, “and even though coach would be mad at you, ’Dok can take some of that pressure off you by being a rim protector.”
So how good could Azubuike be defensively? Last year’s small sample size certainly looks promising.
Before suffering a wrist injury in mid-December, Azubuike blocked 12.8 percent of opponents’ two-pointers when he was in; for reference, here are the numbers for Cole Aldrich (13.0), Jeff Withey (13.7) and Joel Embiid (11.7) in their final seasons at KU.
It’s important to put all this in context. Azubuike can’t compare to those guys yet, as he has a bigger foul issue to correct. Also, facing a Big 12 schedule this year will make it tougher to maintain numbers that were beefed up by home games against teams like Nebraska and UNC-Asheville.
Then again, one doesn’t have to dream much to envision an improving Azubuike coming close to his block number this season. That 12.8 total would have made him the nation’s fourth-best shot-blocker had he qualified minutes-wise, and if duplicated in a larger sample, it’s the kind of effect that could shift KU’s defense quickly towards the nation’s best.
There’s a long way to go. Azubuike must learn how to play the scouting report better. He must improve his conditioning and become more comfortable timing his swat attempts to avoid whistles.
He is the most important piece of the Jayhawks’ defense, though.
Yes, quick guards can be helpful. And athletic wings can have an impact too.
Still, when it comes to defense in today’s college basketball, the numbers are definitive in what they tell us:
Brick walls leave the largest impression.